The Point of View

Contents:
Author: Henry James

III. from Miss Sturdy, at Newport, to Mrs. Draper, in Florence.

September 30.

I promised to tell you how I like it, but the truth is, I have gone to and fro so often that I have ceased to like and dislike. Nothing strikes me as unexpected; I expect everything in its order. Then, too, you know, I am not a critic; I have no talent for keen analysis, as the magazines say; I don’t go into the reasons of things. It is true I have been for a longer time than usual on the wrong side of the water, and I admit that I feel a little out of training for American life. They are breaking me in very fast, however. I don’t mean that they bully me; I absolutely decline to be bullied. I say what I think, because I believe that I have, on the whole, the advantage of knowing what I think—when I think anything—which is half the battle. Sometimes, indeed, I think nothing at all. They don’t like that over here; they like you to have impressions. That they like these impressions to be favourable appears to me perfectly natural; I don’t make a crime to them of that; it seems to me, on the contrary, a very amiable quality. When individuals have it, we call them sympathetic; I don’t see why we shouldn’t give nations the same benefit. But there are things I haven’t the least desire to have an opinion about. The privilege of indifference is the dearest one we possess, and I hold that intelligent people are known by the way they exercise it. Life is full of rubbish, and we have at least our share of it over here. When you wake up in the morning you find that during the night a cartload has been deposited in your front garden. I decline, however, to have any of it in my premises; there are thousands of things I want to know nothing about. I have outlived the necessity of being hypocritical; I have nothing to gain and everything to lose. When one is fifty years old—single, stout, and red in the face—one has outlived a good many necessities. They tell me over here that my increase of weight is extremely marked, and though they don’t tell me that I am coarse, I am sure they think me so. There is very little coarseness here—not quite enough, I think—though there is plenty of vulgarity, which is a very different thing. On the whole, the country is becoming much more agreeable. It isn’t that the people are charming, for that they always were (the best of them, I mean, for it isn’t true of the others), but that places and things as well have acquired the art of pleasing. The houses are extremely good, and they look so extraordinarily fresh and clean. European interiors, in comparison, seem musty and gritty. We have a great deal of taste; I shouldn’t wonder if we should end by inventing something pretty; we only need a little time. Of course, as yet, it’s all imitation, except, by the way, these piazzas. I am sitting on one now; I am writing to you with my portfolio on my knees. This broad light loggia surrounds the house with a movement as free as the expanded wings of a bird, and the wandering airs come up from the deep sea, which murmurs on the rocks at the end of the lawn. Newport is more charming even than you remember it; like everything else over here, it has improved. It is very exquisite today; it is, indeed, I think, in all the world, the only exquisite watering-place, for I detest the whole genus. The crowd has left it now, which makes it all the better, though plenty of talkers remain in these large, light, luxurious houses, which are planted with a kind of Dutch definiteness all over the green carpet of the cliff. This carpet is very neatly laid and wonderfully well swept, and the sea, just at hand, is capable of prodigies of blue. Here and there a pretty woman strolls over one of the lawns, which all touch each other, you know, without hedges or fences; the light looks intense as it plays upon her brilliant dress; her large parasol shines like a silver dome. The long lines of the far shores are soft and pure, though they are places that one hasn’t the least desire to visit. Altogether the effect is very delicate, and anything that is delicate counts immensely over here; for delicacy, I think, is as rare as coarseness. I am talking to you of the sea, however, without having told you a word of my voyage. It was very comfortable and amusing; I should like to take another next month. You know I am almost offensively well at sea—that I breast the weather and brave the storm. We had no storm fortunately, and I had brought with me a supply of light literature; so I passed nine days on deck in my sea-chair, with my heels up, reading Tauchnitz novels. There was a great lot of people, but no one in particular, save some fifty American girls. You know all about the American girl, however, having been one yourself. They are, on the whole, very nice, but fifty is too many; there are always too many. There was an inquiring Briton, a radical M.P., by name Mr. Antrobus, who entertained me as much as any one else. He is an excellent man; I even asked him to come down here and spend a couple of days. He looked rather frightened, till I told him he shouldn’t be alone with me, that the house was my brother’s, and that I gave the invitation in his name. He came a week ago; he goes everywhere; we have heard of him in a dozen places. The English are very simple, or at least they seem so over here. Their old measurements and comparisons desert them; they don’t know whether it’s all a joke, or whether it’s too serious by half. We are quicker than they, though we talk so much more slowly. We think fast, and yet we talk as deliberately as if we were speaking a foreign language. They toss off their sentences with an air of easy familiarity with the tongue, and yet they misunderstand two-thirds of what people say to them. Perhaps, after all, it is only OUR thoughts they think slowly; they think their own often to a lively tune enough. Mr. Antrobus arrived here at eight o’clock in the morning; I don’t know how he managed it; it appears to be his favourite hour; wherever we have heard of him he has come in with the dawn. In England he would arrive at 5.30 p.m. He asks innumerable questions, but they are easy to answer, for he has a sweet credulity. He made me rather ashamed; he is a better American than so many of us; he takes us more seriously than we take ourselves. He seems to think that an oligarchy of wealth is growing up here, and he advised me to be on my guard against it. I don’t know exactly what I can do, but I promised him to look out. He is fearfully energetic; the energy of the people here is nothing to that of the inquiring Briton. If we should devote half the energy to building up our institutions that they devote to obtaining information about them, we should have a very satisfactory country. Mr. Antrobus seemed to think very well of us, which surprised me, on the whole, because, say what one will, it’s not so agreeable as England. It’s very horrid that this should be; and it’s delightful, when one thinks of it, that some things in England are, after all, so disagreeable. At the same time, Mr. Antrobus appeared to be a good deal pre-occupied with our dangers. I don’t understand, quite, what they are; they seem to me so few, on a Newport piazza, on this bright, still day. But, after all, what one sees on a Newport piazza is not America; it’s the back of Europe! I don’t mean to say that I haven’t noticed any dangers since my return; there are two or three that seem to me very serious, but they are not those that Mr. Antrobus means. One, for instance, is that we shall cease to speak the English language, which I prefer so much to any other. It’s less and less spoken; American is crowding it out. All the children speak American, and as a child’s language it’s dreadfully rough. It’s exclusively in use in the schools; all the magazines and newspapers are in American. Of course, a people of fifty millions, who have invented a new civilisation, have a right to a language of their own; that’s what they tell me, and I can’t quarrel with it. But I wish they had made it as pretty as the mother-tongue, from which, after all, it is more or less derived. We ought to have invented something as noble as our country. They tell me it’s more expressive, and yet some admirable things have been said in the Queen’s English. There can be no question of the Queen over here, of course, and American no doubt is the music of the future. Poor dear future, how "expressive" you’ll be! For women and children, as I say, it strikes one as very rough; and moreover, they don’t speak it well, their own though it be. My little nephews, when I first came home, had not gone back to school, and it distressed me to see that, though they are charming children, they had the vocal inflections of little news-boys. My niece is sixteen years old; she has the sweetest nature possible; she is extremely well-bred, and is dressed to perfection. She chatters from morning till night; but it isn’t a pleasant sound! These little persons are in the opposite case from so many English girls, who know how to speak, but don’t know how to talk. My niece knows how to talk, but doesn’t know how to speak. A propos of the young people, that is our other danger; the young people are eating us up,—there is nothing in America but the young people. The country is made for the rising generation; life is arranged for them; they are the destruction of society. People talk of them, consider them, defer to them, bow down to them. They are always present, and whenever they are present there is an end to everything else. They are often very pretty; and physically, they are wonderfully looked after; they are scoured and brushed, they wear hygienic clothes, they go every week to the dentist’s. But the little boys kick your shins, and the little girls offer to slap your face! There is an immense literature entirely addressed to them, in which the kicking of shins and the slapping of faces is much recommended. As a woman of fifty, I protest. I insist on being judged by my peers. It’s too late, however, for several millions of little feet are actively engaged in stamping out conversation, and I don’t see how they can long fail to keep it under. The future is theirs; maturity will evidently be at an increasing discount. Longfellow wrote a charming little poem called "The Children’s Hour," but he ought to have called it "The Children’s Century." And by children, of course, I don’t mean simple infants; I mean everything of less than twenty. The social importance of the young American increases steadily up to that age, and then it suddenly stops. The young girls, of course, are more important than the lads; but the lads are very important too. I am struck with the way they are known and talked about; they are little celebrities; they have reputations and pretentions; they are taken very seriously. As for the young girls, as I said just now, there are too many. You will say, perhaps, that I am jealous of them, with my fifty years and my red face. I don’t think so, because I don’t suffer; my red face doesn’t frighten people away, and I always find plenty of talkers. The young girls themselves, I believe, like me very much; and as for me, I delight in the young girls. They are often very pretty; not so pretty as people say in the magazines, but pretty enough. The magazines rather overdo that; they make a mistake. I have seen no great beauties, but the level of prettiness is high, and occasionally one sees a woman completely handsome. (As a general thing, a pretty person here means a person with a pretty face. The figure is rarely mentioned, though there are several good ones.) The level of prettiness is high, but the level of conversation is low; that’s one of the signs of its being a young ladies’ country. There are a good many things young ladies can’t talk about; but think of all the things they can, when they are as clever as most of these. Perhaps one ought to content one’s self with that measure, but it’s difficult if one has lived for a while by a larger one. This one is decidedly narrow; I stretch it sometimes till it cracks. Then it is that they call me coarse, which I undoubtedly am, thank Heaven! People’s talk is of course much more chatiee over here than in Europe; I am struck with that wherever I go. There are certain things that are never said at all, certain allusions that are never made. There are no light stories, no propos risques. I don’t know exactly what people talk about, for the supply of scandal is small, and it’s poor in quality. They don’t seem, however, to lack topics. The young girls are always there; they keep the gates of conversation; very little passes that is not innocent. I find we do very well without wickedness; and, for myself, as I take my ease, I don’t miss my liberties. You remember what I thought of the tone of your table in Florence, and how surprised you were when I asked you why you allowed such things. You said they were like the courses of the seasons; one couldn’t prevent them; also that to change the tone of your table you would have to change so many other things. Of course, in your house one never saw a young girl; I was the only spinster, and no one was afraid of me! Of course, too, if talk is more innocent in this country, manners are so, to begin with. The liberty of the young people is the strongest proof of it. The young girls are let loose in the world, and the world gets more good of it than ces demoiselles get harm. In your world—excuse me, but you know what I mean—this wouldn’t do at all. Your world is a sad affair, and the young ladies would encounter all sorts of horrors. Over here, considering the way they knock about, they remain wonderfully simple, and the reason is that society protects them instead of setting them traps. There is almost no gallantry, as you understand it; the flirtations are child’s play. People have no time for making love; the men, in particular, are extremely busy. I am told that sort of thing consumes hours; I have never had any time for it myself. If the leisure class should increase here considerably, there may possibly be a change; but I doubt it, for the women seem to me in all essentials exceedingly reserved. Great superficial frankness, but an extreme dread of complications. The men strike me as very good fellows. I think that at bottom they are better than the women, who are very subtle, but rather hard. They are not so nice to the men as the men are to them; I mean, of course, in proportion, you know. But women are not so nice as men, "anyhow," as they say here. The men, of course, are professional, commercial; there are very few gentlemen pure and simple. This personage needs to be very well done, however, to be of great utility; and I suppose you won’t pretend that he is always well done in your countries. When he’s not, the less of him the better. It’s very much the same, however, with the system on which the young girls in this country are brought up. (You see, I have to come back to the young girls.) When it succeeds, they are the most charming possible; when it doesn’t, the failure is disastrous. If a girl is a very nice girl, the American method brings her to great completeness—makes all her graces flower; but if she isn’t nice, it makes her exceedingly disagreeable—elaborately and fatally perverts her. In a word, the American girl is rarely negative, and when she isn’t a great success she is a great warning. In nineteen cases out of twenty, among the people who know how to live—I won’t say what THEIR proportion is— the results are highly satisfactory. The girls are not shy, but I don’t know why they should be, for there is really nothing here to be afraid of. Manners are very gentle, very humane; the democratic system deprives people of weapons that every one doesn’t equally possess. No one is formidable; no one is on stilts; no one has great pretensions or any recognised right to be arrogant. I think there is not much wickedness, and there is certainly less cruelty than with you. Every one can sit; no one is kept standing. One is much less liable to be snubbed, which you will say is a pity. I think it is to a certain extent; but, on the other hand, folly is less fatuous, in form, than in your countries; and as people generally have fewer revenges to take, there is less need of their being stamped on in advance. The general good nature, the social equality, deprive them of triumphs on the one hand, and of grievances on the other. There is extremely little impertinence; there is almost none. You will say I am describing a terrible society,—a society without great figures or great social prizes. You have hit it, my dear; there are no great figures. (The great prize, of course, in Europe, is the opportunity to be a great figure.) You would miss these things a good deal,—you who delight to contemplate greatness; and my advice to you, of course, is never to come back. You would miss the small people even more than the great; every one is middle-sized, and you can never have that momentary sense of tallness which is so agreeable in Europe. There are no brilliant types; the most important people seem to lack dignity. They are very bourgeois; they make little jokes; on occasion they make puns; they have no form; they are too goodnatured. The men have no style; the women, who are fidgety and talk too much, have it only in their coiffure, where they have it superabundantly. But I console myself with the greater bonhomie. Have you ever arrived at an English country-house in the dusk of a winter’s day? Have you ever made a call in London, when you knew nobody but the hostess? People here are more expressive, more demonstrative and it is a pleasure, when one comes back (if one happens, like me, to be no one in particular), to feel one’s social value rise. They attend to you more; they have you on their mind; they talk to you; they listen to you. That is, the men do; the women listen very little—not enough. They interrupt; they talk too much; one feels their presence too much as a sound. I imagine it is partly because their wits are quick, and they think of a good many things to say; not that they always say such wonders. Perfect repose, after all, is not ALL self-control; it is also partly stupidity. American women, however, make too many vague exclamations—say too many indefinite things. In short, they have a great deal of nature. On the whole, I find very little affectation, though we shall probably have more as we improve. As yet, people haven’t the assurance that carries those things off; they know too much about each other. The trouble is that over here we have all been brought up together. You will think this a picture of a dreadfully insipid society; but I hasten to add that it’s not all so tame as that. I have been speaking of the people that one meets socially; and these are the smallest part of American life. The others—those one meets on a basis of mere convenience—are much more exciting; they keep one’s temper in healthy exercise. I mean the people in the shops, and on the railroads; the servants, the hackmen, the labourers, every one of whom you buy anything or have occasion to make an inquiry. With them you need all your best manners, for you must always have enough for two. If you think we are TOO democratic, taste a little of American life in these walks, and you will be reassured. This is the region of inequality, and you will find plenty of people to make your courtesy to. You see it from below—the weight of inequality is on your own back. You asked me to tell you about prices; they are simply dreadful.

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Chicago: Henry James, "III. From Miss Sturdy, at Newport, to Mrs. Draper, in Florence.," The Point of View, ed. Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934 in The Point of View (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909), Original Sources, accessed September 21, 2018, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CYSNVTMI8RCHIRP.

MLA: James, Henry. "III. From Miss Sturdy, at Newport, to Mrs. Draper, in Florence." The Point of View, edited by Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934, in The Point of View, Vol. 22, New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909, Original Sources. 21 Sep. 2018. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CYSNVTMI8RCHIRP.

Harvard: James, H, 'III. From Miss Sturdy, at Newport, to Mrs. Draper, in Florence.' in The Point of View, ed. . cited in 1909, The Point of View, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 21 September 2018, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CYSNVTMI8RCHIRP.