The Course of American Democratic Thought

By Ralph Henry Gabriel; Robert H. Walker | Go to book overview
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Chapter 25
THE FREE INDIVIDUAL IN THE PROGRESSIVE ERA

IN THE SUMMER OF 1897 Henry James acquired Lamb House at Rye, England, a weathered, red-brick, Georgian house that was to serve as his "little downward burrow" and "tight anchorage" for the rest of his days. So Henry James permanently abandoned the United States at the very time his brother, William, was beginning to make momentous contributions to American thought. But Henry James, the artist, found England not only a greater stimulus for his particular genius but a point of vantage from which to view America, which in his heart he never truly gave up.

Henry James' England gives perspective on William James' America. Henry's life at Lamb House covers almost exactly the years known as the Edwardian Era in English history, an epoch marked by brilliance and pride. London was the financial capital of the world. At Westminster Englishmen made decisions that affected the lives of people over much of the world. The wealth of the greatest empire on earth flowed into the island kingdom, supporting a mode of life that a later English generation, after two catastrophic wars, can only recover in the imagination through histories or through novels such as those that James wrote at Lamb House. The Edwardian period was the climax of an order that had begun with Victoria. When Henry James died in 1916, the age had already ended for England.

Americans have come to call the years of their history between the turn of the century and 1917 the Progressive Era. It was also a time of climax, when most Americans assumed that the dawn would always be rosy and that progress would continue indefinitely into the future. After 1914 Britain's relative position in the world declined. By contrast the Progressive Era, in which the United States

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