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MARCUS KLEIN Washington Square, or Downtown with Henry James rASHiNGTON square" is what Washington Square is about. James might have named the novel by another name (The Heiress, perhaps), but he did not. Poor Catherine Sloper does not much solicit his sympathies, nor is James greatly incensed as he confronts the scoundrel Morris Townsend. Much of the very style ofthe novel argues the same: lightsome, witty, epigrammatically nasty now and then, and, by that much, dismissive. Or if that is not the entirely continuous tone ofit, much ofthe time it is so. The very prettiness ofthe novel, and the adroitness of the composition argue as well that James was not much challenged by his characters—although it is to be seen that here in this seemingly most forthcoming and certainly most charming ofJames's fictions , there is hint, and more, of encounters and ambivalences and crossed desires to come. Washington Square is the single most evidently personal of James's novels. It is the one novel into which he enters explicitly, in his own person, in order to indulge autobiographical reminiscences, or perhaps to establish an authority ofthe same, and although he enters only briefly, it is remarkable that he does so at all. The intrusion occurs within the first few pages of the novel, where James describes the Square itself, with, as he says, its solid and honorable dwellings and its air of "a kind of established repose," as contrasted with other quarters of "the long, shrill city." Here he interposes what he calls a "topographical parenthesis ": "I know not whether it is owing to the tenderness of early associations but this portion of New York appears to many persons the most delectable." The place, he says, has "the look ofhaving had something Arizona Quarterly Volume 53, Number 4, Winter 1997 Copyright © 1997 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004-1610 Marcus Klein of a social history. It was here, as you might have been informed on good authority, that you had come into a world which appeared to offer a variety ofsources of interest; it was here that your grandmother lived, in venerable solitude, and dispensed a hospitality which commended itself alike to the infant imagination and the infant palate; it was here that you took your first walks abroad, following the nursery-maid with unequal step . . ." (15-16). The designated grandmother is ofcourse his own (maternal) grandmother, and not Catherine's. Catherine doesn't have a grandmother—or if she does, it is Mrs. Harrington, on the maternal side, who lives in one of the houses far downtown overlooking the Battery, but Mrs. Harrington is left out of the story. James's own grandmother did in fact have a house on Washington Square, and the family had lived with her for a few months in 1845, when James was scarcely more than an infant, aged two to two and a half. James was writing the words in 1879, for the sake of the novel, but evidently the brief reminiscence had independent meaning for him. Some three and a halfdecades later and near the end ofhis life, in 1913 in the first volume of the autobiography, A Small Boy and Others, he would begin to reminisce about the same neighborhood, in its same moment, in quite similar accents. Although there is some problem with dates in Washington Square, the time would have to be sometime close to mid-century. The first sentence ofthe novel reads: "During a portion of the first half of the present century, and more particularly during the latter part of it, there flourished and practiced in the city ofNew York," etc. (3). And in the autobiography James would entertain a challenge for himself, as he put it, to recreate so far as possible "the small warm homogeneous New York world ofthe mid-century," meaning exactly, as becomes clear, the mid-century time of the small world ofWashington Square (38). Without doubt the setting ofthe novel had personal meaning which was both vivid and enduring. It had got into the novel and it had stayed with him. He had been born, in 1843, in a house on Washington Place, the street running west off of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 7-21
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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