18 July (1860): Henry James to Thomas Sergeant Perry

henry_james

At seventeen, James was traveling in Europe when he wrote to Thomas Sergeant Perry, who would become a lifelong friend and correspondent. Using an informal tone and showing somewhat of an overzealousness for exclamation points, he describes in detail his impressions of Switzerland and Germany with both a sense of curiosity and pride for his own native country.

Bonn, on the Rhine, Prussia
Wednesday, July 18th, 1860

 

Mein lieber, schonster Peri—

If, on writing your letter of June 29th received by me this afternoon you had such an abundant stock of news to retail, that you did not know with which choice bit to commence, if you who have nothing but the gossip of a little country village to relate find yourself in such case, how much more perplexed must I be, I who can speak of the most hallowed spots of time-honoured historic Europe!!!!!! I think I must fire off my biggest gun first. One-two-three! Bung gerdee bang bang…..!!! What a noise! Our passages are taken in the Adriatic, for the 11th of September!!!!!! We are going immediately to Newport, which is the place in America we all most care to live in. I’ll tell you the reason of this as briefly as I can. Willie has decided to try and study painting seriously, and wished [to] return home and do so if possible with Mr. Hunt. That is the reason, at least in a great measure the reason (for his going home need not necessitate our all going) of this determination. Besides that, I think that if we are to live in America it is about time we boys should take up our abode there; the more I see of this estrangement of American youngsters from the land of their birth, the less I believe in it. It should also be the land of their breeding. I cannot devote my whole letter to this because I have so much more to say.

You ask if I have made any of those courses on foot which seem so pleasant to you, and if so to tell you about them. I am glad to say I have. Before leaving Switzerland Willie and [I] had about a week’s walking among the mountains. Although we did but little compared with what many people do and have done, we enjoyed more in a week than I thought possible to cram into so short a time. We went first from Geneva to Chamouni. Have you heard of it? It is the rendezvous of travellers of all nations who wish to “do” a few Swiss Mountains. It is down at the foot of Mont-Blanc (in Savoy or what now miserable dictu, is France). We had but a day there, for the weather gave bad promise. We went over a mountain called the Moutonvert (two-hours) to the Mer de Glace. The M. de G. is a broad river of peaked, uneven ice that winds from the mountains down a deep ravine, and opens here and there into dark watery crevasses. We crossed—which with stout nails in your boots and a good spiked-pole is not a difficult business. We also crossed to another glacier, the Gl. des Bassons which although smaller, is more beautiful than the M. de G. for the ice is much clearer and more sparkling. It is at the same time however, much more slippery and therefore I think more difficult of passage. We then crossed a mountain called the Tête-Noire to a place in the Canton du Valais called Martigny. It takes ten hours. We had a mule between us and I grieve to say that having hurt my foot the day before at Chamouni, I was obliged for a good part of the way to bestride the ugly beast. From Martigny we went up the great St. Bernard about whose good Father’s and dogs we have both read, I am sure, in our primmers and geographys. The ascent takes about nine hours. I went almost all the way on foot for although we had a mule the guide profited most by him. At about three hours distance from the hospice the scenery becomes most wild dreary and barren. Everything indicates a great elevation. The growth of everything but the enormous rocks is stunted—not a blade of grass or straggling mountain pine. The tinkling of the last cattle bell dies away, you see the last hardy Alpine sheep climbing over desolate heights which would seem to afford no nourishment and then you enter upon the snow which lies all the year round. We had about an hour and a half’s walk in it. It was very deep—far above our heads—but so hard on the surface that we didn’t seek deeply in. It tires the legs to walk long in it, and it was bitter cold, so I was heartily glad when the high bleak hospice came in sight. We were received by one of the fathers who took us into a warm sitting-room, and gave us warm slippers and hot broth and roast mutton. He sat with us all the evening—a most kindly and courteous man. I asked him for pen and paper and sat me down to write, by the light of a solitary tallow-candle a letter to you, dear friend, but sleep and chilliness with which I wrestled in vain soon overcame me and I retired to pass the night on a mattress and pillow which were apparently stuffed with damp sand. In the morning we saw the dogs eight in a number. They are noble majestic, tawny creatures and have (the old ones at least) the same stately courtesy in their bearing as the Fathers themselves. At a little distance from the Hospice is the house in which the corpses of those found in the snow are placed. As they cannot be buried they are stood around the walls in their shrouds and a grim and ghastly sight it is. They fall into all sorts of hideous positions, with such fiendish grins on their faces! faugh! I wish I could picture to you the appearance of that mournful region—I mean that colour. The sky is of a liquid twinkling sort of blue, and the gigantic gray and white rocks rise up against it so sharply-cut and barren, and the stillness that reigns around and the apparent nearness of every object from the greater tenuity of the atmosphere! For all the courtesy and kindness which the priests expend nothing is asked. There is an alms-box in the chapel where one can drop what he pleases (nobody knows anything about it)—and that is all. The descent takes another day. On the following one went by a carriage from Martigny to a place called Loèche-les-Bains, where there are warm medicinal baths which patients take in public tanks, sitting up to their chins in the nauseous places for hours together and reading and eating in them. Loèche stands at the foot of the ridge of the Gemmi over which one of the most wonderful passes in the Alps has been made; we crossed it the following day. From Loèche you see nothing but a vast towering surface of vertical rock naked and rugged. You cannot believe it possible that you can pass over it for no trace of path can be discerned. And indeed the path is most curious. It is very narrow (five feet at the widest and generally about three) very steep and winds in such zigzags, that it turns so from right to left, that you never see whence you’ve come or whither you are going. In one place (so says the guide book, the spot escaped my notice) a plumb-line many be dropped over the precepice down a distance of 1600 ft. without any abuttement to interfere. On the plateau on the summit we had for a little over an hour of snow, and were down on the other side in seven hours from the time we started. That same evening we reached Interlaken where we found all the “folks” except Robby whom at that young gent’s own earnest solicitation father left at school in Geneva, but who now is gone with his teacher and mates to travel on foot among the mountains, and to go into Italy as far as Venice. I wish I were in his place. The rest had been already some time at Interlaken which is a strangers’ summer place full of hotels and English people and had thoroughly “done” the place and its neighborhood. We remained there for three days longer, saw what there was to be seen and then set out for Germany. We came almost directly here, stopping for a couple of days only at Wiesbaden and Frankfort. At the former place of which I suppose you have heard, we drank of course of the hot waters, and witnessed the gambling for which it is famous. Then we sailed up (or down) the Rhine. I am not the first person who has been disappointed in the Rhine and have a better reason than many for such sacreligiousness inasmuch as I had just come from among the mountains of Switzerland whose high privilege it is to make everything else look mean and small.

We are all three of us installed in German families for the learning of the German tongue. Wilky and I together, Willie alone. The gentleman I am with is one Doctor Humpert Latin and Greek professor at the Gymnasium here. His family is composed of his wife and sister who are to aid him in the task of conversing ceaselessly with us (a task for which they might seem to be but ill-qualified as I don’t believe that between them they can muster, Germanlike, more than half a dozen teeth). Also of his son Theodore aged seventeen, of whom I see little, as he is away at his lessons all day, and of five young Deutschers from six to fourteen years of age. With their company I am favoured only at meals. They are not his sons but are with him for intellectual cultivation, “all the comforts of a home” etc. This is an opportunity for me to see something of German life, in what would be called, I suppose the middle classes. I naturally compare it with the corresponding life at home, and think it truly inferior. The women stop at home all day, doing the housework, drudging, and leading the most homely and I should say joyless lives. I fancy they never look at a book, and all their conversation is about their pots and pans. The sister asked me the other day if we hadn’t a king in the United States! The Doctor is a pleasant genial man with very little force of character and more book-learning, that is knowledge of Greek and Sanskrit than anything else. The other day, Sunday last, I think we went all of us, wife, sister and little Dutchers (a nice little party of eleven) to a place called Godesberg within ten minutes of this, by rail, to see a little mound, or mountain they call it, with a ruin on the top. Notwithstanding the stifling heat of the weather, and the dust, we went under a shed on the dusty road and partook of some steaming coffee and boggy loaf-cake, then strolled about and came back to drink some sweetened wine and water.

When I see you, which will be soon you see, much sooner than we either of us hoped, I can tell you more in an hour than I can do in fifty letters. Your plan for the first of August savours of “Rollo,” did you get the idea from him? Of course I will write you what I do, but I’m sure I shall feel all day as if I had the sword of Damocles suspended above my head. A fearful vengeance awaits Wilky’s foolhardy imprudence in disclosing, as he did, my secret employment. You ask upon what style of work I am employed. I may reply that to no style am I a stranger, there is none which has not been adorned by the magic of my touch. I shall be most happy to send you fifty copies of each work, the payment of which can await my return.

I must now close as I have written all this at one breath, that is at one sitting, and am rather tired. I shall of course write before we sail. Good bye. Remembrances to all.

Yours sincerely,
Henry James Jr.

P.S. I forgot to say that I received your letter of June 1st while at Interlaken.
The date of our sailing is the eleventh fo Sept. not 15th, as I had first put it. Tant mieux!

 

FURTHER READING

James was a tremendously prolific correspondent, writing tens of thousands of letters in his lifetime. A book of his letters, edited by Pierre Walker and Greg Zacharias, is reviewed here in the London Review of Books