"My choice is the Old World — my choice, my need, my life." - Those were the words of the American-born writer Henry James. But what is it that made this exile write such a bold statement, having made Europe his second home?

Photo: Mathew Brady (PD)
Henry James as a boy, with his father Henry James Sr. This daguerreotype was made in New York City.

Being born into a well-off family, James spent his childhood and adolescence travelling between Europe and America. It was perhaps then that he was nurtured into the late 19th century spirit of cosmopolitanism, transcending a single nationality. The fact that he learnt three foreign languages fluently, namely French, German and Italian, also aided his cosmopolitanism. He had the opportunity to witness first-hand not only the rapid development of European cities, but to experience the cultural delights of the European upper classes at the time - among others, to witness the Golden Age of Italian opera first-hand.

When he returned to the States as a young man, it was unsurprising that he should have found them a bit lacking in refinement: those were the days before the Metropolitan Opera, Broadway and jazz. In the States, it was the "Gilded Age" - the time of vast growth and industrialisation, of oil and railroads, when The Land of Opportunity got its name. There was certainly a lot of money to be made, but James was not interested in that. Having already lived in cities like Paris and Geneva, he found the America of the 19th century culturally lacking, uneventful and even coarse. As he put it, "The main American formula is to make so much money that you won't, that you don't 'mind', don't mind anything..."

He described his place of residence (namely, Cambridge, Massachusetts) as "as lively as the inner sepulchre." He then found New York downright boring, and finally gave up on the idea of finding like-minded peers in the US when he dropped out of Harvard Law School. Sick of America, James set out on a tour of Europe, in search of inspiration.

"The flower of art blooms only where the soil is deep - it takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature."

"The flower of art blooms only where the soil is deep - it takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature." He first tried to settle in Italy: he was in love with Rome, whose connection with events of the near and ancient past he delighted in. He also tried living in the then extremely poor and declining city of Venice, finding the urban decay aesthetically pleasing. However, it was only a matter of time before he was drawn to the literary centre of Europe at the time - Paris. He had the opportunity to mingle with the literary elite of the late 19th century - Flaubert, Maupassant, Zola, Turgenev and especially Balzac, whom James thought to be the greatest living writer. It was his acute portrayal of contemporary French society, and the sheer scope of la comédie humaine that James found inspiring.

Image: painting by William Merritt Chase (PD)
James' writings have often been compared with impressionist paintings. William Merrit Chase was an American painter who was strongly influenced by the European impressionists. He completed "In the Studio" in 1893.

James didn't feel at ease with emigré circles though. In the end, being an English-language writer, his choice of London as place of permanent residence seemed inevitable. At the time, Europe spoke French, not English, so he had to look to the British isles if he was to find an audience. James enjoyed the milieu which the exclusive London clubs could give him and established himself as a sharp literary critic. The fact that James penned over twenty novels and numerous short stories in Britain demonstrates just how much inspiration he found there. In the late years of his life, in 1915, he became a British citizen (and received a comfortable Order of Merit) in protest at the US not entering the war. James had become a European by choice.

All his travels leave their mark on James's work. His prose has Italian elegance, French sensitivity and British wit, while retaining a distinctly American immediacy. His writings have often been compared to what the impressionists' create on canvas - and indeed, Europe is the natural setting for such an elegant, rich and vibrant prose style. James' works, however, concerned the clash between the New and the Old worlds, more often than not revolving around American expatriates in Europe. His novels are as nuanced as a Monet painting, and characterisations are never black-and-white.

In The Portrait of a Lady, James created one of the most enduring female literary characters - Isabel Archer, epitomising the innocence, liveliness and ambition of America. When she comes to Europe, she is introduced to a whole world of beauty and delights unknown to her. What Europe also holds for her, however, is corruption and dangerous schemes, to which she ultimately falls victim. Symbolically, The Portrait of a Lady is an allegory of the clash between innocence and experience, between American naiveté and European corruption - themes that marked the whole of James' work.

Image: painting by John Singer Sargent (PD)
This painting shows Henry James towards the end of his life, when he had been living in England for more than thirty years.

However, it is perhaps in The Ambassadors that James expressed what Europe meant to him most. It tells the story of Lambert Strether, a middle-aged man sent by his fiancée to Paris to fetch her son who has gone astray. If that calls to mind The Talented Mr. Ripley, it is because Patricia Highsmith was admittedly influenced by James' setting. Success in Strether's ambassadorial mission would mean a comfortable marriage and a significant share in a factory that produces "a little nameless object" - a life of contentment and moderate happiness.

When he gets to Paris, however, he is slowly seduced by everything that makes his son-in-law-to-be stay in France. Strether, a man past his prime, ruminates upon his life thus far, and is increasingly less impressed by the nuptial greyness that awaits in Woollett, Massachusetts. And if all this sounds like a pensive and sad book, let me assure you that it is abundant with James' sharpest wit, and that you will often find yourself laughing out loud. Most importantly, it is a novel which leaves the reader with a smile and a feeling of accomplishment – "Live all you can: it's a mistake not to. It doesn't matter what you do in particular, so long as you have had your life. If you haven't had that, what have you had?"

A lot has changed since the times of Henry James, both in the New World and in the Old. For one thing, New York is now also deemed to be a cultural capital. Nonetheless, the work of James still resounds loudly today, and maybe it is from the eyes of a cosmopolitan that we can best see what being European means - something we are likely to forget in these times of turmoil.

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