Images of post-unification Germany in Henry James´ travel sketches: "Homburg Reformed" and "Darmstadt"

Seminar Paper, 1998

27 Pages, Grade: Good


Table of Contents

I. Introduction
1. The Author’s Biography
2. Historical Background
3. The American Opinion of the German Unification
4. Homburg Reformed and Darmstadt
4.1 Analyses of Homburg Reformed
4.2 Analyses of Darmstadt

II. Conclusion

III. Bibliography

IV. Index

I. Introduction

The first chapter of this paper presents a survey of Henry James’ biography. Special emphasis is given to his experiences in Germany. The reader has to take into consideration that especially his early experiences in relation with Germany shaped his attitude and influenced his image of the country throughout his life. The second chapter gives a brief overview of the historical events that lead to the German unification and the political situation of Germany shortly after the unification, the time, when Henry James visited the country. The presentation of the historical background will help the reader to understand the allusions made in Henry James’ travel sketches Homburg Reformed and Darmstadt. The third chapter presents the American opinion of the unification and establishes a connection between Henry James’ view and the public opinion, as Henry James’ opinion in that matter generally corresponded to the public opinion in America. The fourth chapter explains the background of the two travel sketches followed by a detailed analysis of the texts. The analysis focuses on Henry James’ image of Germany and his allusions on the unification. Statements of his letters and his autobiography and comparisons to contemporary travel literature constituted further points of reference for the analysis.

1. The Author’s Biography

Henry James was born in New York City in 1843. Aged only 6 months he travelled for the first time to Europe with his parents. 12 years later, in 1855, the father took his family to Europe again, because he claimed that American schooling failed to provide ‘sensuous education’ (Autobiography, 353) for his children. This stay lasted, with a brief interruption, until 1860 and the children had a number of tutors and governesses in Geneva, London, Paris and Boulogne-sur-Mer. In 1860 Henry and two of his brothers spent the summer in Bonn, where they should improve their German. On their trip to Bonn the family stopped a couple of days at Wiesbaden to experience what then most tourists came for, as Henry James mentions in one of his letters: they ‘drank of course of the hot waters, and witnessed the gambling for which it is famous’ (Letters I, 25). Years later, when he returned to that region, Henry could only experience the hot water cures, the gambling would have been prohibited by then. In Bonn Henry was put into the pension of a German professor, where he was subjected to rigourous language study and literature readings. Later he evaluated this time as his imaginative and intellectual awakening, where he felt himself come alive (‘...I didn’t at all know how much I was living and meanwhile quite supposed I was considerably learning’, Autobiography, 255). In this first acquaintance with Germany Henry, however, did not develop any kind of attachment. Unlike his brother William he did not really have an access to the German spirit and was very happy to leave. A polarity developed between the two brothers in their opinion about Germany, which was to remain throughout their lives.[1] Concerning this stay he expresses a not very positive opinion about Germany in a letter to a friend:

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. (Letters I, 25)

Henry was seventeen years old when he came back to America. His family settled in Newport, Rhode Island. He entered Harvard Law school but soon withdrew from law studies to try writing. He started making contributions to the North American Review , the Atlantic Monthly and the Nation , it was the latter who first published in 1873 the travel reports Homburg Reformed and Darmstadt. In 1869/70 Henry James went on a “Grand Tour” of Europe, which was a fashionable thing to do for Americans after the Civil War. His trip included England, France, Switzerland and Italy, but not Germany. In 1872 he returned to Germay for 10 days while escorting his sister and his aunt. His comment about this stay is also not especially positive:

To me this hasty and most partial glimpse of Germany has been most satisfactory: it has cleared from my mind the last mists of uncertainty and assured me that I can never hope to become an unworthiest adoptive grandchild of the fatherland. It is well to listen to the voice of the spirit, to cease hair-splitting and treat oneself to a good square antipathy – when it is so very sympathetic! I may ‘cultivate’ mine away, but it has given me a week’s wholesome nourishment. (Henry James quoted in Pelham, 18)

After his sister and his aunt had left Henry stayed in Europe in order to travel and to write. In 1873 he went to Homburg for eight weeks with the intention to restore his health in the famous water-cure ressort north of Frankfurt (see map page 7) and also to find some tranquility for his work, as he had not been able to settle down in the weeks before. He was surprised to find Homburg comfortable and spent ten quiet and productive weeks there. His personal comment on the stay taken from a letter:

I have been at Homburg a month, having come here, out of sorts, to attempt a “cure” with the waters. I have ceased to drink them – the “cure” not responding to my appeal; but I am staying because I like the place and have a constitutional shrinking from fleeing to ill I know not of. Do you know Homburg at all? It’s very pretty – German pretty – and is cool and shady and comfortable generally, and still amusing enough, in spite of the death and burial of the gaming. (Letters I, 399)

He also visited Darmstadt, where he saw a famous Holbein-painting. The two travel sketches, which are subject of this paper, are based on this phase of his travels. A year after Henry returned to Germany but preferred to stay in Baden-Baden instead of the ‘too too familiar Homburg’ (Letters I, 457). In the following years he was living in Paris, Italy and England. He returned to Germany briefly in 1891 and 1909. The catastrophes of 1914 and the onset of World War I stirred his thoughts about Germany another time. He was overwhelmed by the death and suffering that took place on both sides.[2] Henry James had lived most of his life in Europe and he died in 1916 in his house in Rye, England, but he was no European. Lanzinger concludes:

James was rooted in America, he had strong family ties there, he was brought up in America during the decisive formative years as a child, his moral conscience was formed in America, and above all he responded as an American writer to Europe and not vice versa. (121)

In the travelogues analysed in this paper can be clearly seen that Henry James maintained the viewpoint of the American traveller in Europe in his responses and evaluations and also that the audience he had in mind as readers is evidently American and not European.

2. Historical Background

Henry James wrote his travel reports Homburg Reformed and Darmstadt in the late summer of the year 1873. It was the time after the German unification, which took place in 1871. United Germany was then ruled by the monarch Wilhelm I and his chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who James refers to various times in these travel sketches. The unification had produced a mayor change of power relations in Europe, as Germany took over the position of predominance from France. Previous to the unification there had been decades of nationalistic struggles in Germany. Bismarck, who was determined to create a powerful German state under the leadership of Prussia, achieved his aim step by step. In 1866 he cancelled the confederation treaty with Austria, which lead to the Prussian-Austrian war. Prussian troups marched towards Vienna and in Sadowa, close to Königgrätz (Bohemia) they triumphed over the weaker Austrian army. This event is also mentioned in James’ Darmstadt (644). Austria lost her rights to Schlewig-Holstein and had to resign from the German Confederation. So Bismarck was free to unite the northern regions of Germany, which was immediately executed by the foundation of the North German Confederation under the leadership of Prussia, still in 1866 (see map page 7).[3]

The Franco-German War initiated the final unification of the North German Confederation with the Southgerman regions. Prussian’s growth of power preoccupied the French and the tensions were increased by the question of the canditate for the Spanish throne[4]. The awkward tactics of French diplomacy regarding this question lead to the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, declared by Napoleon III. Prussia and Southgermany fought the French together and defeated them in the battle of Sedan. This victory caused a reaction of enthusiastic nationalism in all of Germany, which was the reason why Bismarck succeeded in uniting the north and the south in 1871 (see map page 7). The contracts which were concluded between the southern states and the north founded the German empire as a confederation of states.

The constitution of United Germany was characterised by the independence of the executive power (monarch and chancellor) from the parliament. The different voting system in Prussia, however, lead to the restriction of power of the parliament, which had the result that the whole country was governed in an absolutistic way by Wilhelm I and Bismarck. Bismarck took advantage of his powerful position and many things in Germany changed due to his influence. In his travel sketches Henry James expressed harsh criticism about this fact. Bismarcks’ domestic politics were characterised by fighting against the progressive party, the Social-Democrats, and the catholic fraction “Zentrum”. The party in power from the unification until 1878 were the National-Liberals, who had already supported Bismarck in the unification process. A liberal-conservative power ruled Germany at the time of Henry James’ stay in Homburg.

3. The American Opinion of the German Unification

The Franco-German War and the unification aroused great interest in the United States. At the beginning of the war the American opinion was to a large extent pro-German and anti-French. French was seen as the aggressor who were responsible for the initiation of the war. This opinion also prevailed in Henry James’ family. Kaplan resumes that Henry James’ sympathies[5]

... were not with the French, despite his general indifference, if not aversion, to what he had felt to be the unimaginative bourgeois stolidity of German culture. Led by William, the immediate family was “strongly with the Germans,” partly an expression of William’s respect for the German scientific culture and his sentiment was also fueled by disgust with what seemed French arrogance, French “depravity and folly,” especially the hightened rhetoric of French nationalism, the utterances of “barbarians and mandmen.” Decidedly Anglophile Victorians, the James family thought French culture less morally sound, less trustworthy, more shifty and morally unrelieable than German. (Kaplan, 124f)

Many Americans, who favored the Germans, however, did not have a positive opinion of the Prussian leaders. The Prussian monarchy was believed to be despotic, militaristic and aggressive and Wilhelm was accused to be ‘intent upon upholding the divine right of kings, insensible to modern ideas of progress and in opposition to all forms of popular liberty’ (Gazley, 374). Henry James also preferred French republicanism to Prussian autocracy, as he politically identified with liberalism and the superiority of democratic institutions in the governance of a modern nation. In his opinion, however, the French republicanism rather damaged republican interests and values. In this time, for the only time in his life, he chose to support the German position.[6]

With the overthrow of Napoleon at the battle of Sedan a noticeable shift occurred in American opinion. The war began to be seen as a struggle between the heroic French republic fighting against a militaristic German empire, which employed the slogan of unity to hide a policy of territorial aggrandizement on the expense of France. Henry James’ two travel sketches express his aversion against this German form of imperialism and Prussian militarism. The unification itself was looked upon with the greatest enthusiasm by the vast majority of the American people, as they admired the new political structure of federal states, which should grant unity, democracy and liberty in Germany, but it soon became clear that Bismarck had been using the national passion for unity to establish Prussian reactionary power and as a consequence suppress liberal ideas.

Generally, two discordant pictures of Germany prevailed at that time in the American opinion, based on a conflict of historically grown stereotypes and also a difficulty to distinguish carefully between Prussia and Germany. On the one hand stereotypes of the honest, industrious, highly educated German lead to the popular image of Germany as the educational center of Europe, a country in which intelligent and democratically trained people lived and which therefore could not present a menace to European peace and on the other hand a strongly Prussian image of a people ruled by despotism, too impractical and theoretical ever to be able to shake off their chains, and the nation as an aggressive power, which lived on the misfortunes of its neighbours.[7] How Henry James perceived Germany at that time, how he expresses his opinion and what preconceptions emerge in his attitude will be shown in the following analyses of his two travel sketches Homburg Reformed and Darmstadt.

4. Homburg Reformed and Darmstadt

The background of these two travel sketches has been briefly mentioned – the eight weeks James spent that summer in Homburg to improve his health and to work. Selling his travel sketches helped him to earn money as he felt guilty because of his continuous financial dependece on his parents and he also wanted to establish himself as a writer. There was a demand in America for this kind of literature, especially by the privileged classes, who showed an increased desire for travelling. Henry James’ main interest and the focus of his travel sketches was the study of art and people of the respective country. He was an active observer with a refined sensibility and a heightened consciousness and his “vacationistic prose” (Stowe, 171) proved to be an aesthetic experience for his audience because he was presenting the distinguished cultural perception these bourgeois travellers were looking for.


[1] Perosa gives a description of their opposed points of view: ‘William saw Germany as the place of the mind, of intellectual stability and pursuit. Whereas Henry was seeking for style, artistic beauty and historical values through the sensens, visual impressions and a vibrant consciousness, William favored the qualities of intellectual application, learning and cultural strain that he associated with Germany.’ (120)

[2] cf. Hovanec, 11f. He wrote in a letter: ‘The rate at which they are taken is appaling – but then I think of France and Russia and even of Germany herself, and the vision simply overwhelms and breaks the heart. ‘The German dead, the German dead!” (12)

[3] This chapter is based on information from the history books by: Grundmann, Hasenmayer, Lein-Weissensteiner, Rürup, Schulze, Stürmer and Wehler.

[4] The Southgerman canditate considered for the Spanish throne would have, by accepting this position, created a circle of german power around France. In order to avoid this conflict situation he rejected the candidacy.

[5] This chapter is based on Gazley, p 320 – 425.

[6] cf. Kaplan, 125

[7] cf. Gazley, 520f

Excerpt out of 27 pages


Images of post-unification Germany in Henry James´ travel sketches: "Homburg Reformed" and "Darmstadt"
University of Vienna  (Anglistics/American Studies)
The Image of German Speaking Countries in American Texts from 1860 to 1930
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ISBN (Book)
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Images, Germany, Henry, James´, Homburg, Reformed, Darmstadt, Image, German, Speaking, Countries, American, Texts
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Mag.Phil. Michaela Tomberger (Author), 1998, Images of post-unification Germany in Henry James´ travel sketches: "Homburg Reformed" and "Darmstadt", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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