The Magazine


American Writers in London

Dec 21, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 14 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

If simply to be an American is "a complex fate," as Henry James once declared, then the fate of an American who chooses to live most of his life in England must be something more than complex -- maybe compound complex, like an especially nasty fracture. In Improvised Europeans: American Literary Expatriates and the Siege of London, Alex Zwerdling, a professor of English at Berkeley, has written a book of uncommon interest about the fate of men like James during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Americans and Englishmen have always had a knack for getting under one another's skin. In 1820, Sydney Smith sneered, "In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue?" In 1832, Anthony Trollope's mother wrote a bestselling book denouncing Americans as a gang of shoving, shouting, swilling, tobacco-spitting yahoos. Charles Dickens came to America in 1841, hoping to see democracy in its glory, and went home profoundly disenchanted. Matthew Arnold, who visited in 1883, found Americans wanting in "awe and respect."

The American response to such English criticism often struck a plaintive note, but by the end of the nineteenth century, Americans had become more confident in their defiance. Henry Adams, who was Arnold's host in Washington, judged him "a melancholy specimen of what England produces at her best; but we ought not to be harsh towards the poor little island. It would like to improve if it knew how." Speaking in 1890 at a conference on the subject "Do Americans Hate England?," Andrew Carnegie declared it unthinkable that the richest country in the world, superior in manufacturing, mining, and commerce, should pay England the tribute of envy.

The English, who were accustomed to dishing it out, proved ungracious about having to take it. Henry James remarked that they did not much care for being mocked from the American viewpoint; it was, after all, Americans who existed for English amusement. And when William Dean Howells extolled James in 1882 as the principal novelist writing in English, the British uproar was deafening. That America should surpass England in wealth and power was bad enough; that Americans thought they wrote better books was unendurable.

In time, the English learned to admire the Americans. The Spanish-American War in 1898 made them proud of the former colony that was about to become an imperial power and do its part in spreading Anglo-Saxon civilization around the world. There was big talk about "the great ideal of Race Union," as one enthusiast put it.

But such talk was already out of date by the time it appeared. America was becoming more heterogeneous by the moment. In 1882, three-quarters of America's immigrants came from northern countries and only about one-eighth from southern and eastern Europe; in 1900, the numbers were nearly reversed. The sociologist Edward Ross warned that "the Caliban type" was defiling the American future. Theodore Roosevelt insisted that every married couple of "native American descent" owed it to their country to produce at least four children.

Stringent immigration legislation in the early 1920s cut the yearly intake of southern and eastern Europeans from 600,000 to 20,000. But by then, certain delicate spirits had already found their native shores uninhabitable. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said in 1887, "The time may come when a New Englander will feel more as if he were among his own people in London than in one of our seaboard cities." Henry Adams and Henry James had already beaten Holmes to the mark; Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot would follow. It is on these writers that Zwerdling concentrates his impressive new study in comparative national temperament, the history of taste, and literary ambition.

Henry Adams (1838-1918), grandson and great-grandson of American presidents, served in London during the Civil War as private secretary to his father (whom Lincoln had appointed to represent the United States). English sympathy for the Confederacy infuriated the younger Adams, and he gloated over Union triumphs. And yet, despite his early resistance, London eventually won him over. In The Education of Henry Adams (1918), he remembered himself as "a young man who felt at home in England -- more at home there than anywhere else." His father admonished him that Europe "unfitted Americans for America," and young Henry admitted as much after his first London year: "Three more years of this, and I shall never pass my life in America, nor permanently anywhere else."