Up@dawn 2.0

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Smugness and insensitivity to the deprivations imposed on the poor

"London parks are the drawing-rooms and clubs of the poor..." Making allowance for the fact that Henry was a 19th-century man, is that statement still a bit too smug and insensitive to the deprivations imposed on the poor by a rigid class structure?

As Henry James described his travels through England and specifically in London, he gave a realistic portrayal of what he saw colored in a degree by his own social class. It is doubtful that he ever attempted to live among the poor as Jack London did when he researched the plight of the poor in London in 1902 and later published People of the Abyss in 1903. If James had, his writings may have been associated more with naturalism than realism and given his upbringing, it is unlikely that he would have seen the conditions of London’s poor from a socialistic perspective.

Clearly in the Chapter 1 of English Hours (London) he writes disparagingly of the lower class, “There are few hours of the day when a thousand smutty children are not sprawling over it (referring to Green Park), and the unemployed lie thick on the grass and cover the benches with a brotherhood of greasy corduroys.”[1] He personifies London as a rapacious ogress who is “so clumsy and so brutal, and has gathered together so many of the darkest sides of life…who devours human flesh.”[2] However, in a nod towards realism, he writes, “And yet I should not go so far as to say that it is a condition of such geniality to close one’s eyes upon the immense misery; on the contrary, I think it is partly because we are irremediably conscious of that dark gulf that the most general appeal of the great city remains exactly what it is, the largest chapter of human accidents. I have no idea of what the future evolution of the strangely mingled monster may be; whether the poor will improve away the rich, or the rich will expropriate the poor, or they will all continue to dwell together on the present imperfect terms of intercourse.”[3]

Chapter 1 was written in 1888. When he came twenty years earlier, his observations were more poignant, in Chester he referred to “the population has overflowed,”… “And everywhere you go you are accompanied by a vague consciousness of the British child hovering about your knees and coat-skirts, naked, grimy, and portentous.”[4] Five years later in London in Midsummer , he noted, “Yet at the season of which I write one’s social studies must at the least be studies of low life, for wherever one may go for a stroll or to spend the summer afternoon the comparatively sordid side of things is uppermost. There is no one in the parks save the rough characters who are lying on their faces in the sheep-polluted grass.”[5]

I don’t know if he lacks sympathy for the poor or if his heart is hardened to his observed reality spoken of in Matthew, that “the poor will always have with you.” Perhaps he believes that there is nothing he can do about it, so he might as well look after himself, forgetting the old adage from English reformer, John Bradford, “there but for the grace of God go I”.

[1] Henry James, English Hours (New York, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989), 23.
[2] Ibid., 24.
[3] Ibid., 27.
[4] Ibid., 54.
[5] Ibid., 112.

1 comment:

  1. My guess is that Henry did have a strong sense of empathy or at least sympathy for the poor, but that the class rigidities and political realities of his day made it difficult for him to think of how to apply and enact his sensibility in practical ways. And, he was by nature and choice more an observer than a participant - to his discredit, in my view. He was the literary analogue to his brother's Harvard colleague George Santayana, whose spectatorial detachment drove William crazy. No wonder Henry's "late manner" of writing also drove him crazy.