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Henry James's Europe

Dennis Tredy
Annick Duperray
Adrian Harding

II. French and Italian Hours

5. ‘The Crash of Civilisation’: James and the Idea of France, 1914-15

Hazel Hutchison

Texte intégral

1In the opening days of the First World War in August 1914, one word echoes through the many letters which Henry James wrote to his friends in an attempt to order his feelings about events: civilisation. To Howard Sturgis he expressed his horror at ”the plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness,” and to Edith Wharton he wrote that he felt ”unbearably overdarkened by this crash of our civilization” (Lubbock 28). To Rhoda Broughton he wrote on 10th August:

Black and hideous to me is the tragedy that gathers, and I’m sick beyond cure to have lived on to see it. You and I, the ornaments of our generation, should have been spared this wreck of our belief that through the long years we had seen civilization grow and the worst become impossible. The tide that bore us along was then all the while moving to this grand Niagara— yet what a blessing we didn’t know it. It seems to me to undo everything, everything that was ours, in the most horrible retroactive way (403).

2Six days into the war, James was shrewdly articulating the disillusionment, the rupture with the past, and the sense of futility that many cultural commentators would only recognise much later, and which would come to be the hallmarks of First World War literature.

3However, James’s reaction to the war was far from static. As weeks became months, James, like most other people, ran the gamut of emotions about the war, swinging from horror to enthusiasm and back again. James found it almost impossible to write fiction about the contemporary world during the war, although he did attempt some further work on his autobiography and the MS of The Sense of the Past, which had lain untouched since 1900 and which would be still unfinished at his death (Lubbock 442). He involved himself in relief work, visiting soldiers and serving as the honorary president of the American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps, for which he raised funds. But James was clearly troubled by this rupture with his writing routine and, as his letters and wartime essays show, felt the need to make sense of the conflict, not just as a political event, but also as a cultural one. I had anticipated that this paper would show that James saw France as the exemplar of European civilisation, however, on examination, James’s opinions about civilisation and about France are not as clear-cut as one might imagine. What this paper does do is to explore James’s war-time essay ”France,” and to ask exactly what it was that France represented to James in 1914-15. It also asks what James meant by ”civilization” and how he thought it could be best saved from the abyss—if indeed it was worth saving.


4James’s essay ”France” was written in the spring of 1915 as part of a fundraising venture in aid of ”The French Parliamentary Committee’s Fund for the Relief of the Invaded Departments.” The Book of France was edited by Winifred Stephens and, like Edith Wharton’s later venture The Book of the Homeless (1916), it included a starry array of contributors from the worlds of art, literature and politics. The venture was headed by an honorary committee, which boasted five government ministers, including Winston Churchill (and his mother), various knights and ladies of the realm, and many of James’s circle of friends and contacts, including Sidney Colvin, Edmund Gosse, Lucy Clifford, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Mary Ward, and H. G. Wells, as well as James himself. The book was a bi-lingual project. Stephens collated contributions from French writers and thinkers such as Maurice Barrès, André Gide, Anatole France and Pierre Loti, and then asked prominent British figures, mostly members of the committee, to provide translations. The only original pieces in English were a poem by Rudyard Kipling entitled ”France” and James’s short essay of the same title. James’s piece was first delivered as ”Remarks at the Meeting of the Committee held on June 9, 1915” and was published as the prologue to the collection (Stephens 1). James’s prominent and privileged role in the project suggests that in the months since the previous August, he had quickly established his position as one entitled to speak on behalf of the British cultural community on the subject of the war—which is in itself remarkable, given James’s usual avoidance of public and political affairs. The book was published, on a non-profit basis, by Macmillan in London and Edouard Champion in Paris in July 1915, which was a busy month for James. During July, he also adopted British nationality, wrote his long memorial essay on Rupert Brooke, and still found time to fall out with H. G. Wells. The essay was later collected with his other war essays by Percy Lubbock and published posthumously in Within the Rim and Other Essays (1917).

5”France” is a complex essay, which draws much of its character from its context. James’s writing about the war is often caricatured as jingoistic and nostalgic. Adeline Tintner dismissed all of James’s war essays as ”propaganda” (Tintner ”First World War” 170). However, compared with the other pieces of writing in The Book of France, James’s short essay is remarkably measured and restrained. He does not, like many contributors, denounce the ignorance or barbarity of the German nation, or pretend that the present conflict will be the war to end all wars. The essay seems on one level simply to voice James’s appreciation of French intellectual and artistic style, which he sums up as ”the life of the mind and the life of the senses taken together, in the most irrepressible freedom of either” (5). This is not exactly the sort of thing over which nations usually go to war. And yet, this vague but passionate celebration of the intellectual glories of France pervades other contributions too. Rudyard Kipling, ever ready with a catchy jingle, expresses it thus:

First to follow Truth and last to leave old truths behind—
France beloved of every soul that loves its fellow kind!
(”France” 336)

6However, it may be worthy of note that Kipling’s poem mostly talks about how France and England have spent the last thousand years at war with each other. Nevertheless, the voguish idealisation of France as the cradle of civilisation and right feeling also appears in other wartime contexts—not simply in the pages of Stephens’s collection. For example, Edith Wharton’s novel A Son at the Front (1923), about a group of exiled Americans in Paris during the war, voices a similar idea:

An Idea: that was what France, ever since she had existed, had always been in the story of civilization; a luminous point about which striving visions and purposes could rally. […] to thinkers, artists, to all creators, she had always been a second country. If France went, western civilization went with her; and then all they had believed in and been guided by would perish
(Wharton 193).

7In 1917, as the young poet E.E. Cummings embarked on an Atlantic crossing from New York to serve as a volunteer ambulance driver, his father sent this telegram:

As I said in advance
I envy your chance
of breaking a lance
for Freedom in France
by driving and mending
an ambulance
(Sawyer-Lauçanno 106)

8Clearly James was right that the idea of France held a cultural currency that extended far beyond its geopolitical borders. As James expresses it in ”France”: ”What happens to France happens to all that part of ourselves which we are most proud, and most finely advised, to enlarge and cultivate and consecrate” (5).

The Other France

9What is striking in all of these examples, and I could have given many more from other writers, is the complete lack of specificity about what it is that France represents. The nation does not just stand, as Wharton suggests, for an idea, but for any idea that can be projected upon it. Indeed James seems to acknowledge this in his opening sentence:

I think that if there is a general ground in the world on which an appeal might be made, in a civilized circle, with a sense of its being uttered only to meet at once and beyond the need of insistence a certain supreme recognition and response, the idea of what France and the French mean to the educated spirit of man would be the nameable thing
(Wharton 1).

10Throughout the rest of the essay however, France seems rather to be the unnameable thing. There is no mention of any of the tokens by which one might gain access to French life or culture—not a place name, not a region, not a writer, not an artist, a politician, a historical figure, a fictional character, a cathedral, a museum, nor an item of food or clothing. The only thing you might gather about the nation if you didn’t know much about it already is that it is ”our great neighbour” (”France” 5). And given James’s ambivalent national status in the summer of 1915, this use of first person plural could quite logically locate France somewhere in northern Mexico. If you don’t know what you mean by ”France” before you start, this essay will do nothing to explain, and I suspect this is the point. Like the title of the essay, France here is a word merely, a sign which invites multiple forms of signification, thus forcing readers to supply their own details. Of course, this is one of the key tactics of propagandist writing, to abstract and generalise, thus inviting a quick judgement rather than a thorough investigation. However, the call to certainty is undercut (as ever) by James’s syntax in this sentence. A personalised and conditional opening clause: ”I think that if,” and the deviations and diversions of the sentence structure remind us that the wartime James remains as hesitant and introspective as usual.

11The one thing that James does appear to say about France is that it is somewhere else. Indeed this seems to be its primary appeal—not in a crass escapist way, but in its constant challenge to and extension of familiar values. It is ”a native genius so different from our own” which prompts ”our growth of criticism and curiosity” (”France” 3). It is another family, which has ”a way […] of interesting us more than our own” (4). Unlike Wharton, who repeatedly insisted on her immersion in and identification with French culture and society, James appears to value France as the embodiment of some kind of otherness or alternative identity. This is particularly interesting given the place that France, especially Paris, plays in James’s own psychological alterity. In A Small Boy and Others he recounts the nightmare scene of being pursued by some hideous form through the Gallerie d’Apollon in the Louvre, and then turning to pursue the phantom figure in turn, thus assuming the predatory role of the other form. There is also the poignancy of James’s deathbed dictations in which he speaks as Napoleon, suggesting that his debilitating stroke provided access to some fractured element of James’s personality that saw itself as quintessentially French. This seems initially odd, but is not entirely nonsensical. France fascinated James by the tension which it appeared to perpetuate between form and freedom in all areas of public, private, and artistic life. This tension also lies at the core of James’s ideas about his own art, and characterises much of what we know about his own personality. So it is perhaps not surprising that his splintered self should, as it were, seek resolution there. However, the tension between cultural form and material excess also informs James’s ideas about civilisation in ways that are complex and unsettling.


12This tension was not just appealing to James. As Jean Méral points out in his study Paris in American Literature, the idealisation of France as an alternative location of identity was seductive to many nineteenth-century American writers, for whom Paris operated not simply as a site of projection, where forbidden desires and aspirations could be explored, but also as a cipher which represented the entirety of European experience and tradition (Méral 44). By extension, it comes to represent, as Wharton notes, the very history of civilisation, without (from an American perspective) the political and religious complications of London and Rome.

13James is often assumed to buy wholesale into this picture of Paris and of French culture in general. Many faulty readings of The Ambassadors, for example, are due to the assumption that James venerates French culture as the height of civilisation, and that by civilisation, James means something in the line of Matthew Arnold’s faith in European high culture as a redemptive social force. However, as both Tim Lustig and Pierre Walker point out, James’s terminology is not interchangeable with Arnold’s. Lustig notes that for Arnold, civilisation and culture are two separate things: civilisation refers to the infrastructure of a society, its buildings, machinery and systems, while culture refers to the intellectual and artistic activity of a society. Thus, for Arnold, as Lustig notes, America could be civilised but was not yet ”cultured” (Lustig ”James, Arnold” 175). In Civilization in the United States (1888), Arnold argues that America has material comfort and urban organisation, but is not ”interesting.” There is a lack of ”the elevated and the beautiful” (Arnold 357-58). It has no history, no castles, no Elizabethan houses. James appears to offer a similar viewpoint in his earlier study of Hawthorne (1879) where he notes the lack of ”high civilization” in American life in the 1840’s:

No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, etc…
(Hawthorne [London 1967] 55).

14This list is, of course, notorious and there is much more of it. However, what is generally overlooked is that James’s point here is that Hawthorne did not need these things to write. Life was interesting enough to him without them. When we recall this, James’s use of the term ”high civilization” takes on a mocking and sarcastic tone, undercutting the supposed superiority of European tradition in order to celebrate Hawthorne’s American ingenuity in doing without such things. Indeed, James’s account of ”civilization” is often less than respectful—especially where France is concerned. His early essays on Paris written for the New York Tribune in 1875-76 and collected as Parisian Sketches take a light view of French civilisation—perhaps as part of James’s desire to reach his American newspaper audience. Certainly, the word appears rather less than you might expect for one supposedly in awe of European sophistication, and is rarely used seriously. When it does appear, it is more often used in connection with the fripperies and frivolities of Parisian life, such as extravagant clothes, light opera and candy boxes:

The bonbonnière, in its elaborate and impertinent uselessness, is certainly the consummate flower of material luxury; it seems to bloom, with its petals of satin and its pistals of gold, upon the very apex of the tree of civilization
(Parisian Sketches 41).

15James’s anxiety about the proximity of material luxury and civilisation lingers on throughout his writing career. It is especially prominent in his late novels where we see James eliding the Arnoldian distinction between material wealth and aesthetic culture. Increasingly, James appears to accept that culture costs money, but also that one can buy culture without acquiring either good taste or good behaviour or even, like Adam Verver, without being very ”interesting.” James’s distrust of civilisation is still evident as late as 1907 in The American Scene, where he uses the word both with and without heavy sarcasm. There is the ”breathless civilization” reflected in the ever changing brick and marble of the New York cityscape which foretells the ”defeat of history,” there is the multifaceted ”idea of civilization” that takes form in the historical ”richness” of Richmond Public Library, and there is finally, and damningly, the Pullman car’s ”pretended message of civilization” which piles up its arrears against the poor, the dispossessed and the racially excluded (The American Scene [1987] 81; 279; 334).


16James’s track record with ”civilization,” therefore, makes it tricky to draw any firm conclusions about his uses of the word in his war essays and letters. Did he really condone a war to defend an idea that over the years he had associated with French chocolate boxes, Native American clearances, English public schools and opera bouffe? It is hard to believe either that James instantly abandoned his scepticism about civilisation on the brink of the war, or that he continued to use the term with its usual double-edged asperity. Tim Lustig argues that James’s really important statement about the war is his declaration ”for I believe in Culture” at the end of ”The Long Wards” (”James, Arnold” 125). Lustig’s reading of this statement suggests that for James it was not the material trappings of civilisation that mattered so much as the intellectual and artistic values of society. But is it something material or something aesthetic that James mourns after the bombing of the Rheims Cathedral in September 1914?—an outrage which he characterises as ”the most hideous crime ever perpetrated against the mind of man” (Lubbock 421). Civilisation, like France itself, appears to have been for James contradictory, sometimes sublime, sometimes false and shabby, something which blurred the boundary between the material and the abstract, a concept onto which many associations can be projected and yet one which offered an ideal of form which James could not quite do without.

17I for one don’t mind James’s lack of finality in his war essays. It suggests to me that his remarkable mind was still open to contradiction and reorganisation and was therefore still flexible and responsive to experience. The war clearly tested James’s values, as it tested those of so many others, and we should remember that none of his responses to the conflict, whether in letter or essay form, were ever intended to be his final words on the subject. So, it is perhaps not so surprising that his essay on ”France” is rather speculative and impressionistic in tone. James himself was feeling his way forward cautiously, revising his own vocabulary, hoping that something could be saved from the past, but vividly aware that civilisation required remaking in the light of new events. And the more optimistic of his war letters (to a range of contacts including Wharton, Scribner’s and Hugh Walpole) point to his desire to do just that through his writing. As he wrote to Alfred Sutro’s wife early in the war:

I hold that we can still, he and I, make a little civilization, the inkpot aiding, even when vast chunks of it, around us, go down into the abyss—and that the preservation of it depends upon our going on making it in spite of everything and sitting tight and not chucking up
(Lubbock 402).

18Civilisation, in his war writings, seems to signify for James not so much a place or a fixed set of cultural values as a process of creation, the ability to make something out of experience. And this is in the end what he celebrates about France—her ability to ”gather the rarest and sweetest fruits of our so tremendously and so mercilessly turned up garden of life” (”France” 6). When he says that she remains ”our incalculable, immortal France,” he is not looking back but ahead to the many ways in which she will reinvent herself in the future (8).


Hazel Hutchison lectures in British and American literature at the University of Aberdeen. Her research focuses on the literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her publications include Seeing and Believing: Henry James and the Spiritual World (2006) and articles on James, D. G. Rosetti, and Rupert Brooke. She has edited The Forbidden Zone by Mary Borden (2008), and is currently writing a monograph on American writing of the First World War.


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