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Henry James' Uneasy Homecoming to Washington Square

Henry James (1843-1916), author of many novels on the college reading list - Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, among them, and great stories such as "The Aspern Papers" and "The Turn of the Screw," was really ticked off at NYU when the university tore down his boyhood home. During the 1890s, while James was living in Europe, the school pulled down its older main building on the east side of Washington Square to make way for new buildings. In "New York Revisited," James describes his return to the city in 1904 after a long absence, and though he comes across many familiar sights, he's startled by the loss of his home on Washington Place. James, a writer never truly comfortable with a short sentence, sets the scene of "the ruthlessly suppressed birthhouse on the other side of the Square":

"That was where the pretence that nearly nothing has changed had most to come in; for a high, square, impersonal structure, proclaiming its lack of interest with a crudity all its own, so blocks, as the right moment for its own success, the view of the past, that the effect for me, in Washington Place, was of having been amputated of half my history. The grey and more or less "hallowed" University building – wasn't it somehow, with a desperate bravery, both castellated and gabled? – has vanished from the earth, and vanished with it the two or three adjacent houses, of which the birthplace was one."

James continues by observing that with the destruction of his house, a commemorative tablet about his life would not be placed on its wall; "the very wall that should have borne this inscription had been smashed as for demonstration that tablets, in New York, are unthinkable." (He's right about that. When I was trying to follow Charles Hemstreet's Nooks and Corners of Old New York (1899), I noticed that the vast majority of tablets he described are now gone.)

James' New York universe was constituted by the Washington Square Park area and the stretch of lower Fifth Avenue from the park to 14th Street, an area he describes as of "a mild and melancholy glamour." He was particularly fond of the side streets such as West 10th and East 11th (me, too). While he was abroad, the Washington Square Arch was erected, but with his European eyes, he didn't think much of it. He enjoyed the peace and harmony of lower Fifth Avenue in the summer, after the crowds had left town, but, as he writes, the peaceful scene "kept meeting, half the time, to its discomfiture, the lamentable little Arch of Triumph which bestrides these beginnings of Washington Square–lamentable because of its poor and lonely and unsupported and unaffiliated state."

Poor unhappy Henry. So...whenever modern-day New Yorkers vent about the loss of the old city, know that it's part of a proud (?) literary tradition.

Images: top, the NYU buildings that broke Henry James' heart; middle, townhouses on Washington Square North (the very same that grace my copy of The Portable Henry James; and below, the Washington Square Arch, once again looking "poor and lonely" while the park is being renovated. All images by Walking Off the Big Apple.

See New York 1900: Edith Wharton and The House of Mirth, A Walk and a Map for the several related posts.





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