Tuesday, August 11, 2020

'An Important Item in the Sum of American Manners'

Henry James published “Saratoga” in the Nation on this date, Aug. 11, in 1870. After 150 years, the upstate New York town he describes remains recognizably the place where I lived for seven years, where we bought our first house and where my younger sons were born. I last visited Saratoga for an afternoon in 2005, so James’ opening lines hold true even for this former resident:

“The sentimental tourist makes images in advance; they grow up in his mind by a logic of their own. He finds himself thinking of an unknown, unseen place, as having such and such a shape and figure rather than such another. It assumes in his mind a certain complexion, a certain colour which frequently turns out to be singularly at variance with reality.”

In the twenty-first century, fifteen years is a long time in the life of an American city. I know that the old house on Phila Street, two blocks off Broadway, the main drag, where we lived from 1997 to 2000, burned down more than a decade ago. Hattie’s Chicken Shack moved out of downtown and Border’s closed. I would still know my way around but the “shape and figure” would be different. “I had made a cruelly small allowance,” James writes, “for the stern vulgarities of life—for the shops and sidewalks and loafers, the complex machinery of a city of pleasure.”

James spent a month in Saratoga, where the thoroughbred track had opened in 1863. He was twenty-seven, had been publishing short stories for six years and recently completed his first novel, Watch and Ward, which would be published the following year. In one of his late autobiographies, James would place himself among life’s “incorrigible observers,” a role already on display. He takes a seat on the piazza of one of the great hotels along Broadway,

“. . . 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 big 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 item in the sum of American manners.”

When my middle son was about three years old, we would go to a Broadway coffee shop on a sunny afternoon, take a seat on the sidewalk, share an iced tea and watch the human parade. James goes on to describe a distinctly American scene:

“The part played by children in society here is only an additional instance of the wholesale equalisation 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 regulation-garments; 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.”

It’s good to recall James’ drily comic sense. In his concluding paragraph, in a mock-pastoral mode, he describes the “wilderness” surrounding Saratoga:  
“You feel around you, with irresistible force, the eloquent silence of undedicated nature—the absence of serious associations, the nearness, indeed, of the vulgar and trivial associations of the least complete of all the cities of pleasure—you feel this, and you wonder what it is you so deeply and calmly enjoy. . . . And hereupon you return to your hotel and read the New York papers on the plan of the French campaign and the Nathan murder.”

See the photograph of Saratoga Springs taken by Walker Evans in 1931 – closer to James’ time than to ours. Evans is facing south down Broadway, shooting from an upper floor in one of the old hotels described by James, now razed.

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