Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

'While I Waggled My Small Feet': Henry James's Return to Paris

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

'While I Waggled My Small Feet': Henry James's Return to Paris

Article excerpt


Paris is crucial to the sense of place, response, and record spanning Henry James's career over America, England, and 'Europe'. The early essays Parisian Sketches and A Little Tour in France reach towards The American Scene and A Small Boy and Others in exploring 'the personal history [] of an imagination' like Strether's in The Ambassadors: the 'inside-out' experience achieved through return, which goes beyond the personal.


Place, response, and record span and short-circuit Henry James's writing career, from infancy to autobiographical maturity. Crucial to this triangulation, linking America, England, and 'Europe', is Paris. In A Small Boy and Others James notes through a double return how from the perspective of his boyhood in Albany and New York he recalled an even earlier awareness. (1) He knew already that he 'had somehow waked early to a perception of Paris' (p. 57): the old man's recollection of the child's consciousness formed by remembered experience: 'Conveyed along the Rue St-Honore while I waggled my small feet, as I definitely remember doing, under my flowing robe, I had crossed the Rue de Castiglione and taken in, for all my time, the admirable aspect of the Place and the Colonne Vendome' (p. 58). This vigorous 'backward reach' of memory is informed by a positively physical resonance: 'a vibration of my very most infantine sensibility', trailing long clothes and waggling toes amidst the glories of the great city. The immediacy of sensation is both contained and fast-tracked to the present by its encasing pluperfect tense. Knowledge is always already found. James recovers a fresh awareness of this as he returns to Paris repeatedly, both in person and writing, by proxy in fiction or in pedestrian fact, from the moment of this 'infantine' visit to the time he recorded it, over pretty much the length of his conscious existence. The congruence between travel writing and the explorations, whether autobiographical, critical, or novelistic, of consciousness inscribed in record, in recall, in memory, constitutes for him both an intimate affair and a public communication.

Parisian Sketches: Letters to the New York Tribune 1875-76 (2) and A Little Tour in France (3) provide a nineteenth-century travel writing focus for this essay. But for James experience is 'never limited and it is never complete.' (4) These early French essays take their place in a corpus including the novels and tales, and reaching forwards (or back) to The American Scene of 1904 which falls outside our period but is rooted there, and A Small Boy and Others (1913) which complements it. Sketching 'the personal history, as it were, of an imagination', James uses travel writing, like autobiography, with increasing intensity, abstraction, metaphorical vigour, and sensual exactitude, as a field of operation rather than an objective, since, in order to find his centre of interest, 'I had in a word to draw him forth from within rather than meet him in the world before me, the more convenient sphere of the objective, and to make him objective, in short, had to turn nothing less than myself inside out.' (5) Exploring the Sketches and A Little Tour is a route towards James himself as much as Paris or France; but the personal self stands equally for a cultural, historical, even a philosophical construct. The interest is in the nature of his experience.

Sir Thomas Browne claimed, 'We carry with us the wonders we seek without us: there is all Africa and her prodigies in us'. (6) Under the professional byline of 'A Regular Correspondent of the "Tribune"', though only in his second dispatch, James wrote from Paris that for the sculptor Barye, 'The Jardin des Plantes was his Africa and his Asia. Though he spent half his life in modeling wild beasts, he was a Parisian of Parisians, and he never had the curiosity or the energy to take a look at the veritable East' (Parisian Sketches, pp. 15-16). Yet for the young writer, the hobbled observer can figure as a culturally grounded example, actually enabled by the apparent limitations of the centred self: 'He perhaps felt the force of that truth (which is by no means the paradox it seems) that for artistic purposes there is such a thing as knowing too much about your subject. …

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