Teenage William James Defends the U.S.A.

July 2nd, 2008 Posted in Meet the Jameses

“William looked at the high corniced houses and great parks of the world’s largest city with a more jaundiced eye–the eye of a sardonic, assertive adolescent and a partisan of New York.  London, he calculated in a letter to a friend back in Manhattan, was six times the size of New York.  (In 1855, the English metropolis was actually nearer to three times the size of the Jameses’ hometown.)  But bigger didn’t necessarily mean better, and the city struck the proudly biased  William as ‘much to big to be agreeable.’  He could only regard London as ‘a great huge unwieldy metropolis with a little through it’–hardly a ringing endorsement.

“Paradoxically, William’s love of irony could partly be traced back to Dickens–himself a product of this restless London scene.  But now the boy’s sarcasm also sprang from his own displacement, from his and his siblings’ unfolding experience of what Harry would later call ‘hotel children’–children of transience and transit.  Their father had his own business; he went to Chelsea to refresh his acquaintance with the irascible [Thomas] Carlyle (whom he cleverly pronounced to be ‘the same old sausage, fizzing and sputtering in his own grease’).  But the children–between glorious cab rides–embarked now on their new career of exploring ‘the great bleak parlours of the hotels.'”

(c) Paul Fisher 2008 – All Rights Reserved

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