This essay following Henry James through Italy is included in my most recent book The Modern Salonnière. The 34 other essays in the book feature similar literary adventures and essays about traveling with intention.
The Sensuous Education of Henry James
Henry James’ father took his family to Europe when the children were young because he wanted to give them a “better sensuous education” than they would have received in America. The plan of expatriating them and turning them into aesthetes worked remarkably well with James, who made the decision to become an expat at the age of 32 and who devoted his life to pushing into new territory with fiction and playwriting. Robert M. Crunden shares these influences on James’ sensibilities in his book American Salons: Encounters with European Modernism 1885-1917. To illustrate how one facet of his personality foretold the aptitude he would have as a playwright and novelist, Crunden writes that from a young age, life presented itself to James in a series of scenes to which he was an observer and not a participant.
I would add this would make him adept at travel journalism, as well, a genre for which he is lesser known despite being highly prolific in it. James was drawn into the game when serialized travel writing was a new facet of the journalism field. His assignments as a correspondent for The Nation began when the first issue of the magazine was released in 1865. These articles, which he was publishing long before he became known for his most important novels The Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl, are included in two volumes of essays titled Collected Travel Writings. Divided into The Continent and Great Britain and America, the books take the reader on an astounding number of junkets, some loaded with practical information, others poetically presented in pastiche with nearby towns.
Venice is one of the former. He opens the chapter titled “Italian Hours” in The Continent by saying it is a great pleasure to merely write the word Venice but follows this by asking what more could anyone possibly add to what has already been said? “Venice has been painted and described many thousands of times, and of all the cities of the world is the easiest to visit without going there.” This can be done, he says, by simply opening any number of books or walking into any number of art galleries. Then James contradicted himself by devoting 79 pages to the city and its distinctions, proving there is something more to be said on the subject after all.
After he shares the simple pleasures of a typical Venetian day that includes seeing the shimmering lagoon from his hotel room on the Riva degli Schiavoini and drinking coffee at Caffè Florian in St. Mark’s Square, he bemoans the glut of humanity that is most often afoot: “The sentimental tourist’s sole quarrel with his Venice is that he has too many competitors there. He likes to be alone; to be original; to have (to himself, at least) the air of making discoveries.” James also mentions the impracticality of daily life that feels so completely foreign at first. The same thought occurred to me when I was sitting in a Venetian café beside one of the smaller canals one afternoon as a man in a john-boat heaved his heavy desktop computer tower up onto the waterfront sidewalk to take it to the repair shop. All of the tasks we accomplish so easily with an automobile are made hundreds of times more difficult when the route is made of water, and even worse when the tide is low, as it was that day.
In one of my favorite anecdotes in his narrative, James parts ways with the powerful swath of the Grand Canal and the majesty of St. Mark’s to draw attention to a simple scene that takes place on a narrow canal in the heart of the city where a patch of green water meets the surface of a pink wall. “The gondola moves slowly; it gives a great smooth swerve, passes under a bridge, and the gondolier’s cry, carried over the quiet water, makes a kind of splash in the stillness. A girl crosses the bridge, which makes an arch like a camel’s back, with an old shawl on her head, which makes her characteristic and charming; you see her against the sky as you float beneath. The pink of the old wall seems to fill the whole place; it sinks even into the opaque water.” Reading this, I thought it was as if he was already writing the scene in The Wings of the Dove when Kate, Milly and Merton are floating along in a gondola during one of the book’s pivotal moments.
Moving from the canal-veined city to the heart of the peninsula, James takes a marvelous excursion around Italy—train-hopping to a string of cities between Rome and Florence. Stopping in Narni, Spoleto, Assisi, Perugia, Cortona and Arezzo, he offers expressive snapshots of each of these towns, which illustrate his descriptive powers. During a stroll to see the Ponte d’Augusto near Narni, he catches sight of “the gratuitous grace of a white-cowled monk,” watching as the friar trudges up the road to the gate of the town: “Narni stood, in its own presented felicity, on a hill a good space away, boxed in behind its perfect gray wall, and the monk, to oblige me, crept slowly along and disappeared within the aperture. Everything was distinct in the clear air.”
In Assisi, it is the Basilica of Saint Francis he is most anxious to see. The evening before his tour, he describes the scene out his hotel window: “This view embraces the whole wide reach of Umbria, which becomes as twilight deepens a purple counterfeit of the misty sea.” He calls the masons who laid the cathedral’s foundation-stones brave builders and paid homage to the architects. “One may imagine them to have intended perhaps an architectural image of the relation between heart and head,” he writes. “Entering the lower church at the bottom of the great flight of steps which leads from the upper door, you seem to push at least into the very heart of Catholicism.”
In Perugia, it is the elevation of the Etruscan town that he deems so exciting. He shares how the “small dusky, crooked place” tries to keep a visitor from the view with the contortions of its streets. As is the case with any town whose center dates back to an ancient civilization, the walls that were meant to protect it act as deterrents, requiring an excess of peeping around corners “in the hopes of a glimpse” of the panoramas. His final stop in this chain of cities is Arezzo where he describes a softly saturated scene that holds a thriving market at its center: “Beautiful hills surrounded it, cypresses cast straight shadows at its corners, while in the middle grew a wondrous Italian tangle of wheat and corn, vines and figs, peaches and cabbages, memories and images.”
As I wandered along with him through these picturesque settings, I saw how the “sensuous education” his father wanted him to have made his writing so lush. His story offers proof that having permission to live life steeped in artful pursuits serves as a better foundation for a creative writing career than one involved in the busy-ness of business. When I come across the stories of others who were supported in their creative pursuits their entire lives, I find myself feeling grief—the years that lay ahead have grown shorter than the number of those that have passed, which means fewer decades for my own writing. His situation brings up another envy in me: the opportunity to live abroad. Every time I go to Europe, I return to realize how young America is as a country and how new our culture is, which leaves me craving the backdrops where grand sweeps of history have taken place.
But life wasn’t all butterflies and roses for James, as Crunden points out. The novelist wasn’t as successful at fiction as he had hoped to be during his lifetime, which was an ongoing source of pain for him. It took future generations seeing his work as valuable for the author to be considered influential. Crunden credits the revived interest in James’ work to his willingness to experiment; his tenacious dedication to a literary vocation, which made him a role model; and his determination to expatriate himself, as it “showed them how a person could be an American and yet not permanently suffer aesthetic damage.” If this last point feels a bit harsh, proof exists: simply compare how it feels to tread anywhere in America to walking across the Pont Neuf in Paris, through the medieval gates ringing Bologna, into the Tower of London, or through the cathedral in Milan.
Traveling Italy with Henry James © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, and Four Florida Moderns.by