WNY Washington Square


Henry James, age 70, painted by John Singer Sargent.

Today’s lecture in our Writing New York course is devoted to Henry James’s Washington Square, and it’ll be given by one of our teaching assistants, Meghan Hammond. We’ve typically stressed the importance of the title and the New York setting, in opposition to those critics who have suggested that the title and setting are incidental.

That view of the novel seems to be losing ground these days. Brian Lee, the editor of the Penguin edition that we used in the early years of the course, begins his introduction to the novel by citing this critical tradition: “One of the criticisms that has consistently been made of Washington Square is that its title gives a misleading clue to its contents. According to this view, the promise of social history, or, at least, a strong local interest is never fulfilled as it is in, say, The Bostonians.” Lee goes on to disagree, arguing that “the naive vigour and parochialism of mid-century New York is present in every line James writes.”

In the introduction to the new Penguin edition that we’re currently using, Martha Banta also cites the idea that the story James tells in the novel “could have taken place anywhere,” but like Lee argues that despite the “thinness of reference” to the New York setting, James chose his location deliberately and carefully: “Washington Square would help to provide the ‘scenic’ intensity he tried to introduce into all his tales.”

Readers who are interested in how the New York setting functions in the novel should take a look at the long paragraph in the third chapter that James’s narrator describes as a “topographical parenthesis.” Click on the continuation link to read it. Click here to read an e-text of the novel at Project Gutenberg.

Some three or four years before this Dr. Sloper had moved his household gods up town, as they say in New York.  He had been living ever since his marriage in an edifice of red brick, with granite copings and an enormous fanlight over the door, standing in a street within five minutes’ walk of the City Hall, which saw its best days (from the social point of view) about 1820.  After this, the tide of fashion began to set steadily northward, as, indeed, in New York, thanks to the narrow channel in which it flows, it is obliged to do, and the great hum of traffic rolled farther to the right and left of Broadway.  By the time the Doctor changed his residence the murmur of trade had become a mighty uproar, which was music in the ears of all good citizens interested in the commercial development, as they delighted to call it, of their fortunate isle.  Dr. Sloper’s interest in this phenomenon was only indirect–though, seeing that, as the years went on, half his patients came to be overworked men of business, it might have been more immediate–and when most of his neighbours’ dwellings (also ornamented with granite copings and large fanlights) had been converted into offices, warehouses, and shipping agencies, and otherwise applied to the base uses of commerce, he determined to look out for a quieter home.  The ideal of quiet and of genteel retirement, in 1835, was found in Washington Square, where the Doctor built himself a handsome, modern, wide-fronted house, with a big balcony before the drawing-room windows, and a flight of marble steps ascending to a portal which was also faced with white marble. This structure, and many of its neighbours, which it exactly resembled, were supposed, forty years ago, to embody the last results of architectural science, and they remain to this day very solid and honourable dwellings.  In front of them was the Square, containing a considerable quantity of inexpensive vegetation, enclosed by a wooden paling, which increased its rural and accessible appearance; and round the corner was the more august precinct of the Fifth Avenue, taking its origin at this point with a spacious and confident air which already marked it for high destinies.  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.  It has a kind of established repose which is not of frequent occurrence in other quarters of the long, shrill city; it has a riper, richer, more honourable look than any of the upper ramifications of the great longitudinal thoroughfare–the look of having had something 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 of sources 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 and sniffing up the strange odour of the ailantus-trees which at that time formed the principal umbrage of the Square, and diffused an aroma that you were not yet critical enough to dislike as it deserved; it was here, finally, that your first school, kept by a broad-bosomed, broad-based old lady with a ferule, who was always having tea in a blue cup, with a saucer that didn’t match, enlarged the circle both of your observations and your sensations.  It was here, at any rate, that my heroine spent many years of her life; which is my excuse for this topographical parenthesis.

Henry James, Washington Square, Chapter 3.