The Point of View, by Henry James


From the Right Hon. Edward Antrobus, M.P., in Boston to the Honourable Mrs. Antrobus

November 1880.


I sent you a post-card on the 13th and a native newspaper yesterday; I really have had no time to write. I sent you the newspaper partly because it contained a report — extremely incorrect — of some remarks I made at the meeting of the Association of the Teachers of New England; partly because it’s so curious that I thought it would interest you and the children. I cut out some portions I didn’t think it well the children should go into — the passages remaining contain the most striking features. Please point out to the children the peculiar orthography, which probably will be adopted in England by the time they are grown up; the amusing oddities of expression and the like. Some of them are intentional; you’ll have heard of the celebrated American humour — remind me, by the way, on my return to Thistleton, to give you a few of the examples of it that my own experience supplies. Certain other of the journalistic eccentricities I speak of are unconscious and are perhaps on that account the more diverting. Point out to the children the difference — in so far as you’re sure that you yourself perceive it. You must excuse me if these lines are not very legible; I’m writing them by the light of a railway lamp which rattles above my left ear; it being only at odd moments that I can find time to extend my personal researches. You’ll say this is a very odd moment indeed when I tell you I’m in bed in a sleeping-car. I occupy the upper berth (I will explain to you the arrangement when I return) while the lower forms the couch — the jolts are fearful — of an unknown female. You’ll be very anxious for my explanation, but I assure you that the circumstance I mention is the custom of the country. I myself am assured that a lady may travel in this manner all over the Union (the Union of States) without a loss of consideration. In case of her occupying the upper berth I presume it would be different, but I must make inquiries on this point. Whether it be the fact that a mysterious being of another sex has retired to rest behind the same curtains, or whether it be the swing of the train, which rushes through the air with very much the same movement as the tail of a kite, the situation is at the best so anomalous that I’m unable to sleep. A ventilator’s open just over my head, and a lively draught, mingled with a drizzle of cinders, pours in through this dubious advantage. (I will describe to you its mechanism on my return.) If I had occupied the lower berth I should have had a whole window to myself, and by drawing back the blind — a safe proceeding at the dead of night — I should have been able, by the light of an extraordinary brilliant moon, to see a little better what I write. The question occurs to me, however, would the lady below me in that case have ascended to the upper berth? (You know my old taste for hypothetic questions.) I incline to think (from what I have seen) that she would simply have requested me to evacuate my own couch. (The ladies in this country ask for anything they want.) In this case, I suppose, I should have had an extensive view of the country, which, from what I saw of it before I turned in (while the sharer of my privacy was going to bed) offered a rather ragged expanse dotted with little white wooden houses that resembled in the moonshine large pasteboard boxes. I’ve been unable to ascertain as precisely as I should wish by whom these modest residences are occupied; for they are too small to be the homes of country gentlemen, there’s no peasantry here, and (in New England, for all the corn comes from the far West) there are no yeomen nor farmers. The information one receives in this country is apt to be rather conflicting, but I’m determined to sift the mystery to the bottom.

I’ve already noted down a multitude of facts bearing on the points that interest me most — the operation of the school-boards, the coeducation of the sexes, the elevation of the tone of the lower classes, the participation of the latter in political life. Political life indeed is almost wholly confined to the lower middle class and the upper section of the lower class. In fact in some of the large towns the lowest order of all participates considerably — a very interesting phase, to which I shall give more attention. It’s very gratifying to see the taste for public affairs pervading so many social strata, but the indifference of the gentry is a fact not to be lightly considered. It may be objected perhaps that there are no gentry; and it’s very true that I’ve not yet encountered a character of the type of Lord Bottomley — a type which I’m free to confess I should be sorry to see disappear from our English system, if system it may be called where so much is the growth of blind and incoherent forces. It’s nevertheless obvious that an idle and luxurious class exists in this country and that it’s less exempt than in our own from the reproach of preferring inglorious ease to the furtherance of liberal ideas. It’s rapidly increasing, and I’m not sure that the indefinite growth of the dilettante spirit, in connexion with large and lavishly-expended wealth, is an unmixed good even in a society in which freedom of development has obtained so many interesting triumphs. The fact that this body is not represented in the governing class is perhaps as much the result of the jealousy with which it is viewed by the more earnest workers as of its own (I dare not perhaps apply a harsher term than) levity. Such at least is the impression made on me in the Middle States and in New England; in the South-west, the North-west and the far West it will doubtless be liable to correction. These divisions are probably new to you; but they are the general denomination of large and flourishing communities, with which I hope to make myself at least superficially acquainted. The fatigue of traversing, as I habitually do, three or four hundred miles at a bound, is of course considerable; but there is usually much to feed the mind by the way. The conductors of the trains, with whom I freely converse, are often men of vigorous and original views and even of some social eminence. One of them a few days ago gave me a letter of introduction to his brother-inlaw, who’s president of a Western University. Don’t have any fear therefore that I’m not in the best society!

The arrangements for travelling are as a general thing extremely ingenious, as you will probably have inferred from what I told you above; but it must at the same time be conceded that some of them are more ingenious than happy. Some of the facilities with regard to luggage, the transmission of parcels and the like are doubtless very useful when thoroughly mastered, but I’ve not yet succeeded in availing myself of them without disaster. There are on the other hand no cabs and no porters, and I’ve calculated that I’ve myself carried my impedimenta— which, you know, are somewhat numerous, and from which I can’t bear to be separated — some seventy or eighty miles. I have sometimes thought it was a great mistake not to bring Plummeridge — he would have been useful on such occasions. On the other hand the startling question would have presented itself of who would have carried Plummeridge’s portmanteau? He would have been useful indeed for brushing and packing my clothes and getting me my tub; I travel with a large tin one — there are none to be obtained at the inns — and the transport of this receptacle often presents the most insoluble difficulties. It is often too an object of considerable embarrassment in arriving at private houses, where the servants have less reserve of manner than in England; and to tell you the truth I’m by no means certain at the present moment that the tub has been placed in the train with me. “On board” the train is the consecrated phrase here; it’s an allusion to the tossing and pitching of the concatenation of cars, so similar to that of a vessel in a storm. As I was about to inquire, however, Who would get Plummeridge his tub and attend to his little comforts? We couldn’t very well make our appearance, on arriving for a visit, with two of the utensils I’ve named; even if as regards a single one I have had the courage, as I may say, of a lifelong habit. It would hardly be expected that we should both use the same; though there have been occasions in my travels as to which I see no way of blinking the fact that Plummeridge would have had to sit down to dinner with me. Such a contingency would completely have unnerved him, so that on the whole it was doubtless the wiser part to leave him respectfully touching his hat on the tender in the Mersey. No one touches his hat over here, and, deem this who will the sign of a more advanced social order, I confess that when I see poor Plummeridge again that familiar little gesture — familiar I mean only in the sense of one’s immemorial acquaintance with it — will give me a measurable satisfaction. You’ll see from what I tell you that democracy is not a mere word in this country, and I could give you many more instances of its universal reign. This, however, is what we come here to look at and, in so far as there appears proper occasion, to admire; though I’m by no means sure that we can hope to establish within an appreciable time a corresponding change in the somewhat rigid fabric of English manners. I’m not even inclined to believe such a change desirable; you know this is one of the points on which I don’t as yet see my way to going so far as Lord B. I’ve always held that there’s a certain social ideal of inequality as well as of equality, and if I’ve found the people of this country, as a general thing, quite equal to each other, I’m not quite ready to go so far as to say that, as a whole, they’re equal to — pardon that dreadful blot! The movement of the train and the precarious nature of the light — it is close to my nose and most offensive — would, I flatter myself, long since have got the better of a less resolute diarist!

What I was distinctly not prepared for is the very considerable body of aristocratic feeling that lurks beneath this republican simplicity. I’ve on several occasions been made the confidant of these romantic but delusive vagaries, of which the stronghold appears to be the Empire City — a slang name for the rich and predominant, but unprecedentedly maladministered and disillusioned New York. I was assured in many quarters that this great desperate eternally-swindled city at least is ripe, everything else failing, for the monarchical experiment or revolution, and that if one of the Queen’s sons would come over to sound the possibilities he would meet with the highest encouragement. This information was given me in strict confidence, with closed doors, as it were; it reminded me a good deal of the dreams of the old Jacobites when they whispered their messages to the king across the water. I doubt, however, whether these less excusable visionaries will be able to secure the services of a Pretender, for I fear that in such a case he would encounter a still more fatal Culloden. I have given a good deal of time, as I told you, to the educational system, and have visited no fewer than one hundred and forty-three schools and colleges. It’s extraordinary the number of persons who are being educated in this country; and yet at the same time the tone of the people is less scholarly than one might expect. A lady a few days since described to me her daughter as being always “on the go,” which I take to be a jocular way of saying that the young lady was very fond of paying visits. Another person, the wife of a United States Senator, informed me that if I should go to Washington in January I should be quite “in the swim.” I don’t regard myself as slow to grasp new meanings, however whimsical; but in this case the lady’s explanation made her phrase rather more than less ambiguous. To say that I’m on the go describes very accurately my own situation. I went yesterday to the Poganuc High School, to hear fifty-seven boys and girls recite in unison a most remarkable ode to the American flag, and shortly afterward attended a ladies’ luncheon at which some eighty or ninety of the sex were present. There was only one individual in trousers — his trousers, by the way, though he brought several pair, begin to testify to the fury of his movements! The men in America absent themselves systematically from this meal, at which ladies assemble in large numbers to discuss religious, political and social topics.

Immense female symposia at which every delicacy is provided are one of the most striking features of American life, and would seem to prove that our sex is scarcely so indispensable in the scheme of creation as it sometimes supposes. I’ve been admitted on the footing of an Englishman —“just to show you some of our bright women,” the hostess yesterday remarked. (“Bright” here has the meaning of intellectually remarkable.) I noted indeed the frequency of the predominantly cerebral — as they call it here “brainy”— type. These rather oddly invidious banquets are organised according to age, for I’ve also been present as an inquiring stranger at several “girls’ lunches,” from which married ladies are rigidly excluded, but here the fair revellers were equally numerous and equally “bright.” There’s a good deal I should like to tell you about my study of the educational question, but my position’s now somewhat cramped, and I must dismiss the subject briefly. My leading impression is that the children are better educated (in proportion of course) than the adults. The position of a child is on the whole one of great distinction. There’s a popular ballad of which the refrain, if I’m not mistaken, is “Make me a child again just for to-night!” and which seems to express the sentiment of regret for lost privileges. At all events they are a powerful and independent class, and have organs, of immense circulation, in the press. They are often extremely “bright.” I’ve talked with a great many teachers, most of them lady-teachers, as they are here called. The phrase doesn’t mean teachers of ladies, as you might suppose, but applies to the sex of the instructress, who often has large classes of young men under her control. I was lately introduced to a young woman of twenty-three who occupies the chair of Moral Philosophy and Belles–Lettres in a Western University and who told me with the utmost frankness that she’s “just adored” by the undergraduates. This young woman was the daughter of a petty trader in one of the South-western States and had studied at Amanda College in Missourah, an institution at which young people of the two sexes pursue their education together. She was very pretty and modest, and expressed a great desire to see something of English country life, in consequence of which I made her promise to come down to Thistleton in the event of her crossing the Atlantic. She’s not the least like Gwendolen or Charlotte, and I’m not prepared to say how they would get on with her; the boys would probably do better. Still, I think her acquaintance would be of value to dear Miss Gulp, and the two might pass their time very pleasantly in the school-room. I grant you freely that those I have seen here are much less comfortable than the school-room at Thistleton. Has Charlotte, by the way, designed any more texts for the walls? I’ve been extremely interested in my visit to Philadelphia, where I saw several thousand little red houses with white steps, occupied by intelligent artisans and arranged (in streets) on the rectangular system. Improved cooking-stoves, rosewood pianos, gas and hot water, esthetic furniture and complete sets of the British Essayists. A tramway through every street; every block of exactly equal length; blocks and houses economically lettered and numbered. There’s absolutely no loss of time and no need of looking for, or indeed at, anything. The mind always on one’s object; it’s very delightful.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56