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Reflections on Holland in the Works of Henry James by Enny de Boer Eshuis From his wide knowledge of American history, Henry James was thoroughly familiar with the significant influence of the Dutch on nineteenth-century American literature and art. The image of the typical Dutchman (dull, sedate, money-minded) was part of James's early visions of the Dutch. Washington Irving, for example, had stereotyped the Dutch in A History of New York, and Vermeer, Breughel, and Van Ruysdael, among others, had added to this conception their visual images of Holland and its quaint inhabitants. James's knowledge of these artistic aspects of the Dutch heritage is documented (see DFP 757-63, Kelley, and Winner ). But what has not been explored is James's treatment of Holland and the Dutch in his travelogues and novels. This study aims to develop an understanding of the significance of the references to Holland in both James's non-fiction and fiction. Two main strands become apparent. The first one is a philosophical strand that concerns James's curious ambivalence towards Holland . On the one hand, he saw the country as a retreat where it was possible to find peace of mind. On the other hand, James thought that Holland represented a danger to the imagination of his characters and to artists in general. The second strand is a stylistic one: James began by presenting a comical, indeed a caricatural image of the Dutch. But as his opinions and thus his presentation of Holland and the Dutch evolved over time, James created his own Holland, his own "typical Dutchman." Within the ambivalent framework noted above, James gave his characters a "Holland of the mind," a place to rest, if only for a short while. This study chronologically examines these two strands, mutually dependent upon each other, as they develop throughout James's career. Some biographical data provide the context in which James concerns himself with the Dutch. He did not visit Holland until 1874. Until that time his connections with the country were limited to knowledge of Dutch families and characteristic Dutch houses in Albany, New York, where the James family resided for several years (SB 9). "The first hour of my education failed on the threshold of the Dutch House in Albany," James stated in A Small Boy and Others. Although not very auspicious, these early experiences in "the little old Albany of the Dutch houses . . . and the recurring names . . . Van Rensselaers, Pruyns" acquainted James with the Dutch heritage in America. As he grew older, James became more familiar with Dutch images in American literature through a group of authors and philosophers who frequented his father's house in New York. In his autobiography he mentions how he read Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, and James Fenimore Cooper, among many others. And circumstantial evidence would suggest that James was indeed familiar with A History of New York and perhaps with "The Devil in the Belfry" and other "Dutch" tales. James's familiarity with Dutch art is well-documented. His review of the exhibition of Dutch and Flemish art in New York, 1872, speaks for itself. Viola Winner has devoted much of her book Henry James and the Visual Arts to James's interest in and judgment of Dutch and Flemish paintings. In 1874, (while on a "grand tour" of Europe), James finally visited Holland. In a letter to Sarah Butler Wister, he announced his visit with great pleasure: "But I must pull up. I remain here a few days longer," he wrote from Baden-Baden, "and then go down the Rhine to Holland, to take a look at Dutch pictures, which I adore. . . ." (HJL 462). He collected his impressions of the country in an entry in his travelogue Transatlantic Sketches (TS 382-90). Such was the cultural and personal background from which James's references to Holland originate. These references can be found both in his non-fiction and fiction: they are of equal importance for this study, Volume VI 39 Number 1 The Henry James Review FaU, 1984 for the comments in his early non-fiction set up the main argument of this study—the ambivalence James displayed towards Holland . James...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 39-45
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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