No one remembers John Jay Chapman; scarcely anyone still remembered him in 1938 when Edmund Wilson, the twentieth century’s most important literary critic, reviewed a volume of Chapman’s letters published in 1907. Only Henry James, according to Wilson, “had anything like the same sureness of judgment, the same freedom from current prejudices and sentimentalities” as Chapman, who wrote of the “debasement of our politics and government by unscrupulous business interests,” which is “the whole history of America since the Civil War.”
Everything had changed, and nowhere with more tragic results than among those who were educated in the American university.
“In the seventies, the universities were still turning out admirable professional men, who had had the old classical education, a culture much wider than their professions, and the tradition of political idealism and public conscience which had presided at the founding of the Republic.” Ten years later, “the industrial and commercial development which followed the Civil War had reached a point where the old education was no longer an equipment for life.” Those who “had taken it seriously, were launched on careers of tragic misunderstanding. The rate of failure and insanity and suicide in some of the college ‘classes’ of the eighties shows an appalling demoralization.”
It was the world of business, Big Business, a world in which “seriousness about man and his problems was abrogated by Business entirely in favor of the seriousness of Business about things that were not serious.” A man who had been educated for the old America could either “become the slave of Business at one extreme or drink himself to death at the other, but in any case absorb, perhaps unconsciously, enough of the commercial ideal to neutralize any other with which he might have started out. For one of the most depressing features of the American world of this period was that if hardly knew what was the matter with it.”
Something fundamental had changed. Henry Adams, the great-grandson of one president and the grandson of another, thought to find the cause.
“The world did not double or treble its movement between 1800 and 1900,” he wrote in 1909, “but, measured by any standard known to science – by horse-power, calories, volts mass in any shape – the tension and vibration and volume and so-called progression of society were full a thousand times greater in 1900 than 1800; – the force had doubled ten times over, and the speed, when measured by electrical standards as in telegraphy, approached infinity, and had annihilated both space and time.”
None of this could have happened, this astonishing acceleration in the rate of movement, had there not been an acceptance, a belief, that wealth and its pursuit were more important than anything else. The predatory values of business could become the motive power, the driving force, in the new American Empire only if materialism was no longer thought a sin. That meant, if the question were seriously pursued, that what had happened to America, what had become by the end of the nineteenth century clear evidence of a world unhinged, had been there from the beginning, that America had been unbalanced from the start.
Henry James wrote about the tension between the idealism and the greed of Americans when it first appeared, when the speed of things first began to change the standards and the conditions of American life. The Europeans, published in l878 when James was thirty-five, is set thirty years earlier, in 1848, a dozen years before the Civil War, more than a generation before industrialization had changed America out of all recognition. The Europeans are a sister and a brother, Baroness Munster – Eugenia – who is in her thirties and Felix, in his late twenties. Their parents were, directly or indirectly, American, but they have never been to America, and have come now for only one reason: to marry money. Eugenia – the Baroness – is already married to a member of a European royal family, but her husband, perhaps for reasons of state, is divorcing her. They have come to meet their uncle and their cousins who live in “an ancient house – ancient in the sense of being eighty years old.” George Washington had once spent a week there, and everyone, every American that is, think the house a “venerable mansion.” Felix, who has lived in every ancient city of Europe, tells his sister that “it looks as if it had been built last night.”
There is, from the beginning as it were, a difference between the way Felix and Eugenia see things. With the vague ambiguity that allows Henry James to search for a deeper understanding of things, he describes Felix as “not at all a serious young man but there was somehow more of him – he had more weight and volume and resonance – than a number of young men who were distinctly serious.” His nature “was not a restless, ambitious spirit, running a race with fate, but a temper so unsuspicious as to put Adversity off her guard, dodging and evading her with the easy, natural motion of a wind-shifted flower. Felix extracted entertainment from all things….”
Henry James mastered the language with the same skill, and with a similar effect, as a French Impressionist, working in the same period of time, applied his brush strokes to a canvas. That Felix makes his living painting portraits makes us wonder how far James himself might have drawn the parallel. The method, and the result, is the same when he paints the picture of Felix’s older sister, Eugenia, “who, when she desired to please,” was “the most charming woman in the world.” Nothing “that the Baroness said was wholly untrue. It is but fair to add, perhaps, that nothing she said was wholly true.” Unlike her brother, “she was a restless soul…”
Another author right have stopped here, but James adds: “She was always expecting something to happen, and, until it was disappointed, expectancy itself was a delicate pleasure.” Instead of a woman distracted and ridden with anxiety, always wishing she were somewhere else doing something else, Eugenia is as much, or perhaps even more, interested in the thought, the dream, of what might actually result. Whatever else Eugenia may be, she is not superficial.
Felix describes his American cousins with an insight James has led us to expect. “They are sober; they are even severe. They are of a pensive cast; they take things hard. I think there is something the matter with them; they have some melancholy memory or some depressing expectation.” His uncle, “Mr. Wentworth, is a tremendously high-toned fellow; he looks as if he were undergoing martyrdom, not by fire, but by freezing.” Despite all this, his uncle and his cousins “are wonderfully kind and gentle.”
Eugenia is not nearly so generous. She thinks America a “dreadful” place and tells one of her distant American relations, “You Americans have such odd ways! You never ask anything outright; there seems to be so many things you can’t talk about.” When Robert Acton, who has taken a particular interest in her, an interest she does nothing to discourage, introduces her to his mother, she tells her that her son often talks of her, “as such a son must talk of such a mother.” Robert Acton had barely mentioned his mother, and Eugenia understands that she has been “observed to be fibbing. She had struck a false note. But who were these people to whom such fibbing was not pleasing?”
Eugenia is interested in Robert Acton because he is rich. Felix is drawn to Gertrude because she is the youngest, prettiest, and most outspoken of Mr. Wentworth’s two daughters. Every novel, every novel worth reading, is driven by some action. The highest, and best, action is conversation. The conversations between Felix and Gertrude explore the tension between how Americans in the latter part of the first half of the nineteenth century thought they should live, and what, some of them at least, really wanted.
While Felix is painting Gertrude’s portrait, she remarks about her family, “There must be a thousand different ways of being dreary, and sometimes I think we make use of them all.” Felix is sure that no one in her family “has anything to repent of.” She replies, “And yet we are always repenting. That is what I meant by our being dreary.” Felix tells her that “the tendency – among you generally – is to be made unhappy too easily.” And then adds that it “is not what one does or doesn’t do,” it is instead “the general way of looking at life.” Gertrude does not disagree. “No one is happy here.”
The proof of American unhappiness – an unhappiness, as Felix observed, that has nothing to do with what anyone does or does not do – is embodied in a young clergyman, Mr. Brand, who wants Gertrude to marry him and fully expects that, being the virtuous young woman he knows her to be, she must want to marry him.
“I care for the things you care for,” he explains, as if there could not be any doubt about it. “ – the great questions of life.”
“I don’t care for the things you care for. They are much beyond me.”
“There was a time you didn’t say that.”
“I think you made me talk a great deal of nonsense,” she tells him, and then adds, with an intelligence that he is not capable of understanding, “And it depends upon what you call the great questions of life. There are some things I care for.”
Before Mr. Brand can even begin to wonder what that might mean, she makes a confession that goes to the heart of the dilemma faced by men and women taught that passion meant sin and sin meant perdition.
“I have been pretending all my life.” As for the great questions of life, she simply does not care. “I care for pleasure – for amusement. Perhaps I am fond of wicked things; it is possible.”
Mr. Brand is stunned. He “remained staring; he was even a little pale, as if he had been frightened.”
“I don’t think you know what you are saying!”
Everyone in Gertrude’s family, especially her older sister, Charlotte, are constantly reminding her how much she owes Mr. Brand. If Charlotte is always taking his side, it is because she is, herself, in love with him; a feeling she has, of course, never revealed to anyone, and no one has ever suspected. With the instincts of a European, Felix immediately penetrates her secret and with masterful misdirection uses it to rid himself, not so much of a rival, as an obstacle. He tells Brand that Charlotte is in love with him. The ardent clergyman, certain of his rectitude, and that others must love him because of it, has been completely oblivious of “poor Charlotte’s hidden flame.” He is “offended, excited, bewildered, perplexed – and enchanted.” He forgets Gertrude and thinks only of Charlotte. Gertrude is relieved; Charlotte is ecstatic.
Everything is settled. Felix tells his sister that he has “secured Gertrude’s affections, but I am by no means sure I have secured her fortune. That may come – or it may not.”
The really wonderful thing about Felix and Gertrude is that neither of them really care. They are in love. “I will go away,” she tells him. “I will do anything you please.” What they are pleased to do, is to leave America and go to Europe, and live wherever, and however, they may from time to time decide. The money means nothing; Felix can always paint.
Eugenia has also secured someone’s affections, the very wealthy Robert Acton. She tells her brother that “Robert Acton wants to marry me,” and that he “is immensely in love with me.” Felix, who knows his sister, cannot resist: “And he has a large fortune.” Confessing that she is “terribly candid,” Eugenia acknowledges that “his fortune is a great item in his favor.” Felix senses there is still a problem. “Well,” she admits, “I don’t particularly like him.” That, by itself, is not an insurmountable difficulty. She could like him better if they lived somewhere else. “I could never live here.”
Like her brother, Eugenia goes back to Europe; unlike her brother, she goes alone. She had decided, Henry James tells us, “ that the conditions of action on this provincial continent were not favorable to really superior women.” In her own words, words Henry James imagined she would say, “Europe seems to me much larger than America.”
The Europeans, Felix and Eugenia came to America because America held the promise of great wealth and the wealthy indolence they wanted to enjoy. The Americans were wealthy, but did not think it quite right to enjoy it. Robert Acton was fascinated by Eugenia, though he knew she was not honest, and that her main, and perhaps, only interest was his money. The sanctimonious clergyman, Mr. Brand, believes himself entitled to more than the respect, the adoration, of first one daughter, then the other, of a family whose wealth makes marriage more than ever attractive. The scent of money is everywhere, a massive, but still unspoken, fact. The movement that will bring it all to the surface has only just begun; the movement that, years later, will have Henry James write novels about America, not at the end of the first, but the end of the second half of the nineteenth century, novels in which, Edmund Wilson tells us, “there starts into color and relief the America of the millionaires, at its crudest, corruptest and phoniest: the immense amorphous mansions, … the old men of the Rockefeller-Frick generation, landed, with no tastes and no interests, amidst a limitless magnificence which dwarfs them; the silly or clumsy young people of the second generation with their dubious relationships, their enormous and meaningless parties, their touching longings and resolute strivings for an elegance and cultivation which they have no one to guide the in acquiring.”
Leave out the longing for elegance and cultivation and we have as good a description of America at the beginning of the twenty-first century as we are likely to get.