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  • The Author as Arsonist:Henry James and the Paris Commune
  • Scott McCracken (bio)

Arriving in Paris midway through the 1890s, Lambert Strether, the protagonist of Henry James’s 1903 novel, The Ambassadors, waits until his second morning before exploring the city he remembers from his first visit three decades earlier. After divesting himself of his irredeemably American companion, Waymarsh, he sets off on a walk that is also an evasion: a deferral of opening letters sent by his patron and possible future wife, Mrs. Newsome, which have followed him from the United States via London. Putting them off in a pretense to himself of looking for a place to read them, Strether passes an hour looking at the windows of shops in the Rue de la Paix before heading towards the Jardin des Tuileries, where he notes, not Paris as he had remembered it, but an absence: “The palace was gone.” This lack triggers in Strether an uncanny “historic sense”:

The palace was gone, Strether remembered the palace; and when he gazed into the irremediable void of its site the historic sense in him might have been freely at play—the play under which in Paris indeed it so often winces like a touched nerve. He filled out spaces with dim symbols of scenes…1

The missing palace was the Palais des Tuileries, burnt down by the Communards in May 1871. It had completed the Cour du Carrousel, facing the Jardin des Tuileries, and enclosing the court at the center of which stood the Arc du Carrousel, built to celebrate Napoleon I’s victory at Austerlitz. Strether remembers it because he was last in Paris in the mid-1860s, when he came on his honeymoon. He has changed, having lost both his wife and his son, and so has Paris. The 1860s had been the high [End Page 71] point of the Second Empire, when Paris had been transformed into a city of grand boulevards by Baron Haussmann. It was an age of public splendor, which culminated in the Paris Exhibition of 1867, but also of deep social inequalities, which persisted during the Prussian siege of Paris in the autumn and winter of 1870–71, and fed the discontent that led to the uprising that established the Paris Commune between 18 March and 28 May 1871.

While there is no comprehensive treatment of the Commune in James’s work, the reference to the absence of the palace in The Ambassadors is one of many allusions, direct and indirect, to the event that are scattered throughout his writings. The paradoxical presence of the Commune as absence draws attention to what Pierre Nora calls the modern “rupture between history and memory”:

from the idea of the a visible past to one of an invisible past; from a firmly rooted past to a past that we experience as a radical break in continuity; from a history that we believed lay in some sort of memory to a memory we think of as projected onto the discontinuity of history.2

In the history of France, which was as much for James as it was for Marx the model of national history, the origin of such ruptures was the Revolution, from which all subsequent insurrections, 1830, 1848, and 1871, took their cue. The play of absence and presence in the two clauses, “The palace was gone, Strether remembered the palace,” initiates a process whereby Strether’s personal sense of an unfulfilled life is positioned in relation to a larger temporality of defeat, for which the Commune is a resonant point of reference. James’s relationship to the Commune has been little discussed until recently,3 but it is of interest for at least two reasons: first, for what it tells us about James’s “historic sense”; second, because James deploys an aesthetic that engages with the rupture between memory and history that anticipates that of his modernist successors, Proust, Richardson, Joyce, and Woolf.

As this article will show, there was a curious homology between the material history of the Palais des Tuileries after 1871 and James’s references to the Commune in his writings. Just as James’s references to the event were scattered across...


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