The Point of View, by Henry James


From M. Gustave Lejaune of the French Academy in Washington to M. Adolphe Bouche in Paris

December 1880.

I give you my little notes; you must make allowances for haste, for bad inns, for the perpetual scramble, for ill-humour. Everywhere the same impression — the platitude of unbalanced democracy intensified by the platitude of the spirit of commerce. Everything on an immense scale — everything illustrated by millions of examples. My brother-inlaw is always busy; he has appointments, inspections, interviews, disputes. The people, it appears, are incredibly sharp in conversation, in argument; they wait for you in silence at the corner of the road and then suddenly discharge their revolver. If you fall they empty your pockets; the only chance is to shoot them first. With this no amenities, no preliminaries, no manners, no care for the appearance. I wander about while my brother’s occupied; I lounge along the streets; I stop at the corners; I look into the shops; je regarde passer les femmes. It’s an easy country to see; one sees everything there is; the civilisation’s skin deep; you don’t have to dig. This positive practical pushing bourgeoisie is always about its business; it lives in the street, in the hotel, in the train; one’s always in a crowd — there are seventy-five people in the tramway. They sit in your lap; they stand on your toes; when they wish to pass they simply push you. Everything in silence; they know that silence is golden and they’ve the worship of gold. When the conductor wishes your fare he gives you a poke, very serious, without a word. As for the types — but there’s only one, they’re all variations of the same — the commis-voyageur minus the gaiety. The women are often pretty; you meet the young ones in the streets, in the trains, in search of a husband. They look at you frankly, coldly, judicially, to see if you’ll serve; but they don’t want what you might think (du moines on me l’assure); they only want the husband. A Frenchman may mistake; he needs to be sure he’s right, and I always make sure. They begin at fifteen; the mother sends them out; it lasts all day (with an interval for dinner at a pastry-cook’s); sometimes it goes on for ten years. If they haven’t by that time found him they give it up; they make place for the cadettes, as the number of women is enormous. No salons, no society, no conversation; people don’t receive at home; the young girls have to look for the husband where they can. It’s no disgrace not to find him — several have never done so. They continue to go about unmarried — from the force of habit, from the love of movement, without hopes, without regrets. There’s no imagination, no sensibility, no desire for the convent.

We’ve made several journeys — few of less than three hundred miles. Enormous trains, enormous wagons, with beds and lavatories, with negroes who brush you with a big broom, as if they were grooming a horse. A bounding movement, a roaring noise, a crowd of people who look horribly tired, a boy who passes up and down hurling pamphlets and sweetmeats into your face: that’s an American journey. There are windows in the wagons— enormous like everything else; but there’s nothing to see. The country’s a void — no features, no objects, no details, nothing to show you that you’re in one place more than another. Aussi you’re not in one place, you’re everywhere, anywhere; the train goes a hundred miles an hour. The cities are all the same; little houses ten feet high or else big ones two hundred; tramways, telegraph-poles, enormous signs, holes in the pavement, oceans of mud, commis-voyageurs, young ladies looking for the husband. On the other hand no beggars and no cocottes— none at least that you see. A colossal mediocrity, except (my brother-inlaw tells me) in the machinery, which is magnificent. Naturally no architecture (they make houses of wood and of iron), no art, no literature, no theatre. I’ve opened some of the books —ils ne se laissent pas lire. No form, no matter, no style, no general ideas: they seem written for children and young ladies. The most successful (those that they praise most) are the facetious; they sell in thousands of editions. I’ve looked into some of the most vantés; but you need to be forewarned to know they’re amusing; grins through a horse-collar, burlesques of the Bible, des plaisanteries de croquemort. They’ve a novelist with pretensions to literature who writes about the chase for the husband and the adventures of the rich Americans in our corrupt old Europe, where their primeval candour puts the Europeans to shame. C’est proprement écrit, but it’s terribly pale. What isn’t pale is the newspapers — enormous, like everything else (fifty columns of advertisements), and full of the commérages of a continent. And such a tone, grand Dieu! The amenities, the personalities, the recriminations, are like so many coups de revolver. Headings six inches tall; correspondences from places one never heard of; telegrams from Europe about Sarah Bernhardt; little paragraphs about nothing at all — the menu of the neighbour’s dinner; articles on the European situation à pouffer de rire; all the tripotage of local politics. The reportage is incredible; I’m chased up and down by the interviewers. The matrimonial infelicities of M. and Madame X. (they give the name) tout au long, with every detail — not in six lines, discreetly veiled, with an art of insinuation, as with us; but with all the facts (or the fictions), the letters, the dates, the places, the hours. I open a paper at hazard and find au beau milieu, apropos of nothing, the announcement: “Miss Susan Green has the longest nose in Western New York.” Miss Susan Green (je me renseigne) is a celebrated authoress, and the Americans have the reputation of spoiling their women. They spoil them à coups de poing.

We’ve seen few interiors (no one speaks French); but if the newspapers give an idea of the domestic mœurs, the mœurs must be curious. The passport’s abolished, but they’ve printed my signalement in these sheets — perhaps for the young ladies who look for the husband. We went one night to the theatre; the piece was French (they are the only ones) but the acting American — too American; we came out in the middle. The want of taste is incredible. An Englishman whom I met tells me that even the language corrupts itself from day to day; the Englishman ceases to understand. It encourages me to find I’m not the only one. There are things every day that one can’t describe. Such is Washington, where we arrived this morning, coming from Philadelphia. My brother-inlaw wishes to see the Bureau of Patents, and on our arrival he went to look at his machines while I walked about the streets and visited the Capitol! The human machine is what interests me most. I don’t even care for the political — for that’s what they call their Government here, “the machine.” It operates very roughly, and some day evidently will explode. It is true that you’d never suspect they have a government; this is the principal seat, but, save for three or four big buildings, most of them affreux, it looks like a settlement of negroes. No movement, no officials, no authority, no embodiment of the State. Enormous streets, comme toujours, lined with little red houses where nothing ever passes but the tramway. The Capitol — a vast structure, false classic, white marble, iron and stucco, which has assez grand air— must be seen to be appreciated. The goddess of liberty on the top, dressed in a bear’s skin; their liberty over here is the liberty of bears. You go into the Capitol as you would into a railway station; you walk about as you would in the Palais Royal. No functionaries, no door-keepers, no officers, no uniforms, no badges, no reservations, no authority — nothing but a crowd of shabby people circulating in a labyrinth of spittoons. We’re too much governed perhaps in France; but at least we have a certain incarnation of the national conscience, of the national dignity. The dignity’s absent here, and I’m told the public conscience is an abyss. “L’état c’est moi” even — I like that better than the spittoons. These implements are architectural, monumental; they’re the only monuments. En somme the country’s interesting, now that we too have the Republic; it is the biggest illustration, the biggest warning. It’s the last word of democracy, and that word is — platitude. It’s very big, very rich, and perfectly ugly. A Frenchman couldn’t live here; for life with us, after all, at the worst, is a sort of appreciation. Here one has nothing to appreciate. As for the people, they’re the English minus the conventions. You can fancy what remains. The women, pourtant, are sometimes rather well turned. There was one at Philadelphia — I made her acquaintance by accident — whom it’s probable I shall see again. She’s not looking for the husband; she has already got one. It was at the hotel; I think the husband doesn’t matter. A Frenchman, as I’ve said, may mistake, and he needs to be sure he’s right. Aussi I always make sure!

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