As a writer who consciously sought to create an art in which the values of traditional society make a primary claim, Henry James was faced with the difficulty of judging social, religious, and ethnic groups existing outside the framework of such a society. James’s reactions to the Jew—whom he perceived as the mythical figure of anti-Semitic lore—and to the alien—whose presence on American soil aroused acute distrust—reveal a genera] uneasiness. The Jew is the center of a complex range of feelings; the alien, a focal point of anxiety at a particular historical moment. With his imposing talent for malicious condescension, James typically, but not invariably, fixes upon the Jew the full force of a carefully regulated disdain. Consider, for example, the aspersion—scarcely more than a quick glance—cast upon Jews at the fashionable watering place of Folkestone, in the British tale, “Glasses”: “There were thousands of little chairs and almost as many little Jews; and there was music in an open rotunda, over which the little Jews wagged their big noses.”
The charged brevity of this communicates a thoroughly upper-class attitude. In “The Pupil,” the disreputable Moreen family is defined with the assistance of a reference to the shop-keeping Jew: “Who had poisoned their blood with the fifth-rate social ideal? Clever as they were they never guessed how they appeared. They were good-natured, yes—as good-natured as Jews at the doors of clothing-shops! But was that the model one wanted one’s family to follow?”
In another story, “Covering End,” the introduction of “a matron of rich Jewish type, with small nippers on a huge nose and a face out of proportion to her little Freischütz hat,” accentuates James’s feeling about the vulgarity of tourists intruding upon things they cannot understand. The Jewess (who is one of a crowd of sightseers inspecting the estate saved for its hereditary owner by the American heroine) brings the tale to an end with a flourish of dialect humor. Glancing at a portrait, she asks, “Who’s dat?” and the heroine replies, “Oh, that’s my future husband!” This episode throws some light on the curious conditions under which James was likely to notice the Jew. “Covering End” is based on a play in which there is no mention of a Jew; and, further, when James made still another play of his tale, he went to the trouble of removing the allusion in the story. Summersoft, the original comedy, specifies “A Visitor” whose aspect is “pleased, loud and cheerful,” and who properly enunciates “Who’s this?” The High Bid, the play which followed, presents a “Chatty American Lady” whose question, “And this Funny one—?” cues the curtain line.
Did James think that his English readers would appreciate the Jewess of his story, but balk at a stage presentation? The theater filled him with a sense of precarious exposure, and the freedom to be “himself,” he often noted, was in the medium of fiction. A primary motive in his excision of the caricature must surely have been his association with Jews in the theater. A willingness to make exceptions appears in his admiration for the Jewish actresses of the Théâtre Français. The low and ill-bred Jew of the shop or resort is one thing, but Rachel and her kind are quite another. Miriam Rooth, the actress-heroine of The Tragic Muse, is a composite fictional version of the Jewish actress as James saw her, and her portrait—the most extensive James has given us of a Jew—is itself a study. We see her first as a gauche young woman with a tendency to fatuity, but of real charm and extraordinary gifts. The question of her Jewishness is put in the service of her struggle for identity and development. James perfectly dramatizes the awkwardness of being a Jew: introduced by way of the cliché that all Jews are clever, Miriam now grasps at her Jewishness in the hope that it will make her “interesting,” then tries to compensate for it with absurd claims to “aristocratic” origins, and finally resolves her dilemma with a comment on Rachel: “I don’t care if I’m of her tribe artistically. . . I’m of the family of artists—Je m’en fichel of any other!” In this fashion, the Jewish element in The Tragic Muse is pushed into the background. Once Miriam’s uniqueness as an exotic creature of grotesque contradictions and astonishing abilities is established, James turns to her transcendent identity of artist, tacitly accepting Miriam’s opinion that the style of the Jew is acceptable if it is also the style of the artist. From this point on, the taboos that surround her have to do with another kind of awkwardness—as an actress, Miriam has no social standing. She therefore becomes representative of the creative alienation from society with which James is strongly identified. But even here James backs down—one cannot permit one’s sister to call on her, one can marry her only if she renounces her career.
The cosmopolite Jew must have been familiar to James, but in The Ambassadors he expresses a certain incredulous wonder (and approval) at the special act of tolerance which admits him to the salon. Thus Little Bilham tells Strether of the elite circle that gathers at Gloriani’s studio: it is composed of “ambassadors, cabinet ministers, bankers, generals, what do I know? even Jews.” The assumption that James himself is speaking here is supported by his employment of a common paradox. The Jew gains social acceptance by virtue of a native cleverness which is also the basis of his constitutional defects, and hence the cause of his rejection. There are many instances of Jews exhibiting an unreliable combination of sensibility and avarice. The father of Miriam Rooth (“only a Jew stockbroker in the City”) “. . . had the artistic temperament; that’s common, as you know, among ces messieurs.” After his death, his wife soon parts with the fruits of his profitable dealings, “not having the safeguard of being herself a Hebrew.”
Less complex versions of the predatory Jew are “the demons of Jews” who have supplied Mrs. Gereth of The Spoils of Poynton with her treasures, and the moneylenders of The Awkward Age who are farcically imagined to victimize old ladies. One is sharply reminded, in encountering these transient glimpses, that the pursuit of money is an unvarying preoccupation of the Jamesian villain. Kate Cray’s immorality in The Wings of the Dove is terrifying, but James is never contemptuous of her. Her greed is compassionately treated. The avaricious Jew, however, dwells in a moral ghetto, outside the warmth of James’s humanity.
The Jew bears a kinship, though, to the unregenerate European of James’s early fiction. This relationship derives from a religious bias in James. His indifference to religious sanctions, and his Emersonian belief in the potentiality of the individual, coexist with a dependence upon the authority of the Protestant creed. Hence his assumption that Catholic Europe (Italy in particular) has evolved its superior civilization partly out of and partly despite the deficiencies of its moral sense. Those deficiencies James accounts for by the pagan sub-stratum of Mediterranean civilization, with the result that “Catholic” and “pagan” become highly convergent terms in his work. The heartless European adventurer (even if he is an American who has been “corrupted” by too long residence abroad) tends to be utterly inflexible in his hardened ways and becomes as predictable as the Jew whose opportunism and greed are taken for granted. Seen in this perspective, anti-Semitic attitudes in James are only a small element of a major theme: the Jew is another version of the morally indifferent (Catholic) European bearing the stain of his pagan origin, for both are unprotected by the influence of the Protestant conscience. Of course, there are multiple shadings of this conception. Italians, for example, reflect the immense appeal to James of a proud aristocracy with its attendant rituals, privileges, and history, whereas Jewish society is approached solely in terms of the clannishness and corporate impersonality of the tribal unit.
Another range of associations that the idea of the Jew arouses in James’s mind is the sensuous and Eastern. Fanny Assingham of The Golden Bowl is “neither a pampered Jewess nor a lazy Creole,” though she suggests “a creature formed by hammocks and divans, fed upon sherbets and waited upon by slaves.”1 The patriarchal Mr. Caliph of “The Impressions of a Cousin” is of overpowering sexuality; Mr. Tischbein and Mr. Perriam, two bejewelled and racy companions of Lady Ida in What Maisie Knew, are highly urbanized renderings of the same notion. These associations are expanded in the Golden Bowl, where James confronts the alarming fecundity of the Jew with a certain amusement. “A remarkably genial, a positively lustrous young man,” the antique dealer Guttermann-Seuss is the father of “eleven in all”—“eleven little brown clear faces, yet with such impersonal old eyes astride of such impersonal old noses.” Others of the “tribe” are the “fat, ear-ringed aunts and . . . glossy, cockneyfied, familiar uncles, inimitable of accent and assumption, and of an attitude of cruder intention than that of the head of the firm.” Adam Verver’s view of Charlotte Stant’s reactions to this group conveys the genuine strangeness with which James approached Jewish life, in the tone of a well-bred slumming expedition:
. . . he felt quite merged in the elated circle formed by the girl’s free response to the collective caress of all the shining eyes, and by her genial acceptance of the heavy cake and port wine that, as she was afterwards to note, added to their transaction, for a finish, the touch of some mystic rite of old Jewry.
James’s portrait of the other (anonymous) antique dealer of The Golden Bowl represents an attempt to reconcile the generally pejorative implications of the picture of the Jew to a sympathetic study of a particular person. The result is an incoherent fusion of conflicting elements. Although there is no doubt that the shopkeeper knows the value of the bowl that he sells to Maggie Verver, he overcharges her, presumably because that is the way of the Jew, the instinctive act of the outcast deceiving the Gentile. But he later abandons this role and confesses, thereby putting Maggie in possession of the knowledge of her betrayal by the Prince and Charlotte, who had visited his shop before Maggie’s marriage in search of a wedding gift. We are told that the Jew repents because of a particular liking for Maggie, but it is not clear why this motive did not operate at the time of the original purchase. Maggie’s explanation to the Prince (“. . . and in fact he gave me that [the “liking”] to-day . . . he gave me it frankly as his reason”) implies recognition of the shopkeeper’s departure from a customary role; the inference that the Jew does not ordinarily make amends for his conduct is unavoidable. “The particular reason which he hadn’t mentioned, which had made him consider and repent,” Maggie says, is his knowledge of the flaw in the bowl. But, again, he had long been in possession of this knowledge.
The circumstantial basis of the Jew’s repentance is highly dubious, and his redemption, meant to place him within the moral world of the major figures of the novel, has the impact of a convenient miracle reminiscent of the Christian expectation of the conversion of the Jews. The fact seems to be that James shapes his Jew out of the exigencies of his plot, rather than out of a consistent idea of character. But despite the failure to reconcile successfully the image of a subdued Shylock to that of a man whose aesthetic qualifications admit him to limited community with Gentile society, the antique dealer is sympathetically presented. Charlotte appreciatively notices his civilized relationship to the objects in which he trades, and the Prince, who berates him to Charlotte as “the little swindling Jew” and to Maggie as “a decided little beast,” is compelled to hear him defended by both his mistress and his wife.
The more usual tendency to regard Jews as if they were germs under a microscope is manifest in James’s automatic dependence upon the adjective “little”—often reinforced by the distortion which enables the anti-Semite to feel that he can identify the object of his aversion with certainty, the image of the oversized nose. The device is perhaps symptomatic of James’s general defensiveness in an age destructive of order and privacy, a capturing in a single image of his resentment of the intrusive and unduly aggressive in all their forms. In the critical dialogue about George Eliot, “Daniel Deronda: A Conversation,” this device is kept within the limits of Pulcheria’s mania. Her hatred of Jews is distinct from the attitudes expressed through Theodora and Con-stantius, who voice James’s sympathy with George Eliot’s attempt to dramatize the struggle for Jewish nationality. But the judgment that “All the Jewish part [of Daniel Deronda] is at bottom cold” (the opinion of Constantius) reflects not only an opinion of George Eliot’s performance, but also James’s own disbelief in the possibilities of “a Jewish revival.” The attitude later expressed in The Tragic Muse, noted above, enters here: Deronda’s mother, an actress and prima donna, is a Jewish anti-Semite who hates “Jewish manners and looks.” James’s inability to grasp her motives is given in Pulcheria’s failure to understand why she should care about religious questions: “. . . I am not a Jewish actress of genius; I am not what Rachel was. If I were I should have other things to think about”—an exact anticipation of Miriam Rooth’s divestment of her Jewish identity.
Pulcheria’s strictures on the “horrid big Jewish nose” and her importation of the pariah image (“They have the less excuse then for keeping themselves so dirty”) are robbed of some of their offensiveness by the moderate tone of the dialogue, with its genteel setting of embroidery, Japanese screens, and serious discussion at the seashore. Theodora’s well-intentioned exoneration (approved by Constantius) of the Jew on the score of his inherent cleverness and charm overbalances Pulcheria’s rejoinder, “Clever, but not charming.”
The recurrent appeal to such stereotypes of physiognomy and character becomes an intensely personal matter in James’s account of the New York ghetto in The American Scene. The dominant metaphor of “some great zoological garden,” embracing the crowded world of the East Side, includes the notation of “some vast sallow aquarium in which innumerable fish of over-developed proboscis were to bump together, for ever, amid heaped spoils of the sea.” This is not decorative ingenuity but the Jamesian technique of fixing meaning within a metaphorical core. The Jewish world is dehumanized. When James comments that “The intensity of the Jewish aspect . . . makes the individual Jew more of a concentrated person, savingly possessed of everything that is in him, than any other human, noted at random,” the inference that he has come upon what he looks for in vain in much of the new America eludes him—individuals existing by means of their social and religious identity. His spontaneous preference is for another simile from the animal kingdom: these Jews put him in mind of certain snakes or worms, “who, when cut into pieces . . . live in the snippet as completely as in the whole.” And, ultimately, James comes back to the prevailing clichés of his fiction:
What struck me in the flaring streets (over and beyond the everywhere insistent, defiant, unhumorous, exotic face) was the blaze of the shops addressed to the New Jerusalem wants and the splendour with which these were taken for granted; the only thing indeed a little ambiguous was just this look of the trap too brilliantly, too candidly baited for the wary side of Israel itself. It is not for Israel, in general, that Israel so artfully shines—yet its being moved to do so, at last, in that luxurious style, might be precisely the grand side of the city of redemption. Who can tell . . . what the genius of Israel may, or may not, really be “up to?”
The American Scene is the record of a rude shattering of reverently preserved pieties and an elaborate rationalization of the feeling that Jew and alien alike are unpredictable and dangerous. The anomaly of the mere presence of an Armenian youth in the New Hampshire hills, or of Italian laborers in Central Park (with whom Europe would have offered the means of communication now “absent from the air to positive intensity, to mere unthinkability”), dramatizes James’s shocked awareness of the impossibility, attested at every turn, of contact or amenity in the new America. His account is a nightmarish enlargement of the catalogue of absent institutions in his early study of Hawthorne (“no sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy . . .”). But the once unfurnished meagerness of American life has been supplanted by an immense chaos devoid of respect for “place” or “type” or “relationship.” The commercial travelers on a Savannah-bound Pullman present James with a despairing sense of this issue: they are the single “type,” bereft of the association with a hierarchy of types needed to give them position or meaning. Such exceptions as the Philadelphia Quaker, with his visible marks of a modus vivendi, or the young Southerner, making the most of his discredited traditions, recede before James’s vision of the places, the houses, the monuments, that still speak eloquently of a vanished age in the terrible incongruity of the present.
These matters are profoundly observed. But is the American drummer any less representative of the American dilemma than the Jew or alien? Perhaps not, but he lacks for James the symbolic value of easy identity as outsider or intruder. The metaphor of the Italian immigrant in the act of extending a greasy ladle from which all must feed imparts strong emotional revulsion, and the discovery in Boston that “the people before me were gross aliens to a man . . . in serene and triumphant possession,” astonished dismay. These reactions derive from the violence which 20th-century America offered to the sentiment of a beautiful and vanished native society. This sentiment is an active principle in The American Scene, productive of a pastoral myth of early American culture strangely at odds with James’s very exact sense of the limitations of that early period. In The American Scene James idealizes a past that he once regarded critically. The habit of looking backward upon receding idyllic vistas appears in The Europeans (1878), but the ironic burden of this sketch is that the golden age was, even at its apex, hopelessly insular. Marlborough street, never “precisely passionate,” is embalmed in the corrosive vision of lifeless gentility set before us in “A New England Winter,” of 1884. The Bostonians (1886) is a portrait of Boston in a state of decadent collapse. But it is not the Boston of this record that James evokes when he searches for an image against which to contrast the gross aliens observed in 1904, but rather the “small homogeneous Boston of the more interesting time . . . the little interesting city, the city of character and genius, exempt as yet from the Irish yoke.” This echoes the comment of 1879 on Hawthorne’s world. The Boston of Hawthorne’s day, of course, was homogeneous, but in 1879 (the date of James’s Hawthorne) James was already aware of a danger from without:
At the time of Hawthorne’s first going there [Concord], it must have been an even better specimen than to-day—more homogeneous, more indigenous, more absolutely democratic. Forty years ago the tide of foreign immigration had scarcely begun to break upon the rural strongholds of the New England race; it had at most begun to splash them with the salt Hibernian spray.
One cannot but recall that James was himself part of “the salt Hibernian spray” of the post-Revolutionary wave. But the habit of the insider’s perspective, which leads to the tenderness for things American that Santayana regarded as excessive in James’s autobiographies, prevented him from sharing Alice James’s zeal for the Irish cause. Behind this predisposition, at the turn of the century, was the pervasive myth of an organic society—the assumption that a social structure of perfectly related parts is desirable and necessary on a national scale. The myth was obviously helpful to a writer whose genius feeds upon accretions and accumulations confronted by a general leveling of social distinctions. Much of The American Scene—its exposure of the promiscuous materialism of the national life, for example-is an indictment in the tradition of Emerson’s The American Scholar and Whitman’s Democratic Vistas. The primary usefulness of the organic conception, however, is that it dramatizes the peril to traditional American culture of the new immigrants. The question of “one’s relation to one’s country” and of “the idea of the country itself,” necessarily embraces a repudiation of the alien:
Is not our instinct in this matter, in general, essentially the safe one—that of keeping the idea simple and strong and continuous, so that it shall be perfectly sound? To touch it overmuch, to pull it about, is to put it in peril of weakening; yet on this free assault upon it, this readjustment of it in their monstrous, presumptuous interest, the aliens of New York seemed perpetually to insist.
This position is pivotal in racist and “cultural” arguments for immigration restriction. The general defense against the new “barbarian invasion” was made through an appeal to a long-established conception of the “purity” of the original Anglo-Saxon stock which had settled the thirteen colonies. The explanation of national traits on the basis of “race,” and the fusion of racial, national, and cultural characteristics into a single entity, had been a commonplace of the nativist movement, aimed primarily at the Irish-Catholic influx of the 1830’s and revived in the 1880’s in response to the first immigrant incursion from southern and eastern Europe. The most eloquent statement of the position was made by Henry Cabot Lodge in a speech to the Senate on March 11, 1896, in which are disclosed the same alarms about dispossession, the same prizing of homogeneity, and the same identification of culture with racial integrity which James was to express a decade later in The American Scene.
From this point of view, James’s attitudes reveal well-established New England feelings about the alien and show him to be a member of a literary tradition in which the Jew had long been suspiciously regarded. Cooper and Melville reflect the image; Henry Adams expressed a patrician fear that the editorship of The North American Review would “go to some Jew”; James Russell Lowell entertained fantasies about an international conspiracy of Jewry; and John Jay Chapman abandoned his early sympathy with Jewish culture to become openly anti-Semitic2 Behind them is the more disinterested pride of Emerson in the purity of the English pedigree and Thomas Jefferson’s study of the Germanic tribes. Despite Henry James’s antagonism toward the “Teutonic”—his astonishing outburst against Hugo Müsterberg in his notebooks expresses antipathy for things German as well as fear of the immigrant—his sense of culture is deeply rooted in the idea of a continuing Anglo-Saxon tradition. Ford Madox Ford tells us that near the end of his life James reached an even keener appreciation of the spiritual fineness of the early New England period.
Though James shares the emotionalism that fostered nativist movements against minorities, he accepts neither the hysteria nor the ideological extremes of such movements. His fear of displacement is tempered by his recognition that the immigrant may lose his own traditions in a general assimilation. Nor does James connect anti-Semitism with any organized program of repression.
Such reservations may have their origin in the liberal internationalism illustrated in “Collaboration,” in which James deplores “the hideous invention of patriotism” and pleads for “the land of dreams—the country of art,” and in “Owen Wingrave,” in which he makes an impassioned defense of pacifism and the pacifist temperament. With his brother William, Henry James was an outspoken foe of imperialism and militarism; he supported the New England Anti-Imperialist League, denounced Theodore Roosevelt as “a dangerous and ominous Jingo,” and saw no prospect of relief from “big provincial iniquities and abuses and bloody millionaires” in the election of McKinley. But the brothers part company when confronted with the Dreyfus Affair. The novelist’s celebrated declaration, “Thank God, I’ve no opinions . . . not even on the Dreyfus case,” is disingenuous, and his explanation, “I’m more and more only aware of things as a more or less mad panorama, phantasmagoria and dime museum,” though expressive of his growing disgust with the public scene, reflects not reticence but embarrassment before a Jewish problem of world-wide notoriety. He did not see, as William did, the need for an organized defense of the victims of the racial intolerance that the Dreyfus case provoked.
The peculiarly American union of literary cosmopolitanism with Anglo-Saxon provincialism that James exhibits has its distinguished modern spokesman in T. S. Eliot. After Strange Gods applies religious sanctions to a conception of traditional society very close to James’s. Like James, Eliot has insisted that “the population should be homogeneous”:
Where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely either to be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate. What is still more important is unity of religious background; and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.
Eliot’s disavowal of anti-Semitic intention in this passage does not alter his assumptions about the value of a homogeneous society-assumptions which lead quite naturally to the exclusion of “free-thinking” groups. Apart from the restrictions to which it leads, such a view presents a paradoxical cultural ideal, one which would have been fatal to the heterogeneous English society that produced the poetry and drama which Eliot has commemorated, just as the homogeneous New England world that James fondly recalls was responsible, as James himself insisted, for the thinness and poverty of life against which Hawthorne struggled. That James should have escaped so many of the contradictions of his own social attitudes is a hopeful irony: his art is profoundly assimilative and eclectic. Anti-Jewish and anti-alien attitudes were by-products of a commitment to a highly stratified society, and expressions of a particular parochial spirit. These were also essential elements in a major creative enterprise.
1 This pattern defines itself as early as 1871, in James's first novel, Watch and Ward. Of a mother and daughter he writes: “The younger one was extremely pretty, and looked a little like a Jewess. Nora [the heroine] observed that she wore a diamond in each ear.” She reappears late in the novel, “decidedly pretty, in spite of a nose a trifle too aquiline.” Her boldness contrasts with the quiet grace of the heroine: “A pair of imperious dark eyes, as bright as the diamond which glittered in each of her ears, and a nervous, capricious rapidity of motion and gesture, gave her an air of girlish brusquerie, which was by no means without charm.”
2 See Edmund Wilson's The Jews, in A Piece of My Mind: Reflections at Sixty (Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1956).