Volume XII, Number 2, Fall 2016

"Review of Martha Banta’s Henry James: An Alien’s “History” of America" by Anna Despotopoulou

Anna Despotopoulou is Associate Professor in English Literature and Culture at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens and is Associate Visiting Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute (University of Oxford) in 2016-7. Her research focuses on Victorian fiction, Henry James, and women’s studies. Her most recent book is Women and the Railway, 1850-1915 (Edinburgh UP, 2015). Her work on Henry James includes articles in the Henry James Review and other journals, as well as two edited volumes: Henry James and the Supernatural (with Kimberly Reed; Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011) and Transforming Henry James (with Donatella Izzo and Anna De Biasio; Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013). Email:

Henry James: An Alien’s “History” of America
Martha Banta
Rome: Sapienza Università Editrice
pp. 348

In June 1915, less than a year before his death, Henry James felt that his trips between his home at Rye, Sussex, and London were becoming increasingly difficult. However, it was not only age and failing health that posed obstacles to his mobility. One year after the outbreak of the Great War, James was experiencing the technical disadvantages of his precarious status as an American expatriate, an Alien, in Britain, one who, though “friendly,” nevertheless had to suffer police supervision and spatial restrictions comparable to those faced by the first refugees of the war. As he wrote to Edmund Gosse on June 25th, he felt burdened by the “‘restricted area’ alienship” that he had to endure in his “fond domicile” of forty years (Letters 480-81). Traumatized by the war atrocities he read about, disillusioned by the humanitarian crisis, and disappointed with America for its delay in entering the war, James took a drastic step that ended his precarious citizenship in Britain: he filed an application for naturalization. To his nephew Harry James he wrote:

Hadn’t it been for the War I should certainly have gone on as I was, taking it as the simplest and easiest and even friendliest thing: but the circumstances are utterly altered now, and to feel with the country and the cause as absolutely and ardently as I feel, and not offer them my moral support with a perfect consistency …, affects me as standing off or wandering loose in a detachment of no great dignity. (emphasis added; 478)

James’s position as a loose and detached wanderer was not of course new to him close to the end of his life. Martha Banta’s new book, with its broad and comprehensive scope, traces James’s perpetual sense of estrangement and alienation in Europe and America, offering very personally engaged and sensitive insight into James’s autobiographical and fictional writings which problematize the author’s relation to the land of his birth. Banta’s distinguished career as a literary critic, author of nine books and many articles on literature and culture, has often cut through Jamesian territory, but this new book feels like her ultimate homage to the author whom she describes as “the eternal Alien” (1).

Banta’s book could be seen as a thematic biography that sheds new light on the relation between James’s existential sense of being, on the one hand, and his attitude to place, country, national identity, and expatriation, on the other. It is a restless analysis of James’s own restlessness, always wavering between places, countries, and temporal zones. In a fashion similar to James’s own style of writing which weaves together present and past, reality and memory, Banta moves seamlessly between James’s writings of the early, middle, and late period, scrutinizing his progressively complex and sometimes self-contradictory understanding of displacement. These dizzying at times shifts in time frame, geographic space, and text are performed masterfully in Banta’s hands, exhibiting her astounding knowledge of James and achieving a most penetrating analysis of his work. With her distinctive (even eccentric) writing, singular methodology, and insightful reflection, Banta often juxtaposes James’s memories of transplantation, published in his late works, with his on-the-spot letters or travel writings of the early period that present his spontaneous responses to being out of place. Her project has been greatly facilitated by the University of Nebraska Press Complete Letters of Henry James on-going project (edited by Greg Zacharias, Pierre Walker, and others), which has provided her with unique access to James’s early letters. Thus she passionately immerses herself in James’s vast oeuvre, tracing his anxiety about his unfixed and precarious Americaness negotiated in places such as Boston, New York, Newport, and Richmond, but also London, Paris, Rome, and Florence. At times she indulges in digressions which serve as cultural histories of place: e.g. Newport and Boston. As Banta shows, James’s apartness was a consciousness, an awareness, one that saved him from being one of the tourists or the detested fellow pilgrims, who irresponsibly swarmed foreign lands (84). By contrast, the “self-conscious alien” is often distressed (in late writings such as The American Scene) by the difference between his own feelings of dispossession on both sides of the Atlantic and the sense of “settled possession” and appropriation exemplified either by natives, for example in Italy, or by new arrivals, Italian immigrants in America (75).

Such insight complicates our understanding of James’s celebrated “international theme,” which Banta looks at from her specific angle in novels of the early, middle, and late period. For Banta, the novels often function as “surrogate memoirs” and are examined in parallel with autobiographical texts; characters caught in between Europe and America express James’s own feeling of limbo as well as the conflicts that concerned him: aesthetics versus politics, art versus life, Americans versus the “others.” Her readings of the late novels, The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl, in chapter four are especially evocative and suggestive, offering new avenues of understanding James’s most complex works. Milly Theale, for example, (unlike Chad Newsome and Adam Verver) extends and redefines the nature of the “true American,” by transcending the stereotype of material wealth and thus escaping the clutches of those who persistently objectify her. Whether a “consummate expatriate” or a “true alien in exile” (175), Milly “in absentia” seems to stand for James himself. Strether, too, even though he returns to Woollett, does so, paradoxically, as an estranged American, an expatriate, a man without a country, alienated from the Woollett-world from which he originated. In a compelling reading that weaves together literature and the ballet, Banta indulges in a long imaginative reading of The Golden Bowl, comparing James to distinguished choreographers such as Balanchine, Graham, and Bausch, for whom bodily movements become the expression of the difficult and arduous path to knowledge and survival in “unbeautiful worlds” (206). Maggie majestically dances back to the centre of the stage, after being upstaged by Charlotte, in an act that transcends the borders of the American stereotype of innocence and romance.

In her probing assessment of Americaness and its vicissitudes, Banta draws on James’s contemporaries, offering a partial but certainly perceptive cultural history of national identity, expatriation, and cosmopolitanism. William James, Henry Adams, William Dean Howells, and Theodore Dreiser are all brought into the discussion of national dispossession. Theodore Roosevelt’s essay, “True Americanism” (1894), as well as his later essays and speeches, which treat expatriation as a failure in manliness and Americaness, dubbed men like James “silly and undesirable citizen[s]” (qtd. in Banta 164). Roosevelt oversimplified the anxieties felt by many literary expatriates, who could not identify with the model of “second-rate” citizenship that the American President imposed on them. While James did feel the pang of homelessness, he certainly had not become “nothing at all,” in Roosevelt’s terms (ibid.). Banta’s comparison of The American Scene with The Education of Henry Adams, in which Adams embodies in a “third-person manikin style” the authoritative persona of the “educator, anthropologist, geologist, historian, political analyst, and quasi-scientist” (217), also usefully serves to dig out, by contrast, the psychological roots of James’s own feelings of alienation and displacement. Unlike Adams, for whom his name functioned as a “national seal, permanent accreditation for his ‘Americaness’” (213), James in The American Scene through doubling techniques and blurry impressionism constantly exposes and submits himself to questions about national identity and patriotism in relation to location.

Throughout the book, Banta’s writing is lined with quotes and insights derived from The American Scene (1907). It is there that James’s sense of aloneness surfaces the most, as the author moves in solitary meditation through American spaces and the periods of his youth, middle and old age, looking back but also forward towards an American future. In her rich reading of this tortuous text, James emerges as at the same time self-effacing and self confident, naked and bold, his alienation making him vulnerable as well as part of the chaos of the turn-of-the-century American life that he witnesses; subjective and contemplative, involved and often aching with a sense of loss, James is certainly not the detached aesthete of earlier criticism. The American Scene provides Banta with the opportunity to probe not only the psychological causes of James’s alienation but also his ambiguous politics. In chapter six entitled “(1904-1905). America’s Problematics,” Banta focuses on James’s varied response to race and democracy. Pondering on James’s intricate use of the terms “elasticity” and “margin” in relation to the capacity of America to expand and stretch in quantity but at the same time be surrounded by a scary, watery margin (in literal and metaphorical terms), Banta pinpoints James’s fear of a complacent and indiscriminate democracy. Will “the monstrous form of Democracy” or “the huge democratic broom” (James, American Scene) “do away with the debris of the nation’s errors, or will it sweep its multitudes like trash into the all-enveloping Margin?” (Banta 258).

James’s fraught relations with America and his precarious sense of being, acrobatically balancing between nations, continents, and identities, is skilfully elucidated by this book which enriches our understanding of the Master at the same time that it unsettles us with a painful awareness of his vulnerability. The cover illustration of the Anglo-American telegraph cable, established in 1866, a cable that often broke mid-Atlantic due to oxidation or inevitable twists and that offered, in the beginning of its operation, but a feeble connection between the two continents, thus functions as an apt metaphor for James’s precarious links with America, his deliberate breaks but also his inability to sever completely the line that persistently pulled him back, if not physically, certainly mentally, imaginatively, and intellectually.


Wroks cited

  • Henry James. 1920. The Letters of Henry James. Vol. 2. Ed. Percy Lubbock. New York: Scribner. Print.