The James family came from New York State, the father having been born in Albany. Whether they are New Yorkers in the sense of the city is not altogether certain since they fled it early and did not like it much when they came back from time to time. Still the city, its streets, its fluid, inconstant, nerve-wrung landscape had a claim upon Henry’s imagination, even if the neglectful civic powers did not properly return the claim.

In any case, Henry James was born in New York City in 1843, in a house on 21 Washington Place, a street adjacent to Washington Square, itself a small park announcing the end of lower Fifth Avenue and adorned by an ambitious bit of architecture which James would describe as “the lamentable little Arch of Triumph which bestrides these beginnings of Washington Square—lamentable because of its poor and lonely and unsupported and unaffiliated state.” That was in 1904, when the sixty-one-year-old author returned from abroad to write The American Scene, his prodigious impressions of his homeland from New England to Palm Beach, impressions fresh, he hoped, as those of a curious stranger but still “as acute as an initiated native.”

He would, of course, return to Fifth Avenue and to Washington Place. There he found what he called a “snub.” The birthplace at 21 Washington Place had been “ruthlessly suppressed” in one of those early convulsive seizures of destruction New York City to this day does not see as a defect in the municipal nervous system so much as an explosive, rather pagan, celebration of the gods of engineering and speculation. James, viewing the “amputation” of the birthplace, is led to confess that he had somehow imagined on Washington Place “a commemorative mural tablet—one of those frontal records of birth, sojourn, or death, under a celebrated name.” This is an affecting aside of family and personal pride, a controlled twitch of chagrin, from which he retreats by observing the supreme invisibility of a plaque, acknowledging some long-gone worthy, placed on an apartment door in a fifty-story building, one of the “divided spaces” that were to be the principal habitations in the city.

The novel, Washington Square, published in 1880, when James was thirty-seven years old, is an early work, at least early in style and in the untroubled presentation of its strong and thoroughly lucid plot. The novel is not strikingly under the domination of its place name, but we note that the author allows himself a moment of autobiographical diversion, an insertion more or less of his private relation to the title:

I know not whether it is owing to the tenderness of early association, but this portion of New York appears to many persons the most delectable. It has a kind of established repose which is not of frequent occurrence in other quarters of the long, shrill city; it has a riper, richer, more honorable look…the look of having had something of a social history…. It was here that your grandmother lived, in venerable solitude…it was here that you took your first walks abroad, following the nursery-maid with unequal step and sniffing up the strange odour of the ailantus-trees which at that time formed the principal umbrage of the square.

In the opening pages of the novel, Doctor Sloper has set himself up in a new house on Washington Square. The doctor is a credible, highly interesting man of the professional class who has achieved the status accruing to the serious practice of medicine. He is busy, successful, intelligent, witty—an engaging figure on the city scene, and while learned in the medical arts he is not “uncomfortable,” by which it is meant that Doctor Sloper is one of those popular physicians whose personal attractiveness will somehow soothe the tortures of treatment. He has a well-to-do clientele, is passed by referral from one “good family” to another in the way that was usual before the age of intense specialization.

The doctor has moved to Washington Square from a house near City Hall, a part of the city being turned into offices and other structures of business. In moving uptown he is following the direction of residential preference in the early 1800s—one of the details of metropolitan dynamics that interested “old New Yorkers” like James and Edith Wharton. With a rather vagrant historicism, these authors like to follow, in a mood of amusement, the displacements of fashion as they try to place their characters on the city map. Thus we are told that the doctor’s dead wife had been “one of the pretty girls of the small but promising capital which clustered around the Battery and overlooked the Bay, and of which the uppermost boundary was indicated by the grassy waysides of Canal Street.” The doctor has now made his own move uptown but his drama is not residential; it is familial, an intense battle, almost military, of strategy, retreat and attack, fought with his daughter, Catherine Sloper.


The doctor is in his fifties, and, while not a man to offer futile protests against the devastations of fate, he has endured two painful wounds, or perhaps we should say three. He lost a treasured son at the age of three and then lost a much-loved wife, a beautiful woman with a fortune, social standing, and every domestic charm—lost her at the birth of a second child, “an infant of a sex which rendered the poor child, to the doctor’s sense, an inadequate substitute for his lamented first-born, of whom he had promised himself to make an admirable man.”

His was a genuine grief, with the added gall of a professional frustration in having been unable to ensure the survival of his family. But there is the surviving daughter, Catherine, now grown into a robust, rosily, rather too rosily, healthy young woman. Facing this last, lone, existing Sloper the doctor can assure himself that “such as she was, he at least need have no fear of losing her.” The “such as she was” is the plot of Washington Square, the destiny of the daughter, and the father’s tone in his relations with her.

The beginning pages are written in a comedy-of-manners style, and each turn is amusing, calmly and confidently expert. Such a style will command, with its measured cadences and fine tuning, a bit of benign condescension toward the cast and toward the friendly modesty of the New York social landscape in the first half of the nineteenth century. Thus it is said of the doctor, “He was what you call a scholarly doctor, and yet there was nothing abstract in his remedies—he always ordered you to take something.”

Washington Square was written after James had made his literary and social “Conquest of London,” as Leon Edel phrases it in the title of the second volume of his James biography. The author had breakfasted with Turgenev, met Tennyson, Browning, and Gladstone, visited the great country houses, and indeed, as a cosmopolitan, had written most of Washington Square in Paris. It is a perfect novel of immense refinement and interest, and one feels the execution gave James little trouble—that is, if one keeps in mind the breathless deliberations of the fictions that were to follow. Of course, the moral and psychological insinuations of this early work are not finally so self-evident as they appear to be on the lucid pages.

At the time James was devoting himself to the portrait of Catherine Sloper leading her life in her father’s “modern, wide-fronted” house on lower Fifth Avenue, he was already thinking of the more challenging American girl, Isabel Archer, and the complex duplicities of The Portrait of a Lady, published soon after. In any case, when he was gathering the New York Edition of his novels, which began to appear in 1907, he unaccountably excluded Washington Square. Perhaps it seemed to him a small, provincial tale after he had sent his heiresses to Europe to test themselves and their American dollars on the heavily shaded competitions of the international scene. The American girls in the “large” novels are weighted with nuance and with the fictional responsibility to live up to their rather inchoate but grand attributions. Catherine, housebound in New York and incurious about the great world beyond, may have appeared a sort of vacation, one that allowed James a wonderfully relaxed compositional tone when compared with that of The Wings of the Dove or The Golden Bowl.

Catherine Sloper in Washington Square is an heiress, but not a beguiling “heiress of the ages”; she is heir only to money. Indeed the early descriptions of Catherine are composed with such a boldly discounting eye, such intrepid divestment, that the reader feels a wince of discomfort. Catherine is large and homely, but, at the beginning, a contented, virtuous girl of her class. She is guileless, affectionate, docile, and obedient. She has a “plain, dull, gentle countenance” and, although drastically without coquetry, she wishes to please, most of all to please her father. “She was not quick with her book, nor, indeed, with anything else.” Along the way of depiction, James himself seems to draw back from the distance the manner of composition imposes. If he does not quite retreat, we can say he takes a short little step to the side before persevering to write, “though it is an awkward confession to make about one’s heroine, I must add that she was something of a glutton.”

And there are woeful brushstrokes ahead: Catherine’s clothes, her “lively taste for dress.” This “taste” causes her father to “fairly grimace, in private, to think that a child of his should be both ugly and overdressed.” There is to be the merciless comedy of the “red satin gown trimmed with gold fringe” into which Catherine will more or less pour herself for an evening party at which her cousin’s engagement is to be announced. There in the awful red dress she will meet her fate, the fortune hunter Morris Townsend, meet that fate in the company of her other fate, her adored, “ironical” father.


So Catherine will meet Morris Townsend—extraordinarily handsome, “beautiful,” she calls him—a New Yorker who has been knocking about the world rather than staying at home to sell bonds or to enter the law. In his knocking he has spent his small inheritance and seems to have spent his friends and made himself unwelcome. Back in his native city, he claims to be looking about for something to do; meanwhile he is staying with his sister, in fact living on his sister, who is in very reduced circumstances as a widow with five children. A sordid record with a few travel stickers from European hotels. Townsend is a distant connection of the young man Catherine’s cousin is to marry. At the party he goes for Catherine’s attention with the watchful concentration of a sportsman waiting for the game to fly in the path of the rifle.

Catherine, surprised by joy, as it were, is overwhelmed, hard hit with the somehow rustic fluster of her inexperience. She will be joined by the tirelessly articulating duenna, Mrs. Penniman, Doctor Sloper’s widowed sister, who lives in the motherless house and acts as a sort of chaperone and companion for the girl. Mrs. Penniman completes the quartet of the action, her addition to the stage being a fluff-filled swoon of sentimentality and a very intrusive energy for meddling. In the support of Townsend’s dubious campaign, Aunt Penniman will show herself as insistent, canny, and devious as if she were awaiting a broker’s fee.

With the unexpected courtship of Catherine, the tone changes; we are not, after all, to witness a deft seduction in the Restoration mode but a tangle of coldness, calculation, and conflicting motive, all at Catherine’s expense. If the result is not quite a tragedy, it is a conclusion of most serious and lasting heartbreak. Perhaps in terms of fictional art, James was wise to give Catherine the works: her dismaying vital statistics, her dumpiness and baffled maneuvering, will set her up like one of those dolls at the country fair, ready to be idly knocked down for a prize of sorts. Still, she, all unstylish blushes and innocent gratitude, will profoundly solicit the sympathy of the reader as a heroine from real life, one not so remote from the readers of both sexes, each of whom will have some defects in the lottery of romance. (I would not go as far as Leon Edel and claim that Catherine is “the image of himself [James] as victim of his brother’s—and America’s—failure to understand his feelings.” The sibling rivalry Edel greatly favors as the psychological burden and ultimate creative spur of Henry’s triumphant life—the wound and the bow—will even find William James lurking in the shadow of Doctor Sloper.)

Doctor Sloper, the most interesting and complicated character in the novel, is perhaps villainous in his genial, confident presence in the family and his also genial, confident intrusions into the love affair. He is a father who will ask when Catherine appears in the disastrous red satin dress, “Is it possible that this magnificent person is my child?” Told of Townsend’s pursuit, he will puff on a cigar and reply, “He is in love with this regal creature, then?” Because the doctor is smart and observant himself, we are not surprised to learn that he thinks Catherine “as intelligent as a bundle of shawls.” The “ironical” accent in the doctor’s intercourse with his daughter is rather flamboyant, if lightly tossed about. One feels he quite enjoys the exercise of this established mode of communication; by it, he has turned a flaw of character, the absence of paternal propriety, into a manner, or a mannerism.

The plot of Washington Square is simple in its framing. Time is running out for Morris Townsend, and he must find someplace to land. Before meeting Catherine he has obviously known of her inheritance from her mother, some ten thousand a year, and can figure out for himself her expectations upon the death of her father. So he makes his way to the side of the pleasant, wallflowerish Catherine. And, doing so, he picks up the admiration or merely the exciting diversion he represents to Aunt Penniman. In any case, the widowed chaper-one’s conspiracy on his behalf is immediate; it is somewhat like the burglar charming the housemaid over the fence and coming away with the key to the kitchen door in his pocket. Visits to the house on Washington Square take place, and Catherine quickly falls into a kind of alarmed love.

Townsend means to marry Catherine, but he is quick to sense the impediment of Doctor Sloper, whom he is not foolish enough to imagine an easy conquest. And Doctor Sloper is, as feared, not in the least attracted to Townsend. The doctor says,

“He is not what I call a gentleman. He has not the soul of one. He is extremely insinuating; but it’s a vulgar nature. I saw through it in a minute. He is altogether too familiar—I hate familiarity.”

Townsend will naturally decide that the doctor finds him unsuitable only on the ground of his poverty. He understands the doctor’s power but not the fact that this particular father is the last person to imagine an adventurer like Townsend captivated by the unqualified Catherine. Shallowness, idleness, and insincerity, not poverty, are the grounds of his contempt:

The fact that Morris Townsend was poor—was not of necessity against him; the doctor had never made up his mind that his daughter should marry a rich man. The fortune she would inherit struck him as a very sufficient provision for two reasonable persons, and if a penniless swain who could give a good account of himself should enter the lists, he should be judged quite upon his personal merits.

The doctor wishes Catherine to be loved for her moral worth—he gives her that virtue, if not much else.

Doctor Sloper’s caustic, teasing banter with his daughter offends but does not amount to inattention; after Catherine has announced her engagement, he can be said to be very much on the case. He will make his way down to Second Avenue to call upon Mrs. Montgomery, the sister with whom the suitor is living. This, the most brilliant scene in the novel, provides a formal advancement of the plot and an advancement of the subtleties in the disposition of James’s New York City physician. He has married a rich woman, and we gather he himself is of a respectable if not glittering family, but he is self-created and not a snob.

Downtown on Second Avenue, a swerve to the east, an unpromising direction at the time. Basil Ransom in The Bostonians lived as an impecunious young lawyer from the defeated South on the outré avenue, lived in close acquaintance with the “fantastic skeleton of the Elevated Railway, overhanging the transverse longitudinal street, which it darkened and smothered with the immeasurable spinal column and myriad clutching paws of an antediluvian monster.” Excursions into the slushy, unreclaimed portions of Manhattan had for James the fearful, if beckoning, aspect of an assignation. In the New York City sections of The American Scene, we experience alarm for his palpitating heart as he goes—portly, sensitive, alert gentleman with a walking stick—into the immigrant’s New Jerusalem, into Little Italy, and visits the portentous hordes with their bundles pouring forth from Ellis Island. In the present novel, Mrs. Penniman, heavily veiled, embarks upon a perilous journey to an “oyster saloon in the Seventh Avenue, kept by a negro,” in order to consummate another of her fatuous, capriciously encouraging interviews with Morris Townsend. But then that lady has had some experience of the outside of things, since we have been told that she accepted her brother’s invitation to live in Washington Square with “the alacrity of a woman who had spent ten years of her married life in the town of Poughkeepsie.”

So the doctor will venture downtown to Second Avenue, where he will observe with approval Mrs. Montgomery’s neat little house of red brick and inside the tidy, if pitiable, efforts at decoration—“desultory foliage of tissue paper, with clusters of glass drops,” and so on. He notes the cast-iron stove “smelling strongly of varnish” and finds the widowed lady to be “a brave little person,” to whom he gave “his esteem as soon as he had looked at her.”

The visit is crucial in every sense. The doctor states, without qualification, that Catherine will have her ten thousand a year, but if she marries Townsend, “I shall leave every penny of my own fortune, earned in the laborious exercise of my profession, to public institutions.” The visit, in a guarded way, also reveals that Mrs. Montgomery has been giving money, of which she has little, to her brother, who takes it since he has none. In the end the poor sister, having in the conversation formed an idea of the good nature and vulnerability of Catherine, says, “Don’t let her marry him!”

Catherine, incurably smitten, would marry without her father’s consent, painful as the possibility may be. This immovable passion and defiance are most interesting to the doctor. ” ‘By Jove,’ he said to himself, ‘I believe she will stick—I believe she will stick!’ ” And so she does, even after a year abroad, the old family deprogramming hope, a year of misery and intellectual waste since she “failed to gather animation from the mountains of Switzerland or the monuments of Italy.” She does not relent, and Townsend is waiting, having, with the hospitality of Mrs. Penniman, made himself at home in the house on Washington Square, smoking the doctor’s cigars, sitting by the fire, and listening to the aunt’s prediction that Catherine will in the end get her father’s fortune.

When she returns, Townsend is still idly trying to discount the possibility of disinheritance; thus a remarkable dialogue between the two young people takes place, beginning with Catherine:

“We must ask no favours of him—we must ask nothing more. He won’t relent, and nothing good will come of it it. I know it now—I have a very good reason.”

“And pray what is your reason?”

She hesitated to bring it out, but at last it came. “He is not very fond of me!”

“Oh, bother!” cried Morris, angrily.

Townsend ungraciously, surreptitiously, takes his leave, and that is the story.

The plot, among the novels of James, is an open one of a simple heart ruthlessly manipulated, of trust and good will dishonored. The central drama is between Catherine and her father, a drama of serious moral questions beyond the struggle of their opposing wills. There is not much questioning to be done on behalf of Morris Townsend, a young man of every conceivable vanity, a natural squanderer of money, friendships, family, anything at hand.

One of the footnotes James has placed in the seduction of Catherine’s money is that Townsend, although destitute, puts an extraordinarily high value upon himself. When Catherine announces she will defy her father and is ready to flee the house with her “lover,” she can rightly wonder why her ten thousand should not be sufficient. The repudiation of this income because it will not be augmented at her father’s death is an insult of the most severe kind—and another folly committed by the conceited squanderer who imagines he can do better, whether by some vague plans for business or by way of a woman with a greater fortune.

Money in exchange for love is the dilemma of many of the heroines in James’s novels. And a most curious way he has with it. Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady is, by a tangled and not altogether credible route, willed seventy thousand pounds—not to practice an art or to make good on some sort of charitable obsession. She is given the money so that she can be free, so that she can achieve her best self, which, as it turns out, is to make her the object of fortune hunters, just as the rich Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove will be. Love, or the appearance of it, is to be paid for by American money, paid in cash in a transcontinental intrigue that is dark and vastly complicated.

Catherine has been denied beauty, gaiety, all the romantic mystery and glamour of the heiresses abroad. James took the dare of the negative. Catherine is as alone as an animal in the field. No Lord Warburton is seeking her hand as she decides to choose another; no lively young female friend attends her wandering; and if her response is reckless, as it is, the recklessness comes not from her own gift for desperate decision but from credulity and isolation.

The troubling aspect of the doctor’s destruction of Catherine’s romance lies in the fact that he intrigues with more brio than we can countenance. On the other hand, does the reader wish Catherine to succeed in marrying Townsend? The best that can be said for the match is that the contract of life should guarantee the right to make one’s own mistakes. James had thought deeply about the need to “experience,” to take the dare, to live, and to him, sedentary as a monument, to live meant personal experience, to risk love. Catherine does “stick,” as her father discovers with astonishment.

She meets “The Beast in the Jungle”:

To have to meet, to face, to see suddenly break out in my life; possibly destroying all further consciousness, possibly annihilating me;…striking at the root of all my world and leaving me to the consequences, however they shape themselves.

We are not sure how greatly Catherine understands consequences at the time of her defiance, but she comes to understand humiliation and heartbreak. When a shabby, shopworn Townsend returns years later to ask for friendship, her answer is no. “You treated me too badly. I felt it very much; I felt it for years.”

Washington Square is a perfectly balanced novel, narrow in its focus, rather claustrophobic, yet moving along with a speed suitable to the importunate demands of Morris Townsend in the matter of “settling” himself. In The Notebooks James records the novel’s origin in a story he heard from his friend the actress Mrs. Fanny Kemble. She told of her own handsome, penniless, selfish brother’s pursuit of a “dull, plain, common-place girl, only daughter of the Master of King’s Coll., Cambridge, who had a handsome private fortune (£4000 a year).” She was of that “slow, sober, dutiful nature that an impression once made upon her, was made for life.” Her father disapproved of the engagement and vowed she would not get a penny of his money if she married. The young man, like Townsend, for a time thought the father could be brought around, but when it was clear there was to be no remission of the disinheritance, the suitor made a rapid, ignominious retreat, leaving the girl desolated and never to marry. We note that here too there is a Mrs. Montgomery in the wings and that, when asked for advice by the unfortunately enamored young woman, “Mrs. K. advised the young girl by no means to marry her brother.”

It was all there, the structure, the actors to be set down in New York on Washington Square. But James, assembling the bricks and mortar of the action, gradually found Catherine Sloper deeply entrenched on the inside, rather than the witty outside, of his imagination. Magically he paces through each pause in her articulation, each artless question, each accumulation of baffled emotion, and thus Catherine comes to attract, profoundly. Her painful yet original dimensions come through to us slowly, as if in a haze, in contrast, for instance, to Isabel Archer’s claims, rich and brilliant as they are, which begin by assertion. “You wished a while ago to see my idea of an interesting woman. There it is!”

Catherine is just raw feeling itself, and literalness. Humbly she tries to make her way through a crushing thicket of casual remarks, hoping to discover a literalness equal to her own and important to her understanding of her situation. “Did he say that?” she will ask Mrs. Penniman, who is busily reporting some putative exchange with Townsend. And, “Did he tell you to say these things to me?” By the force of her singular concentration in the midst of the offhand and careless, she achieves a sort of personal, moral independence and certainly the dignity of the stubbornness and fidelity of her feelings.

And James was to take the father, merely a presence, an instrument, in the anecdote from which the plot derived, and create Doctor Sloper, a grand perplexity, an alive puzzle of disappointment and self-assurance. He is accustomed to control and boldly exercises it, but he dashes against a daunting sheet of rock—Catherine’s feelings. The doctor is perhaps finally to be seen as Catherine’s personal protector against certain disaster, but he is a protector of such provoking lapses and gaps that we cannot wish him a victory. In the end his victory, if that is what it is, does not rescue Catherine. Only Morris Townsend’s abandonment can accomplish her salvation, if that is what is accomplished.

In any case, Catherine has lived, has known the assault of love. And when she says of her father, “He is not very fond of me,” she has bitten of the fruit of knowledge, experienced the classical recognition moment and the power of enlightenment. Perhaps we can say that Catherine will become as clever as her father and can inflict upon him the fiercest vexation, which will amount to his genuine and lasting distress. Long after the romance with Townsend has been devastated beyond renewal, her father will still wish her to promise that she will not, at his death, marry the young man. Her answer: “I cannot promise that, Father.”

The matter of the promise beyond the grave reveals Doctor Sloper’s utter failure to understand where his daughter has been and where she is. As a final stroke of perverse underestimation, he reduces her portion in his will and writes: “She is amply provided for from her mother’s side;… her fortune is already more than sufficient to attract those unscrupulous adventurers whom she has given me reason to believe that she persists in regarding as an interesting class.” Catherine’s comment about the punitive last testament is: “I like it very much. Only I wish it had been expressed a little differently.” A proper burial for the interesting, ironical New York City physician.

Copyright © 1990 Elizabeth Hardwick.

This Issue

November 22, 1990