Travels with Henry James


By Henry James

Foreword by Hendrik Hertzberg

Introduction by Michael Anesko

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“To travel with James in these pages is to take an unhurried vacation with a thoroughly seasoned, supremely cultivated, acutely intelligent companion. Our guide is a curious, engaged observer not only of landscapes and streets and cathedrals but also of paintings and plays and the characteristics — national, social, and individual — of the people we encounter at his side. This is a book to be read slowly, the better to absorb its sights and sounds, its insights and reflections.” — from the foreword by Hendrik Hertzberg

Brimming with charm, wit, and biting criticism, this new collection of travel essays reintroduces Henry James as a formidable travel companion. Whether for a trip to Lake George or an afternoon visit to an art exhibit in Paris, James will delight readers with his insights and make them feel nostalgic for places they’ve never been.



August 3, 1870

Map of Saratoga Springs, ca. 1888.

ONE HAS VAGUE IRRESPONSIBLE LOCAL PREVISIONS OF which it is generally hard to discern the origin. You find yourself thinking of an unknown, unseen place as thus rather than so. It assumes in your mind a certain shape, a certain color which frequently turns out to be singularly at variance with reality. For some reason or other, I had idly dreamed of Saratoga as buried in a sort of elegant wilderness of verdurous gloom. I fancied a region of shady forest drives, with a bright, broad-piazzaed hotel gleaming here and there against a background of mysterious groves and glades. I had made a cruelly small allowance for the stern vulgarities of life—for the shops and sidewalks and loafers, the complex machinery of a city of pleasure. The fault was so wholly my own that it is quite without bitterness that I proceed to affirm that the Saratoga of experience is sadly different from this. I confess, however, that it has always seemed to me that one’s visions, on the whole, gain more than they lose by realization. There is an essential indignity in indefiniteness: you cannot imagine the especial poignant interest of details and accidents. They give more to the imagination than they receive from it. I frankly admit, therefore, that I find here a decidedly more satisfactory sort of place than the all-too-primitive Elysium of my wanton fancy. It is indeed, as I say, immensely different. There is a vast number of brick—nay, of asphalte—sidewalks, a great many shops, and a magnificent array of loafers. But what indeed are you to do at Saratoga—the morning draught having been achieved—unless you loaf? “Que faire en un gîte à moins que l’on ne songe?” Loafers being assumed, of course shops and sidewalks follow. The main avenue of Saratoga is in fact bravely entitled Broadway. The untravelled reader may form a very accurate idea of it by recalling as distinctly as possible, not indeed the splendors of that famous thoroughfare, but the secondary charms of the Sixth Avenue. The place has what the French would call the “accent” of the Sixth Avenue. Its two main features are the two monster hotels which stand facing each other along a goodly portion of its course. One, I believe, is considered much better than the other—less prodigious and promiscuous and tumultuous, but in appearance there is little choice between them. Both are immense brick structures, directly on the crowded, noisy street, with vast covered piazzas running along the façade, supported by great iron posts. The piazza of the Union Hotel, I have been repeatedly informed, is the largest “in the world.” There are a number of objects in Saratoga, by the way, which in their respective kinds are the finest in the world. One of these is Mr. John Morrissey’s casino. I bowed my head submissively to this statement, but privately I thought of the blue Mediterranean, and the little white promontory of Monaco, and the silver-gray verdure of olives, and the view across the outer sea toward the bosky cliffs of Italy. Congress Spring, too, it is well known, is the most delicious mineral spring in the known universe; this I am perfectly willing to maintain.

The piazzas of these great hotels may very well be the greatest of all piazzas. They are not picturesque, but they doubtless serve their purpose—that of affording sitting-space in the open air to an immense number of persons. They are, of course, quite the best places to observe the Saratoga world. In the evening, when the “boarders” have all come forth and seated themselves in groups, or have begun to stroll in (not always, I regret to say, to the sad detriment of the dramatic interest, bisexual) couples, the vast heterogeneous scene affords a great deal of entertainment. Seeing it for the first time, the observer is likely to assure himself that he has neglected an important feature in the sum of American manners. The rough brick wall of the house, illumined by a line of flaring gas-lights, forms a harmonious background to the crude, impermanent, discordant tone of the assembly. In the larger of the two hotels, a series of long windows open into an immense parlor—the largest, I suppose, in the world—and the most scantily furnished, I imagine, in proportion to its size. A few dozen rocking-chairs, an equal number of small tables, tripods to the eternal ice-pitchers, serve chiefly to emphasize the vacuous grandeur of the spot. On the piazza, in the outer multitude, ladies largely prevail, both by numbers and (you are not slow to perceive) by distinction of appearance. The good old times of Saratoga, I believe, as of the world in general, are rapidly passing away. The time was when it was the chosen resort of none but “nice people.” At the present day, I hear it constantly affirmed, “the company is dreadfully mixed.” What society may have been at Saratoga when its elements were thus simple and severe, I can only vaguely, regretfully conjecture. I confine myself to the dense, democratic, vulgar Saratoga of the current year. You are struck, to begin with, at the hotels by the numerical superiority of the women; then, I think, by their personal superiority. It is incontestably the case that in appearance, in manner, in grace and completeness of aspect, American women vastly surpass their husbands and brothers. The case is reversed with most of the nations of Europe—with the English notably, and in some degree with the French and Germans. Attached to the main entrance of the Union Hotel, and adjoining the ascent from the street to the piazza, is a “stoop” of mighty area, which, at most hours of the day and morning, is a favored lounging-place of men. I am one of those who think that on the whole we are a decidedly good-looking people. “On the whole,” perhaps, every people is good-looking. There is, however, a type of physiognomy among ourselves which seems so potently to imperil the modest validity of this dictum, that one finally utters it with a certain sense of triumph. The lean, sallow, angular Yankee of tradition is dignified mainly by a look of decision, a hint of unimpassioned volition, the air of “smartness.” This in some degree redeems him, but it fails to make him handsome. But in the average American of the present time, the typical leanness and sallowness are less, and the individual keenness and smartness at once equally intense and more evenly balanced with this greater comeliness of form. Casting your eye over a group of your fellow-citizens in the portico of the Union Hotel, you will be inclined to admit that, taking the good with the bad, they are worthy sons of the great Republic. I find in them, I confess, an ample fund of grave entertainment. They suggest to my fancy the swarming vastness—the multifarious possibilities and activities—of our young civilization. They come from the uttermost ends of the continent—from San Francisco, from New Orleans, from Duluth. As they sit with their white hats tilted forward, and their chairs tilted back, and their feet tilted up, and their cigars and toothpicks forming various angles with these various lines, I imagine them surrounded with a sort of clear achromatic halo of mystery. They are obviously persons of experience—of a somewhat narrow and monotonous experience certainly; an experience of which the diamonds and laces which their wives are exhibiting hard by are, perhaps, the most substantial and beautiful result; but, at any rate, they are men who have positively actually lived. For the time, they are lounging with the negro waiters, and the boot-blacks, and the news-venders; but it was not in lounging that they gained their hard wrinkles and the level impartial regard which they direct from beneath their hat-rims. They are not the mellow fruit of a society impelled by tradition and attended by culture; they are hard nuts, which have grown and ripened as they could. When they talk among themselves, I seem to hear the mutual cracking of opposed shells.

If these men are remarkable, the ladies are wonderful. Saratoga is famous, I believe, as the place of all places in America where women most adorn themselves, or as the place, at least, where the greatest amount of dressing may be seen by the greatest number of people. Your first impression is therefore of the—what shall I call it?—of the muchness of the feminine drapery. Every woman you meet, young or old, is attired with a certain amount of splendor and a large amount of good taste. You behold an interesting, indeed a quite momentous spectacle: the democratization of elegance. If I am to believe what I hear—in fact, I may say what I overhear—a large portion of these sumptuous persons are victims of imperfect education and members of a somewhat narrow social circle. She walks more or less of a queen, however, each unsanctified nobody. She has, in dress, an admirable instinct of elegance and even of what the French call “chic.” This instinct occasionally amounts to a sort of passion; the result then is superb. You look at the coarse brick walls, the rusty iron posts of the piazza, at the shuffling negro waiters, the great tawdry steamboat cabin of a drawing-room—you see the tilted ill-dressed loungers on the steps—and you finally regret that a figure so exquisite should have so vulgar a setting. Your resentment, however, is speedily tempered by reflection. You feel the impertinence of your old reminiscences of Old-World novels, and of the dreary social order in which privacy was the presiding genius and women arrayed themselves for the appreciation of the few—the few still, even when numerous. The crowd, the tavern loungers, the surrounding ugliness and tumult and license, constitute the social medium of the young lady whom you so cunningly admire: she is dressed for publicity. The thought fills you with a kind of awe. The Old-World social order is far away indeed, and as for Old-World novels, you begin to doubt whether she is so amiably curious as to read even the silliest of them. To be so excessively dressed is obviously to give pledges to idleness. I have been forcibly struck with the apparent absence of any warmth and richness of detail in the lives of these wonderful ladies of the piazzas. We are freely accused of being an eminently wasteful people: I know of few things which so largely warrant the accusation as the fact that these consummate élégantes adorn themselves, socially speaking, to so little purpose. To dress for every one is, practically, to dress for no one. There are few prettier sights than a charmingly dressed woman, gracefully established in some shady spot, with a piece of needlework or embroidery, or a book. Nothing very serious is accomplished, probably, but an aesthetic principle is considered. The embroidery and the book are a tribute to culture, and I suppose they really figure somewhere out of the opening scenes of French comedies. But here at Saratoga, at any hour of morning or evening, you may see a hundred brave creatures steeped in a quite unutterable empty handedness. I have had constant observation of a lady who seems to me really to possess a genius for being nothing more than dressed. Her dresses are admirably rich and beautiful—my letter would greatly gain in value if I possessed the learning needful for describing them. I can only say that every evening for a fortnight, I believe, she has revealed herself as a fresh creation. But she especially, as I say, has struck me as a person dressed beyond her life. I resent on her behalf—or on behalf at least of her finery—the extreme severity of her circumstances. What is she, after all, but a regular boarder? She ought to sit on the terrace of a stately castle, with a great baronial park shutting out the undressed world, mildly coquetting with an ambassador or a duke. My imagination is shocked when I behold her seated in gorgeous relief against the dusty clapboards of the hotel, with her beautiful hands folded in her silken lap, her head drooping slightly beneath the weight of her chignon, her lips parted in a vague contemplative gaze at Mr. Helmbold’s well-known advertisement on the opposite fence, her husband beside her reading the New York Sun.

I have indeed observed cases of a sort of splendid social isolation here, which are not without a certain amount of pathos—people who know no one—who have money and finery and possessions, only no friends. Such at least is my inference, from the lonely grandeur with which I see them invested. Women, of course, are the most helpless victims of this cruel situation, although it must be said that they befriend each other with a generosity for which we hardly give them credit. I have seen women, for instance, at various “hops,” approach their lonely sisters and invite them to waltz, and I have seen the fair invited most graciously heedless of the potential irony of this particular form of charity. Gentlemen at Saratoga are at a premium far more, evidently, than at European watering-places. It is an old story that in this country we have no leisured class—the class from which the Saratogas of Europe recruit a large number of their male frequenters. A few months ago, I paid a visit to a famous English watering-place, where, among many substantial points of difference from our own, I chiefly remember the goodly number of well-dressed, well-looking, well-talking young men. While their sweethearts and sisters are waltzing together, our own young men are rolling up greenbacks in counting-houses and stores. I was recently reminded in another way, one evening, of the unlikeness of Saratoga to Cheltenham. Behind the biggest of the big hotels is a large planted yard, which has come to be talked of as a “park.” This I regret, inasmuch as, as a yard, it is possibly the biggest in the world; while as a park I am afraid it is decidedly less than the smallest. At one end, however, stands a great ball-room, approached by a range of wooden steps. It was late in the evening: the room, in spite of the intense heat, was blazing with light, and the orchestra thundering a mighty waltz. A group of loungers, including myself, were hanging about to watch the ingress of the festally minded. In the basement of the edifice, sunk beneath the ground, a noisy auctioneer, in his shirt and trousers, black in the face with heat and vociferation, was selling “pools” of the races to a dense group of frowsy betting-men. At the foot of the steps was stationed a man in a linen coat and straw hat, without waistcoat or cravat, to take the tickets of the ball-goers. As the latter failed to arrive in sufficient numbers, a musician came forth to the top of the steps and blew a loud summons on a horn. After this they began to straggle along. On this occasion, certainly, the company promised to be decidedly “mixed.” The women, as usual, were a great deal dressed, though without any constant adhesion to the technicalities of full-dress. The men adhered to it neither in the letter nor the spirit. The possessor of a pair of satin shod feet, twinkling beneath an uplifted volume of gauze and lace and flowers, tripped up the steps with her gloved hand on the sleeve of a railway “duster.” Now and then two ladies arrived alone: generally a group of them approached under convoy of a single man. Children were freely scattered among their elders, and frequently a small boy would deliver his ticket and enter the glittering portal, beautifully unembarrassed. Of the children of Saratoga there would be wondrous things to relate. I believe that, in spite of their valuable aid, the festival of which I speak was rated rather a “fizzle.” I see it advertised that they are soon to have, for their own peculiar benefit, a “Masquerade and Promenade Concert, beginning at 9 p.m.” I observe that they usually open the “hops,” and that it is only after their elders have borrowed confidence from the sight of their unfaltering paces that they venture to perform. You meet them far into the evening roaming over the piazzas and corridors of the hotels—the little girls especially—lean, pale, and formidable. Occasionally childhood confesses itself, even when motherhood stands out, and you see at eleven o’clock at night some poor little bedizened precocity collapsed in slumbers in a lonely wayside chair. The part played by children in society here is only an additional instance of the wholesale equalization of the various social atoms which is the distinctive feature of collective Saratoga: A man in a “duster” at a ball is as good as a man in irreproachable sable; a young woman dancing with another young woman is as good as a young woman dancing with a young man; a child of ten is as good as a woman of thirty; a double negative in conversation is rather better than a single.

An important feature in many watering-places is the facility for leaving it a little behind you and tasting of the unmitigated country. You may wander to some shady hillside and sentimentalize upon the vanity of high civilization. But at Saratoga civilization holds you fast. The most important feature of the place, perhaps, is the impossibility of realizing any such pastoral dream. The surrounding country is a charming wilderness, but the roads are so abominably bad that walking and driving are alike unprofitable. Of course, however, if you are bent upon a walk, you will take it. There is a striking contrast between the concentrated prodigality of life in the immediate precinct of the hotels and the generous wooded wildness and roughness into which half an hour’s stroll may lead you. Only a mile behind you are thousands of loungers and idlers, fashioned from head to foot by the experience of cities and keenly knowing in their secrets; while here, about you and before you, blooms untamed the hardy innocence of field and forest. The heavy roads are little more than sandy wheel-tracks; by the tangled wayside the blackberries wither unpicked. The country undulates with a beautiful unsoftened freedom. There are no white villages gleaming in the distance, no spires of churches, no salient details. It is all green, lonely, and vacant. If you wish to seize an “effect,” you must stop beneath a cluster of pines and listen to the murmur of the softly-troubled air, or follow upward the gradual bending of their trunks to where the afternoon light touches and enchants them. Here and there on a slope by the roadside stands a rough unpainted farm-house, looking as if its dreary blackness were the result of its standing dark and lonely amid so many months, and such a wide expanse, of winter snow. The principal feature of the grassy unfurnished yard is the great wood-pile, telling grimly of the long reversion of the summer. For the time, however, it looks down contentedly enough over a goodly appanage of grain-fields and orchards, and I can fancy that it may be good to be a boy there. But to be a man, it must be quite what the lean, brown, serious farmers physiognomically hint it to be. You have, however, at the present season, for your additional beguilement, on the eastern horizon, the vision of the long bold chain of the Green Mountains, clad in that single coat of simple candid blue which is the favorite garment of our American hills. As a visitor, too, you have for an afternoon’s excursion your choice between a couple of lakes. Saratoga Lake, the larger and more distant of the two, is the goal of the regular afternoon drive. Above the shore is a well-appointed tavern—“Moon’s” it is called by the voice of fame—where you may sit upon a broad piazza and partake of fried potatoes and “drinks”; the latter, if you happen to have come from poor dislicensed Boston, a peculiarly gratifying privilege. You enjoy the felicity sighed for by that wanton Italian princess of the anecdote, when, one summer evening, to the sound of music, she wished that to eat an ice were a sin. The other lake is small, and its shores are unadorned by any edifice but a boat-house, where you may hire a skiff and pull yourself out into the minnow-tickled, wood-circled oval. Here, floating in its darkened half, while you watch on the opposite shore the tree-stems, white and sharp in the declining sunlight, and their foliage whitening and whispering in the breeze, and you feel that this little solitude is part of a greater and more portentous solitude, you may resolve certain passages of Ruskin, in which he dwells upon the needfulness of some human association, however remote, to make natural scenery fully impressive. You may recall that magnificent passage in which he relates having tried with such fatal effect, in a battle-haunted valley of the Jura, to fancy himself in a nameless solitude of our own continent. You feel around you, with irresistible force, the serene inexperience of undedicated nature—the absence of serious associations, the nearness, indeed, of the vulgar and trivial associations of the least picturesque of great watering-places—you feel this, and you wonder what it is you so deeply and calmly enjoy. You conclude, possibly, that it is a great advantage to be able at once to enjoy Ruskin and to enjoy what Ruskin dispraises. And hereupon you return to your hotel and read the New York papers on the plan of the French campaign and the Twenty-third Street murder.


August 10, 1870

Lake George, ca. 1873.

I FIND SO GREAT A PLEASURE IN TRAVELLING, AND MAINTAIN so friendly and expectant an attitude toward possible “sensations,” that they haven’t the heart to leave me altogether unvisited, though I confess that they are frequently such as may seem to lack flavor to fastidious people or to those sated with many wanderings. I found it a sensation, for instance, to come from Saratoga (for the first time) in a “drawing-room car.” I found it a luxury of an almost romantic intensity to sit in one of those revolving fauteuils and gaze through that generous, oblong plate of glass at the midsummer wilderness which bordered my route, while through a nether screen of delicate wire the summer breeze rushed in, winnowed of the grossness of cinders, and an artfully frescoed ceiling invited my gaze to rest at moments from the excessive abandon of nature. I observed that my companions on top of the coach which I subsequently mounted, were unanimous in voting Glenn’s Falls a remarkably pretty town: I therefore observed it with the view at once of enjoying its prettiness and of appraising my neighbor’s judgment. Pretty it is for a town of elements so meagre. Like Saratoga, the village is blissfully bedimmed and over-shadowed with a noble abundance of wayside verdure—by serried lines of elms and maples, and their goodly domestic umbrage in gardens and yards. It has not, however, that rounded and harmonious charm which would perhaps have made it appear a little less incongruous to me than it did to behold a public work of art at our egress from the village. Like so many other little American towns, it has its own little aesthetic fact—shining with newness—in the shape of a soldier’s monument: an obelisk, if I recollect, of a pleasant cream-colored stone, surmounted on its apex by a species of napkin, which an eagle is in the act of rending in his claws, and decorated toward the bases with four niches, enclosing four of the usual warriors contemplating the graves of their comrades. It is not very wisely conceived, perhaps, nor very cunningly executed; but there it stands, neighbored by a grosser ugliness, which, in its fair monumental breadth and permanence, it may connect with some lurking germs of future beauty. The drive to Lake George is full of a grand rough prettiness—leading you straight into the midst of the thickening hills and along the bases of half-grown mountains. When you emerge upon the lake, you find yourself fairly launched into the romance of mountain scenery.

I find here, at this little village of Caldwell, an immense hotel of a good deal of external architectural pretension—French-roofed, with a sort of high-piled and gabled complexity which, as country hotels go, makes it look vaguely picturesque. It stands directly on the lake, and boasts a really magnificent piazza—a terrace of contemplation—worthy of the beautiful view it commands. This, I believe, is not the choice quarter of the lake. Yet such as it is, it is thoroughly lovely. Great simple masses of wooded hills rise with a plain green nearness, to right and left; further, as the lake recedes, they increase in size and in magic of colors, and in the uttermost background they figure nobly in outline and hue, with the magnitude and mystery of a mountain chain. A friend at Saratoga informed me that Lake George is considered strongly to resemble the Lake of Como. A year ago, almost at the present moment, I spent a week on the shores of that divinest of lakes, and I think that, even unreminded by my friends, I should occasionally be prompted to an attempt at comparison and contrast. It is in a certain way unwise and even unkind to play this sort of game with the things of America and of Italy, but it seems to me that comparisons are odious only when they are sterile, and intruders only when they are forced. Lake George is quite enough like the Lake of Como to impel you, if the image of the latter is fresh in your mind, to pursue the likeness to its inevitable phase of unlikeness. The mountains which melt into those blue Italian waters are clad with olives and vines, with groves of mulberry and chestnut and ilex, with a verdure productive of a wholly different range of effects from that of the sombre forests of the North. And yet, such is the in-finite mercy of the sun, its inscrutable cunning and power, that, to-day, as the morning light spent itself through the long hours over the sullen darkness of these American hills, it tempered and tinted and softened them, and wrought upon them such a sweet confusion of exquisite tones, such a dimness of distant blue, such a brilliant tissue of noonday vapors, such a fine-drawn purity of outline, that they seemed to borrow their beauty from a Southern air and to shine with that mild, iridescent, opaline glow which you enjoy from the little headland above Bellagio. It is the complete absence of detail which betrays the identity of American scenery. On those Italian slopes the fancy travels with the eye from one bright sign of human presence to another, from a gleaming mountain hamlet to the lonely twinkle of a mountain shrine. In our own landscape, if the background in its greatest beauty is in a sense common, undetermined, and general, the foreground is even more so, inasmuch as in the foreground there is usually an attempt at detail. Here, on the


On Sale
Oct 25, 2016
Page Count
304 pages
Bold Type Books

Henry James

About the Author

Henry James (1843-1916) is the author of such classic novels as The Portrait of a Lady, The Turn of the Screw, Daisy Miller, The Golden Bowl, and Washington Square.

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