Literary daybook, June 28

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published June 28, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On June 28, 1836, Aurora suggests to Baptiste that she send him to Paris.
-- "The Vintner's Luck" (1998)
by Elizabeth Knox

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
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Today in literary history
On this day in 1915, Henry James wrote to the British prime minister, Herbert Asquith, to inform him of a "desire to offer myself for naturalisation in this country." James was 72 years old, and had been resident in England for 40 years; becoming a citizen in the early days of WWI was his way of signaling "my explicit, my material and my spiritual allegiance, and throwing into the scale of her fortune my all but imponderable moral weight -- 'a poor thing but mine own.'"

Beneath such rotundity there was both heartfelt emotion and a joke. Naturalization was a straightforward process requiring neither quotations from Shakespeare nor letters to the prime minister. It did require that four citizens testify to the applicant's good character and literacy. Asquith was a tea-and-luncheon pal, and James thought it would be amusing to get the prime minister to vouch for his "apparent respectability, and to my speaking and writing English with an approach to propriety." Not wishing to detract from the war effort, James assured the prime minister that only his quick signature was required, "the affair of a single moment." Asquith was delighted, the application went through in record time and within a month James had surrendered his American passport, taken the oath of allegiance to King George V and written to friends, "Here I stand, I can no other."

The event attracted much publicity. In contrast to the British newspaper reports beginning, "We are able to announce ...," the American press interpreted James' action as a snub -- yet another, by one who had been looking down his nose at America for decades, and whose father, for all his wealth and learning, could take tea with Thoreau. James certainly wanted his gesture to sting at home, and thereby help prod the U.S. into the war, but he denied the general charge of anti-Americanism.

The biographies abound with anecdotal evidence to the contrary. At the time James was moving toward citizenship, his teenage niece and nephew came to visit, bringing some of their American friends with them. James found the nephew's male friend slouchy and uncommunicative, his rare and only topic of conversation being athletics. He found the niece's girlfriend to be a Daisy Miller, arousing in him pity "for a poor young creature whose elders and home-circle have handed her over, uncivilised, untutored, unadvised and unenlightened to such a fool's paradise of ignorance and fatuity." Behind such James-speak you can almost hear the foxtrot, and see the kids chewing gum.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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