The Point of View, by Henry James


From Miss Sturdy at Newport to Mrs. Draper at Ouchy

September 1880.

I promised to tell you how I like it, but the truth is I’ve gone to and fro so often that I’ve ceased to like and dislike. Nothing strikes me as unexpected; I expect everything in its order. Then too, you know, I’m not a critic; I’ve no talent for keen analysis, as the magazines say; I don’t go into the reasons of things. It’s true I’ve 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’re 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 I’ve 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 this; it seems to me on the contrary a very amiable point. When individuals betray 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 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’ve outlived the necessity of being hypocritical; I’ve nothing to gain and everything to lose. When one’s 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’s extremely marked, and though they don’t tell me I’m coarse I feel they think me so. There’s very little coarseness here — not quite enough, I think — though there’s plenty of vulgarity, which is a very different thing. On the whole the country becomes much more agreeable. It isn’t that the people are charming, for that they always were (the best of them, I mean — it isn’t true of the others), but that places and things as well recognise the possibility of pleasing. The houses are extremely good and look extraordinarily fresh and clean. Many European interiors seem in comparison 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 delicious piazzas. I’m sitting on one now; I’m 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’s more charming even than you remember it; like everything else over here it has improved. It’s very exquisite today; it’s 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’s 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 on 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 one hasn’t the least desire to visit. Altogether the effect’s very delicate, and anything that’s delicate counts immensely over here; for delicacy, I think, is as rare as coarseness. I’m 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’m almost offensively well at sea — 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 — passed them 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’re on the whole very nice, but fifty’s 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’s 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’ve heard of him in a dozen places. The English are strangely 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’re 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 in any case at eight o’clock in the morning; I don’t know how he managed it; it appears to be his favourite hour; wherever we’ve 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’re easy to answer, for he has a sweet credulity. He made me rather ashamed; he’s a better American than so many of us; he takes us more seriously than we take ourselves. He seems to think we’ve an oligarchy of wealth growing up which he advised me to be on my guard against. I don’t know exactly what I can do, but I promised him to look out. He’s fearfully energetic; the energy of the people here is nothing to that of the inquiring Briton. If we should devote half the zeal 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, since, say what one will, it’s far from being 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 hateful. At the same time Mr. Antrobus appeared to be a good deal preoccupied with our dangers. I don’t understand quite what they are; they seem to me so few on a Newport piazza this bright still day. Yet alas what one sees on a Newport piazza isn’t America; it’s only the back of Europe. I don’t mean to say I haven’t noticed any dangers since my return; there are two or three that seem to me very serious, but they aren’t those Mr. Antrobus apprehends. One, for instance, is that we shall cease to speak the English language, which I prefer so to any other. It’s less and less spoken; American’s crowding it out. All the children speak American, which as a child’s language is 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, when all’s said, it’s 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 small nephews, when I first came home, hadn’t gone back to school, and it distressed me to see that, though they’re charming children, they had the vocal inflexions of little news-boys. My niece is sixteen years old; she has the sweetest nature possible; she’s extremely well-bred and is dressed to perfection. She chatters from morning till night; but its helplessness breaks my heart. 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.

If I allude to the young people, that’s our other danger; the young people are eating us up — there’s nothing in America but the young people. The country’s made for the rising generation; life’s arranged for them; they’re the destruction of society. People talk of them, consider them, defer to them, bow down to them. They’re always present, and whenever they’re present nothing else of the smallest interest is. They’re often very pretty, and physically are wonderfully looked after; they’re 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’s an immense literature entirely addressed to them in which the kicking of shins and the slapping of faces carries the day. 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’s theirs; adult forms 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 I naturally 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 suddenly stops. The little girls of course are more important than the lads, but the lads are very important too. I’m struck with the way they’re known and talked about; they’re small celebrities; they have reputations and pretensions; they’re taken very seriously. As for the little girls, as I just said, they’re ever so much too many. You’ll say perhaps that my fifty years and my red face are jealous of them. 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 things themselves, I believe, like me very much, and I delight in the young things. They’re 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’ve 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’s 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 long by a larger one. This one’s decidedly narrow — I stretch it sometimes till it cracks. Then it is they call me coarse, which I undoubtedly am, thank goodness.

What it comes to, obviously, is that people’s talk is much less conveniently free than in Europe; I’m 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 risqués. I don’t know exactly what people find to bite into, for the supply of scandal’s small and it’s little more than twaddle at that. They don’t seem, however, to lack topics. The little girls are always there; they keep the gates of conversation; very little passes that’s 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 last year, 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’d have to change so many other things. Of course in your house one never saw a little girl; I was the only spinster and no one was afraid of me. Likewise if talk’s more innocent in this country manners are so to begin with. The liberty of the young people is the strongest proof of it. The little girls are let loose in the world, and the world gets more good of it than ces demoiselles get harm. In your world — pardon me, but you know what I mean — this wouldn’t do at all. Your world’s a sad affair — 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’s 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’m told that sort of thing consumes hours; I’ve 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 find them at bottom better than the women, who if not inveterately hard haven’t at least the European, the (as I heard some one once call it) chemical softness. They’re not so nice to the men as the men are to them; I mean of course in proportion, you know. But women aren’t so nice as men “anyway,” as they say here.

The men at any rate 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 he’s always well done in your countries. When he’s not, the less of him the better. It’s very much the same indeed with the system on which the female young are brought up. (You see I have to come back to the female young.) When it succeeds they’re the most charming creatures possible; when it doesn’t the failure’s disastrous. If a girl’s a very nice girl the American method brings her to great completeness — makes all her graces flower; but if she isn’t nice it plays the devil with any possible compromise or biais in the interest of social convenience. In a word the American girl’s rarely negative, and when she isn’t a great success she’s 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 aren’t shy, but I don’t know why they should be, for there’s 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’s formidable; no one’s on stilts; no one has great pretensions or any recognised right to be arrogant. I think there’s not much wickedness, and there’s certainly less human or social cruelty — less than in “good” (that is in more amusing) society. Every one can sit — no one’s kept standing. One’s 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’s less fatuous in form than in your countries; and as people generally have fewer revenges to take there’s less need of their being squashed in advance. The general good nature, the social equality, deprive them of triumphs on the one hand and of grievances on the other. There’s extremely little impertinence, there’s almost none. You’ll say I’m describing a terrible world, a world without great figures or great social prizes. You’ve 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’d miss these things a good deal — you who delight to recognise greatness; and my advice to you therefore is never to come back. You’d miss the small people even more than the great; every one’s middle-sized, and you can never have that momentary sense of profiting by the elevation of your class which is so agreeable in Europe. I needn’t add that you don’t, either, languish with its depression. There are at all events no brilliant types — the most important people seem to lack dignity. They’re very bourgeois; they make little jokes; on occasion they make puns; they’ve no form; they’re too good-natured. The men have no style; the women, who are fidgety and talk too much, have it only in their tournures, where they have it superabundantly.

Well, I console myself — since consolation is needed — 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’s a pleasure, when one comes back — if one happens, like me, to be no one in particular — to feel one’s merely personal and unclassified 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 prattle, one feels their presence too much as importunate and untrained sound. I imagine this is partly because their wits are quick and they think of a good many things to say; not indeed that they always say such wonders! Perfect repose, after all, is not all self-control; it’s also partly stupidity. American women, however, make too many vague exclamations — say too many indefinite things, have in short still a great deal of nature. The American order or climate or whatever gives them a nature they can let loose. Europe has to protect itself with more art. 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’ve all been brought up together. You’ll think this a picture of a dreadfully insipid society; but I hasten to add that it’s not all so tame as that. I’ve been speaking of the people that one meets socially, and these’re 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 hack-men, the labourers, the conductors; 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’re too democratic taste a little of American life in these walks and you’ll be reassured. This is the region of inequality, and you’ll find plenty of people to make your curtsey to. You see it from below — the weight of inequality’s on your own back. You asked me to tell you about prices. They’re unspeakable.

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