The Point of View, by Henry James


From Marcellus Cockerel in Washington to Mrs. Cooler, née Cockerel, at Oakland, California

October 1880.

I ought to have written you long before this, for I’ve had your last excellent letter these four months in my hands. The first half of that time I was still in Europe, the last I’ve spent on my native soil. I think accordingly my silence is owing to the fact that over there I was too miserable to write and that here I’ve been too happy. I got back the 1st of September — you’ll have seen it in the papers. Delightful country where one sees everything in the papers — the big familiar vulgar good-natured delightful papers, none of which has any reputation to keep up for anything but getting the news! I really think that has had as much to do as anything else with my satisfaction at getting home — the difference in what they call the “tone of the press.” In Europe it’s too dreary — the sapience, the solemnity, the false respectability, the verbosity, the long disquisitions on superannuated subjects. Here the newspapers are like the railroad-trains which carry everything that comes to the station and have only the religion of punctuality. As a woman, however, you probably detest them; you think they’re (the great word) vulgar. I admitted it just now, and I’m very happy to have an early opportunity to announce to you that that idea has quite ceased to have any terrors for me. There are some conceptions to which the female mind can never rise. Vulgarity’s a stupid superficial question-begging accusation, which has become today the easiest refuge of mediocrity. Better than anything else it saves people the trouble of thinking, and anything which does that succeeds. You must know that in these last three years in Europe I’ve become terribly vulgar myself; that’s one service my travels have rendered me. By three years in Europe I mean three years in foreign parts altogether, for I spent several months of that time in Japan, India and the rest of the East. Do you remember when you bade me good-bye in San Francisco the night before I embarked for Yokohama? You foretold that I’d take such a fancy to foreign life that America would never see me more, and that if you should wish to see me (an event you were good enough to regard as possible) you’d have to make a rendezvous in Paris or in Rome. I think we made one — which you never kept; but I shall never make another for those cities. It was in Paris, however, that I got your letter; I remember the moment as well as if it were (to my honour) much more recent. You must know that among many places I dislike Paris carries the palm. I’m bored to death there; it’s the home of every humbug. The life is full of that false comfort which is worse than discomfort, and the small fat irritable people give me the shivers.

I had been making these reflexions even more devoutly than usual one very tiresome evening toward the beginning of last summer when, as I reentered my hotel at ten o’clock, the little reptile of a portress handed me your gracious lines. I was in a villainous humour. I had been having an overdressed dinner in a stuffy restaurant and had gone from there to a suffocating theatre, where, by way of amusement, I saw a play in which blood and lies were the least of the horrors. The theatres over there are insupportable; the atmosphere’s pestilential. People sit with their elbows in your sides; they squeeze past you every half hour. It was one of my bad moments — I have a great many in Europe. The conventional mechanical play, all in falsetto, which I seemed to have seen a thousand times; the horrible faces of the people, the pushing bullying ouvreuse with her false politeness and her real rapacity, drove me out of the place at the end of an hour; and as it was too early to go home, I sat down before a café on the Boulevard, where they served me a glass of sour watery beer. There on the Boulevard, in the summer night, life itself was even uglier than the play, and it wouldn’t do for me to tell you what I saw. Besides, I was sick of the Boulevard, with its eternal grimace and the deadly sameness of the article de Paris, which pretends to be so various — the shop-windows a wilderness of rubbish and the passers-by a procession of manikins. Suddenly it came over me that I was supposed to be amusing myself — my face was a yard long — and that you probably at that moment were saying to your husband: “He stays away so long! What a good time he must be having!” The idea was the first thing that had made me smile for a month; I got up and walked home, reflecting as I went that I was “seeing Europe” and that after all one must see Europe. It was because I had been convinced of this that I had come out, and it’s because the operation has been brought to a close that I’ve been so happy for the last eight weeks. I was very conscientious about it, and, though your letter that night made me abominably homesick, I held out to the end, knowing it to be once for all. I shan’t trouble Europe again; I shall see America for the rest of my days. My long delay has had the advantage that now at least I can give you my impressions — I don’t mean of Europe; impressions of Europe are easy to get — but of this country as it strikes the reinstated exile. Very likely you’ll think them queer; but keep my letter and twenty years hence they’ll be quite commonplace. They won’t even be vulgar. It was very deliberate, my going round the world. I knew that one ought to see for one’s self and that I should have eternity, so to speak, to rest. I travelled energetically; I went everywhere and saw everything; took as many letters as possible and made as many acquaintances. In short I held my nose to the grindstone and here I am back.

Well, the upshot of it all is that I’ve got rid of a superstition. We have so many that one the less — perhaps the biggest of all — makes a real difference in one’s comfort. The one in question — of course you have it — is that there’s no salvation but through Europe. Our salvation is here, if we have eyes to see it, and the salvation of Europe into the bargain; that is if Europe’s to be saved, which I rather doubt. Of course you’ll call me a bird of freedom, a vulgar patriot, a waver of the stars and stripes; but I’m in the delightful position of not minding in the least what any one calls me. I haven’t a mission; I don’t want to preach; I’ve simply arrived at a state of mind. I’ve got Europe off my back. You’ve no idea how it simplifies things and how jolly it makes me feel. Now I can live, now I can talk. If we wretched Americans could only say once for all “Oh Europe be hanged!” we should attend much better to our proper business. We’ve simply to mind that business and the rest will look after itself. You’ll probably inquire what it is I like better over here, and I’ll answer that it’s simply — life. Disagreeables for disagreeables I prefer our own. The way I’ve been bored and bullied in foreign parts, and the way I’ve had to say I found it pleasant! For a good while this appeared to be a sort of congenital obligation, but one fine day it occurred to me that there was no obligation at all and that it would ease me immensely to admit to myself that (for me at least) all those things had no importance. I mean the things they rub into you over there; the tiresome international topics, the petty politics, the stupid social customs, the baby-house scenery. The vastness and freshness of this American world, the great scale and great pace of our development, the good sense and good nature of the people, console me for there being no cathedrals and no Titians. I hear nothing about Prince Bismarck and Gambetta, about the Emperor William and the Czar of Russia, about Lord Beaconsfield and the Prince of Wales. I used to get so tired of their Mumbo–Jumbo of a Bismarck, of his secrets and surprises, his mysterious intentions and oracular words. They revile us for our party politics; but what are all the European jealousies and rivalries, their armaments and their wars, their rapacities and their mutual lies, but the intensity of the spirit of party? What question, what interest, what idea, what need of mankind, is involved in any of these things? Their big pompous armies drawn up in great silly rows, their gold lace, their salaams, their hierarchies, seem a pastime for children: there’s a sense of humour and of reality over here that laughs at all that.

Yes, we’re nearer the reality, nearer what they’ll all have to come to. The questions of the future are social questions, which the Bismarcks and Beaconsfields are very much afraid to see settled; and the sight of a row of supercilious potentates holding their peoples like their personal property and bristling all over, to make a mutual impression, with feathers and sabres, strikes us as a mixture of the grotesque and the abominable. What do we care for the mutual impressions of potentates who amuse themselves with sitting on people? Those things are their own affair, and they ought to be shut up in a dark room to have it out together. Once one feels, over here, that the great questions of the future are social questions, that a mighty tide is sweeping the world to democracy, and that this country is the biggest stage on which the drama can be enacted, the fashionable European topics seem petty and parochial. They talk about things that we’ve settled ages ago, and the solemnity with which they propound to you their little domestic embarrassments makes a heavy draft on one’s good nature. In England they were talking about the Hares and Rabbits Bill, about the extension of the County Franchise, about the Dissenters’ Burials, about the Deceased Wife’s Sister, about the abolition of the House of Lords, about heaven knows what ridiculous little measure for the propping-up of their ridiculous little country. And they call us provincial! It’s hard to sit and look respectable while people discuss the utility of the House of Lords and the beauty of a State Church, and it’s only in a dowdy musty civilisation that you’ll find them doing such things. The lightness and clearness of the social air —that’s the great relief in these parts. The gentility of bishops, the propriety of parsons, even the impressiveness of a restored cathedral, give less of a charm to life than that. I used to be furious with the bishops and beadles, with the humbuggery of the whole affair, which every one was conscious of but which people agreed not to expose because they’d be compromised all round. The convenience of life in our conditions, the quick and simple arrangements, the absence of the spirit of routine, are a blessed change from the stupid stiffness with which I struggled for two long years. There were people with swords and cockades who used to order me about; for the simplest operation of life I had to kootoo to some bloated official. When it was a question of my doing a little differently from others the bloated official gasped as if I had given him a blow on the stomach; he needed to take a week to think of it.

On the other hand it’s impossible to take an American by surprise; he’s ashamed to confess he hasn’t the wit to do a thing another man has had the wit to think of. Besides being as good as his neighbour he must therefore be as clever — which is an affliction only to people who are afraid he may be cleverer. If this general efficiency and spontaneity of the people — the union of the sense of freedom with the love of knowledge — isn’t the very essence of a high civilisation I don’t know what a high civilisation is. I felt this greater ease on my first railroad journey — felt the blessing of sitting in a train where I could move about, where I could stretch my legs and come and go, where I had a seat and a window to myself, where there were chairs and tables and food and drink. The villainous little boxes on the European trains, in which you’re stuck down in a corner with doubled-up knees, opposite to a row of people, often most offensive types, who stare at you for ten hours on end — these were part of my two years’ ordeal. The large free way of doing things here is everywhere a pleasure. In London, at my hotel, they used to come to me on Saturday to make me order my Sunday’s dinner, and when I asked for a sheet of paper they put it into the bill. The meagreness, the stinginess, the perpetual expectation of a sixpence, used to exasperate me. Of course I saw a great many people who were pleasant; but as I’m writing to you and not to one of them I may say that they were dreadfully apt to be dull. The imagination among the people I see here is more flexible, and then they have the advantage of a larger horizon. It’s not bounded on the north by the British aristocracy and on the south by the scrutin de liste. (I mix up the countries a little, but they’re not worth the keeping apart.) The absence of little conventional measurements, of little cut-and-dried judgements, is an immense refreshment. We’re more analytic, more discriminating, more familiar with realities. As for manners, there are bad manners everywhere, but an aristocracy is bad manners organised. (I don’t mean that they mayn’t be polite among themselves, but they’re rude to every one else.) The sight of all these growing millions simply minding their business is impressive to me — more so than all the gilt buttons and padded chests of the Old World; and there’s a certain powerful type of “practical” American (you’ll find him chiefly in the West) who doesn’t “blow” as I do (I’m not practical) but who quietly feels that he has the Future in his vitals — a type that strikes me more than any I met in your favourite countries.

Of course you’ll come back to the cathedrals and Titians, but there’s a thought that helps one to do without them — the thought that, though we’ve an immense deal of pie-eating plainness, we’ve little misery, little squalor, little degradation. There’s no regular wife-beating class, and there are none of the stultified peasants of whom it takes so many to make a European noble. The people here are more conscious of things; they invent, they act, they answer for themselves; they’re not (I speak of social matters) tied up by authority and precedent. We shall have all the Titians by and by, and we shall move over a few cathedrals. You had better stay here if you want to have the best. Of course I’m a roaring Yankee; but you’ll call me that if I say the least, so I may as well take my ease and say the most. Washington’s a most entertaining place; and here at least, at the seat of government, one isn’t overgoverned. In fact there’s no government at all to speak of; it seems too good to be true. The first day I was here I went to the Capitol, and it took me ever so long to figure to myself that I had as good a right there as any one else — that the whole magnificent pile (it is magnificent, by the way) was in fact my own. In Europe one doesn’t rise to such conceptions, and my spirit had been broken in Europe. The doors were gaping wide — I walked all about; there were no door-keepers, no officers nor flunkeys, there wasn’t even a policeman to be seen. It seemed strange not to see a uniform, if only as a patch of colour. But this isn’t government by livery. The absence of these things is odd at first; you seem to miss something, to fancy the machine has stopped. It hasn’t, though; it only works without fire and smoke. At the end of three days this simple negative impression, the fact that there are no soldiers nor spies, nothing but plain black coats, begins to affect the imagination, becomes vivid, majestic, symbolic. It ends by being more impressive than the biggest review I saw in Germany. Of course I’m a roaring Yankee; but one has to take a big brush to copy a big model. The future’s here of course, but it isn’t only that — the present’s here as well. You’ll complain that I don’t give you any personal news, but I’m more modest for myself than for my country. I spent a month in New York and while there saw a good deal of a rather interesting girl who came over with me in the steamer and whom for a day or two I thought I should like to marry. But I shouldn’t. She has been spoiled by Europe — and yet the prime stuff struck me as so right.

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