From the Desk of Henry James: February 24, 1881

Since 2006, the University of Nebraska Press has worked to publish The Complete Letters of Henry James, an acclaimed series that fills a crucial gap in modern literary studies by presenting in a scholarly edition the complete letters of one of the great novelists and letter writers of the English language. Comprising more than ten thousand letters reflecting on a remarkably wide range of topics—from James’s own life and literary projects to broader questions on art, literature, and criticism—these editions are an indispensable resource for students of James and of American and English literature, culture, and criticism.

Were Mr. James around today, we think he would be delighted to contribute to the UNP blog. Today we’re sharing one of his many letters, written on February 24, 1881.

From the Desk of Henry James

The following is an excerpt from The Complete Letters of Henry James (1880-1883) Vol. 1 by Henry James, edited by Michael Anesko and Greg W. Zacharias (October 2016).

Henry James Sr.
24 February 1881
ALS Houghton
bMS Am 1094 (1912)

Hotel de Noailles.

Marseilles St. Feb. 24th

Dearest father.

I must write, decidedly, without waiting longer. I have been for some days without letters, & must be so for some days longer, till I stop long enough to have them forwarded; but meanwhile I have a conviction that something is waiting for me in Bolton St—something, I mean, from my natal house.

I hardly remember when I last wrote home: a few days, I think, before I left London, which befel about a fortnight since. I crossed the channel comfortably enough, & spent some twelve days in Paris—which were several more than I wished. I care less & less for the Paris that one sees & has to do with during a short stranger’s stay there: though I have no doubt there is another which, if one lived there, one could extract an intellectual subsistence from. The banality of the former has ended by overwhelming me; mainly perhaps owing to the low style of culture of my friends & compatriots there, who are alw all very good, but whose horizon is bounded on one side by the Figaro & on the other by the thèatre Français. The famous “dullness” of London is an intellectual carnival beside that. Nevertheless I breakfasted & dined with them, hypocritically; but I don’t think I should be able to go through the process again.—The pleasantest relations I have there are with the Childes, who are intelligent & in many ways superior, & whose windows open only upon the l’ancienne France. They were very kind to me &, if you please, gave a dinner of six or eight people in my honour! (They are—especially Mrs. C.—very appreciative readers of H. J. jr.) The dinner was of men, all French & very pleasant—though it would be long to tell you who they were—of men, that is, save my old friend Madame Jameson, who however is almost a man, or at least a boy, in virtue of an extreme “larkiness” & hilarity. The most entertaining person was M. Guillaume Guizot, son of the old G., & professor of English literature &c, at the Sorbonne. It appears (again if you please) that he had desired much to meet me (excuse egotism,) owing to a perusal of my little book on Hawthorne, for whom, in his quality of French protestant & “puritan,” he has a great admiration. He was must effusive & fraternizing, repeated whole passages of my book to me, in with the most extraordinary accent, &c. He had a phrase which I should have liked my critics to hear: he was speaking of the beauty of Hawthorne’s genius in comparison with the provinciality of his training & circumstances. “Il sortait de toute espèce de petite trous—de Boston, de—comment appelez-vous ça?—de Salem, &c!” At the dinner above- mentioned, I was of course greatly struck with the lightness & brightness of the French conversational tone: but I must say there was nothing in the talk that seemed to me very valuable, & it lacked that quality of having the atmosphere of the British Empire round it which belongs to the more laboured speech of London. In Paris, I suspect, it is always the lithe Parisian horizon. On ne sort pas de là. I am out of it now, however, & rejoicing in the splendid sun of Provence. I have come down to meet the spring, & I have met it already in perfection: though I don’t like to tell you so, for fear of making you quarrel with your own fine frost. I came in 12 hours (day-before-yesterday,) from Paris to Avignon—where by the way I had just met poor Edward Jackson, of Boston, who had just lost his pocket-book, accompanied by containing his letter of credit, money, passport &c. (You had better not bruit this abroad, by the way, as he may find them again.) I spent a night & day at Avignon, where I found a southern sun, & last evening, in three hours, came on here, where I am sitting with an open window in a fireless room, (looking south.) Marseilles is a big bright, handsome, bustling seaport, with streets that succeeds rather well in imitating Paris. The feeling of the warm southern air is most delightful; I breakfasted this morning on a terrace out of doors, overlooking the blue Mediterranean & the chateau d’If, where the adventures of Monte Christo began. This was a restaurant half an hour from the town, beside the sea, where it is obligatory to go & eat bouillabaisse, a sort of mess of fish, coloured with mustard. I am already tired, however, as I always am after a week or two in France, of French eating—the messes, sauces, greases &c, combined with the extreme predilection for the table, of the natives, male & female, who all look red & fat while they sit there.—I forgot just now to say (not at all apropos of this) that I saw, in Paris, a good deal of Tourgúneff, to whom, as he was laid up with the gout, I paid three longish visits.

We had made a plan to breakfast together, but I received, just before, the inevitable telegram. He seemed & looked a good deal older than when I saw him last; but he was as pleasant & human as evr ever. On the other hand, I can’t get over the sense that the people he lives with (the Viardot circle,) are a rather poor lot & that to live with them is not living like a gentleman. The Tourguéneffs of the Rue de Lille were as friendly, or rather as affectionate, & hopitable, as usual; I don’t think they have a great deal of light, but their sweetness is something ineffable. The virtues of the Jacksons is nothing to theirs; & this en plein Ffaubourg St. Germain!—I will send my letter just as it is, without adding more; & when I get my packet from London I will write again. I hope you are not refrigerated. Love to all from yours ever, dear Daddy, H. James jr

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