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"An International Episode": A Centennial Review of a Centennial Story by Adeline R. Tintner I. Introduction It is not often that one has the pleasure of writing a centennial essay on a Centennial story, for that is what "An International Episode" actually is. One may raise the question: how can the story be a centennial celebration of the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, since it was written in 1878, two years after the Centennial? The answer is that, as we read in the story, it was on May 18, 1875, that Mrs. Westgate and Bessie Alden, her sister, two ladies from the eastern seaboard of America, one a Bostonian nymph, set foot in England. This event, as the story's action reveals, inaugurates the battle for the independence of the American woman from the myth of marrying into the British aristocracy. It happened just one hundred years after the War for the Independence of the States commenced, for one month before James's date, on April 19, 1775, the first "shot heard round the world" was fired in Lexington. Nor can this dating be accidental, for in the opening lines of the story James carefully sets the preliminary part in the summer of 1874, at which time two English aristocrats visit America. In the second part of the story, the young women return their visit by going to England the following May and fire their shots at the beginning of September, 1875. This reverse action parallels the early military encounters between the American colonials and the British one hundred years before. The very title of the story has diplomatic connotations, an international "episode" being another way of naming an incident with political and military repercussions. Such locutions as "in point of fact," "disembark," "coastal shores," and the word "declaration" used over five times in some form, as well as the name of the heroine, Bessie Alden, which stirs up memories of two figures featured conspicuously in American history (Betsy Ross and John Alden), in addition to a number of other clues and hints as to the direction in which the reader should look, all emphasize the stress James placed on the role the story should play as a symbol of American independence. It is not to be viewed as a repetition of the Declaration of Independence, which was a document of political history. It is to be viewed as an equivalent declaration of America's social independence from the standards of Great Britain, made by a Yankee girl whose highly idealized notions of British hereditary aristocracy change in the face of her actual experience. This notion is supported by the presentation of Bessie Alden as a historically-minded young lady and by the inclusion within the story of certain references to a historical character with whom she may be considered analogous and to historians whose mention and whose quoted works James uses to press his point. In addition to these signposts, he has referred the reader to three earlier writers— 24 French, British and American—who were critical of American and British society: The French point of view is exemplified by Alexis De Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont, the historians and documentary annalists who had made an earlier trip to the United States, called to mind by the repetition of Beaumont's name as the name of one of the visitors from England in "An International Episode." The British point of view is represented by Thackeray, whose satirical representation of British snobbery is reflected in James's characters drawn from the British aristocracy. Home As Found, by the American novelist James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote contemporaneously with the visit made by De Tocqueville and Beaumont, contains the same kind of dialogue, a lively stichomythia, which Bessie holds with Lord Lambeth and his kinfolk; it is also the first novel by a major American writer to center itself round the celebrations of July the Fourth. It thus becomes the forerunner of "An International Episode" in more ways than one. The overt references, however, are to Thackeray, who is mentioned four times in the story and who is the source of most of Bessie's notions about British society, for James...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 24-56
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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