- Henry James’s American Byron 1
On April 13, 1833, Emerson in Rome wrote in his journal: “Rome fashions my dreams. All night I wander amidst statues and fountains, and last night was introduced to Lord Byron!” (159). He proves the point Byron makes in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: “Rome is as the desert, where we steer / Stumbling over recollections” (4.81.6–7). Byron, eleven years after his death, had colonized the New England consciousness, formed its perception of Rome and got into its dreams and recollections—and perhaps into its desires. Byron’s appeal was to women and to men alike. And Emerson’s homoerotic feelings towards the Harvard student Martin Gay, when Emerson was nineteen, may also suggest the ghost of Byron (Barish 19).
I explore here a tale of displacements between two continents, America and Europe, and in Europe of several cities, beginning with Rome, but concentrating on Venice, the site of “The Aspern Papers.” Shelley said of Byron in Venice in December 1818, that he
hardens himself in a kind of obstinate and self-willed folly. . . . He associates with wretches who seem almost to have lost the gait and physiognomy of man, and who do not scruple to avow practices which are not only named but seldom even conceived in England. He says he disapproves, but he endures. . . .(qtd. in Tanner 24)
This is an unexpected model for Jeffrey Aspern. Byron twice, censoriously, refers to Venice as “the sea-Sodom” to establish the sexuality he associated with it,—once in a letter of December 1819, after he had left (qtd. in Tanner 24, 46), and once at the end of his play Marino Faliero (4.3.99).
As Byron ghosted Emerson in Rome, he ghosted the consciousness of Henry James in relation to both Venice and New York. James’s preface to “The Aspern Papers” (first published in 1888, in the Atlantic Monthly) approaches an interpretation of the tale indirectly by making an initial distinction between the historian [End Page 43] and the dramatist. The historian “wants more documents than he can really use” (FW 1175). That is an implicit explanation of the character of the publishing scoundrel who tells “The Aspern Papers,” and it indicates the futility behind his dream of possession. The dramatist, as opposed to the historian, and including James, “only wants more liberties than he can really take” (FW 1175). A permissible liberty that could be taken seems to be offered by James’s sense that there is a “visitable past” (1177)—one which in this case seemed to present itself through the discovery which James made in Florence in 1887 that “Jane Clairmont, the half-sister of Mary Godwin, Shelley’s second wife, and for a while the intimate friend of Byron and the mother of his daughter Allegra, should have been living on in Florence, where she had long lived, up to our own day.” An American (Silsbee, a Bostonian) had attempted to act as the historian, to get more papers than he could use, by trying to become Miss Clairmont’s lodger and so getting in on the scene. James distances himself from that method. Nonetheless he adds that his interest is in “the Byronic age”:
the impulse had more than once taken me to project the Byronic age and the afternoon light across the great sea, to see in short whether association would carry so far and what the young century might pass for on that side of the modern world where it was not only itself so irremediably youngest, but was bound up with youth in everything else. There was a refinement of curiosity in this imputation of a golden strangeness to American social facts.(1178)
Here is the liberty that the dramatist wants: to make “old” New York (not Boston) Byronic. James wants “an American Byron.” He records a friend commenting that such a thing not only had not existed in the conditions James imputed to such “celebrities” but “couldn’t possibly have done so” (1179). In saying that, the friend repeats the pessimistic evaluation of Henry Adams who wrote in a letter to James:
The painful truth is that all of my...