Why did Henry James hate the Washington Square Arch? Meanwhile, the Arch officially turns 117

Washington Memorial Arch Original Plans

Writer Henry James used Washington Square as the name (and setting) for for one of his well known novels published in 1881; it was also one of his least favorite of ones he’d written. James grew up nearby on Washington Place and his grandmother lived at 18 Washington Square North (now part of 2 Fifth Avenue). He was in Europe in the late 1890s when the Arch was built.

The official dedication ceremony and unveiling of the Arch took place on May 4th, 1895. This makes the Arch now 117 years old! Gothamist marked the Anniversary with photos from the history of the Arch taken from the Municipal Archives (thanks Gothamist!).

Henry James returned to the Washington Square area in the early 1900s to find the new Arch erected and his childhood home demolished (by NYU … some things don’t change?). Both occurrences were seemingly sources of great displeasure for him. James described the Arch as “the lamentable little Arch of Triumph which bestrides these beginnings of Washington Square–lamentable because of its poor and lonely and unsupported and unaffiliated state.”

Walking off the Big Apple wrote about Henry James’ Uneasy Homecoming to Washington Square, recounting his reaction upon finding these changes upon his return:

Henry James (1843-1916) … was really ticked off at NYU when the university tore down his boyhood home. During the 1890s, while James was living in Europe, the school pulled down its older main building on the east side of Washington Square to make way for new buildings. In “New York Revisited,” James describes his return to the city in 1904 after a long absence, and though he comes across many familiar sights, he’s startled by the loss of his home on Washington Place. 

James continues by observing that with the destruction of his house, a commemorative tablet about his life would not be placed on its wall; “the very wall that should have borne this inscription had been smashed as for demonstration that tablets, in New York, are unthinkable.”

Tablet equals plaque I believe.

In Pete Hamill’s Downtown: My Manhattan, he writes that Henry James “hated” the Arch and surmises that the new “bohemia” taking place in the area might have been the reason that in 1915 the writer became “a British subject.” But I wonder if it was more the loss of his childhood home which he did not take well and perhaps the advent of the Arch a bit too that pushed him in that direction. Notably, James died one year later.

* Previously at WSP Blog: History of the Washington Square Arch and “Exitus Acta Probat”

Photo: NYC Municipal Archives

Henry James and his book “Washington Square” Recognized this Month — Upcoming NYC Events of Note

Washington Square by Henry James is the literary focus this month of “The Big Read,” sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts to promote literature across the United States through events and readings of significant works by prominent authors. In New York City, eleven organizations linked up to schedule events throughout April.

Henry James lived around Washington Square Park for many years (although the building he once lived in – and considered historical for that fact – was torn down by NYU in the 1890’s while he was in Europe and he returned quite distressed about it*). Washington Square, one of his most famous novels in which main characters live around the Park, was not a favorite of his amidst his work. Nonetheless, the month’s extensive schedule around the book has been well rounded and creative (tho’ no events in Washington Square Park). There are a few more events coming up through the end of April.

Monday, April 27 at 7:30pm
Reading Group — Washington Square — Come to Talk or Just to Listen

Led by Jennie A. Kassanoff
Barnes & Noble, Greenwich Village, 6th Avenue and 8th Street

Join Jamesian and scholar, Jennie A. Kassanoff, for a special evening on Washington Square. Selected by Barnes & Noble Classics to write the introduction for their edition of the book, Kassanoff will speak on the book and lead participants on a discussion about the complexities of this novella.

Jennie A. Kassanoff is Assistant Professor of English at Barnard College, where she teaches late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American literature. She is the author of Edith Wharton and the Politics of Race.

Wednesday, April 29 at 7pm
A Reading of Selections from Washington Square by contemporary author and Henry James fan, John Berendt

Followed by a reception
Merchant’s House Museum, 29 East Fourth Street, Manhattan.

John Berendt is the author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994) and The City of Falling Angels (2005).

$15. Space is limited, please call (212) 777-1089 or email: nyc1832-at-merchantshouse.org to RSVP

Thursday, April 30 at 6:30pm
Cynthia Ozick and Michael Cunningham in Conversation

The Mercantile Library Center for Fiction
17 East 47th Street, betw. 5th and Madison, Manhattan

Acclaimed authors and Jamesians, Cynthia Ozick and Michael Cunningham, will discuss Washington Square, Henry James, and his enduring influence on American writers.

Cynthia Ozick is the author of numerous acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction. Her stories have won four O. Henry first prizes, and Ozick was recently awarded the 2008 Pen/Nabokov Award and the 2008 Pen/Malamud Award. Michael Cunningham is the author of the bestselling novel The Hours, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award and was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film. Both authors live in New York.


*More about “Henry James’ Uneasy Homecoming to Washington Square.”