Saturday, May 9, 2020

The After-Season in Rome

Henry James (1843–1916)
From Henry James: Collected Travel Writings: The Continent

“The Colonnade of St. Peter, Rome,” illustration by American artist Joseph Pennell (1857–1926) for Henry James’s Italian Hours (1909).
“The other day, I became THIRTY!—solemn fact—which I have been taking to heart,” Henry James wrote from Rome to his parents in May 1873. Although he had not yet published a book, his first novel, the melodramatic Watch and Ward, had been serialized two years earlier in The Atlantic Monthly and he was steadily placing short stories, reviews, essays, and travel pieces in such prominent American magazines as The Nation, Scribner’s, and The Century. He was still financially dependent on his parents, who doubled in Boston as his bankers; all his earnings went directly to his father to help offset the funds sent to Henry in Europe. The letter home served two purposes: to reassure his mother that her parsimonious THIRTY!-year-old son did not (in her words) live “as the lilies, and feed like the sparrows” and to point out that the income he was due to receive from various publications that spring would, for the first time, put him “abreast with my drafts.” After a ten-year apprenticeship, Henry James was finally making ends meet as a full-time writer.

His letter also celebrated the change in atmosphere in Roman society that month: “The Barbarians are thinning out here very blessedly; I shall devote a portion of this last fortnight to going to various places where I have been waiting all winter for them to clear out.” The “Barbarians” were forestieri (foreigners) like himself—the seasonal tourists who invaded southern Italy each winter. He noted the city’s transformation in a letter to his new friend Sarah Butler Wister (daughter of the actress Fanny Kemble): “The weather is deliciously cool and brilliant and I have been pitying the good people who left religiously a month ago because it was the tenth of April. For the most part, though, I don’t want to recall them.”

James’s first visit to the Eternal City was three years earlier—two exciting months at the end of 1869. “At last—for the first time—I live!” he wrote exuberantly to his brother William after his arrival. “I went reeling and moaning thro' the streets, in a fever of enjoyment. In the course of four or five hours I traversed almost the whole of Rome and got a glimpse of everything—the Forum, the Coliseum (stupendissimo!), the Pantheon, the Capitol, St. Peter's, the Column of Trajan, the Castle of St. Angelo—all the Piazzas and ruins and monuments.” To his sister Alice he described Rome as “so vast, so heavy, so multitudinous that you seem to require all your energy simply to bear up against it.” For the first trip, however, he was mostly alone: “I see no people, to speak of, or for that matter to speak to,” he told William.

To read his letters and travel essays from both journeys is to witness his metamorphosis from a wide-eyed sightseer to a citified bohemian trying to blend with the natives. During his second stay in Rome, he abandoned his hotel room and rented a two-room alcove on the fourth floor of a building in the Corso, with the landlord’s family living just down the hall. (“A hotel gives one a disagreeable tourist feeling,” he had told his father earlier in the season.) His enthusiasm for sightseeing had been somewhat dampened, but his social circle had greatly expanded. He became fast friends with Kemble and her daughter and visited with the young historian Henry Adams and the sculptor William Wetmore Story. He played tour guide to Ralph Waldo Emerson when the “enviable man, fresh from the East,” passed through town at the end of his Mediterranean tour. At several dinner parties, James ran into one of his idols, Matthew Arnold, who was “decidedly a disappointment, in a superficial sense”; their conversation “remained small-talk and he did nothing to make it big.” Even as James became more firmly ensconced in the community of American and British expatriates, he convinced himself that each day left him “a little more Roman than before.”

It was during James’s second residence in Rome that he formulated the idea for his first book. As he wrote to his mother, “What I desire is this, to make a volume, a short time hence, of tales on the theme of American adventurers in Europe.” That collection, A Passionate Pilgrim and Other Tales, would appear in January 1875. Three decades later, when James revised his essay “The After-Season in Rome” for the 1909 collection Italian Hours (which is the version reprinted below), he recycled the expression passionate pilgrim to describe the “quiet observer” who wants nothing more than to enjoy the delights of Rome in May, when all the other tourists are gone and “when Rome becomes Rome again and you may have her all to yourself.”

Note: James’s French “informant” was Ernest Hébert, a painter and the director of the Académie de France in Rome. The French phrase renaît à elle-même translates “returns to herself.” James’s reference to “the most morbid blue” is a pun; the Italian azurrro morbide translates correctly as “soft blue.”

The Pope during this period was Pius IX, who was also the sovereign ruler of the Papal States until Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia captured all the papal territories in 1860, became King of Italy in 1861, and cemented his victory over the Vatican by capturing Rome in 1870. In 1869 Victor Emmanuel married Rosa (“Rosina”) Vercellana Guerrieri, his second wife, whom James describes as living in the Villa Ludovisi at the time of his second visit. In June 1873 (after James left the city), the Italian government passed the Law of the Convents, abolishing the corporate status of religious orders in the former Papal States and placing hundreds of hospitals and schools managed by the orders under civil administration. The Palazzo del Quirinale, the destination of the protesters shouting Abbasso il ministero! (“Down with the government!”), was the official residence of Victor Emmanuel.

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One may at the blest end of May say without injustice to anybody that the state of mind of many a forestiero in Rome is one of intense impatience for the moment when all other forestieri shall have taken themselves off. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

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