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A Memorable Naturalization: How Henry James Became a British Subject and Lost his United States Citizenship by Alan G. James, Chairman, State Department Board of Appellate Review American citizens from all walks of life have obtained naturalization in a foreign country for a host of reasons: to get or keep a job, promote a career, share the citizenship of an alien spouse, escape a dull or unsatisfying existence, evade or avoid taxes or military service. How many obtained foreign citizenship for reasons of principle can only be guessed, but the number probably is not large. Of those moved by conscience to adopt a foreign country as their own, a memorable exemplar is Henry James, who became a British subject in 1915.1 Eulogized on a memorial in London's Chelsea Old Church as "lover and interpreter of the fine amenities, of brave decisions and generous loyalties," James was one of fortyseven American citizens who obtained British naturalization in the second year of the Great War.2 We do not know how many were, as he, motivated primarily by a wish to make a deeply expressive gesture of support for Britain in a time of crisis. It would not be unwarranted, however, to surmise that some were so moved, for the number of Americans, never large, who elected to become British subjects rose sharply in the first three years of the war in comparison with the immediate pre-war years. James may not have been the only American in those days who regarded obtaining naturalization in Britain as a moral imperative, but his naturalization is the one history remembers. James's acquisition of British citizenship was a topic of keen interest and lively comment of both sides of the Atlantic in the summer of 1915. In England it was widely and warmly welcomed, as James anticipated it would be. Indeed, "an avalanche of mail descended upon him from all parts of England" (Edel V, 531). On July 28, 1915, The Times probably spoke for the nation when it wrote, "All lovers of literature in this country will welcome the decision of this writer of genius, whose works are an abiding possession of all English-speaking peoples, and they will welcome it all the more on account of the reasons Mr. James gives in his petition for naturalization." In the United States news of James's naturalization was received with marked disapproval, as he predicted it would be. "Yes, I dare say many Americans will be shocked at my 'step,'" he wrote to John Singer Sargent on July 30, 1915, a few days after receiving his certificate of naturalization (HJL IV, 774).3 The Henry James Review 12 (1991): 55-68 01991 by The Johns Hopkins University Press 56 The Henry James Review On July 30, 1915, The New York Times reproached him for casting off his American citizenship, "long lightly held," but conceded that, "It is easy enough to be severe or sarcastic at this defector and to insist that an American should remain an American. But after all, the United States wants no citizens by compulsion. And as a literary absentee, Mr. James has a long line of predecessors. ... To the literary man choice of his scene is to be granted." In other American circles James was censured more sharply. For example, his friend Edith Wharton strongly deplored his changing loyalties, though she did not confront him directly. "At the time I considered it a mistake; it seemed to me rather puerile, and altogether unlike him. Not knowing what to say I refrained from writing to him," she wrote in her autobiography (367). Like James, utterly committed to and absorbed in working for the allied cause, Mrs. Wharton "saw herself and her compatriots in France and England performing their tasks amid the horrors precisely as Americans, in some small way mitigating their country's failure to enter the conflict" (Lewis 381). "We don't like defections," she wrote to one friend; to another, referring evidently to the praise in English newspapers for James's act, she observed: "All for a mouthful of drivel he left us" (Lewis 381). Mrs. Wharton's disapproval lost its edge over the ensuing months, however...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 55-68
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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