The London Yankees

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

A study in what the author calls the “geography of exile,” this richly informative survey of American writers and artists living and working in England from the period just before the Boer War to the beginning of World War I takes its place alongside Stephen Spender’s Love-Hate Relations: English and American Sensibilities (1974) as this decade’s second major review of Anglo-American cultural relations. When we compare these two books to others with a different subject but similar perspective—books such as Martin Green’s Cities of Light and Sons of the Morning: A Cultural Psychology for an Age of Revolution (1972), which explores the connections between place and act in studies of radical London in the 1790’s, radical Havana, and other seedbeds of revolution, or, more recently, Carl E. Schorske’s Fin-de-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture (1980), a study of the unique interpretation of literature, architecture, and painting in the phenomenon that was turn-of-the-century Vienna—we cannot help but feel that in the last decade the not exactly novel theory of “milieu,” perhaps best expressed in the work of the famous French positivist Hippolyte Taine more than a hundred years ago, has had a strange rebirth. However, the deterministic conception of milieu (or environment) in Taine is not really congenial to Spender, Green, or Schorske, and Weintraub also would balk at the suggestion that his discoveries imply a hard causal connection between place or milieu and the creative act. Yet there is a connection, and Weintraub argues that this connection, whatever its nature, is central to any historical understanding of the writers and artists involved:One can always say that when ideas find their time they also find their progenitors. There would have been poetry and fiction and painting without the London Yankees. Yet given the conjunctions and the interplay of personalities and loyalties, it is difficult to believe that Anglo-American culture would have been the same.

Whereas London provided an intellectual and spiritual home for American writers and artists deprived of appreciation and cultural sustenance in America itself, it also encouraged “the vision of personal isolation that is both the expatriate’s gift and curse.” By living on a transatlantic legacy and enjoying the best of both worlds, expatriates sought to raise the flag of a higher allegiance than national identity. Henry James wrote his famous brother William James, “I aspire to write in such a way that it would be impossible for an outsider to say whether I am at a given moment an American writing about England or an Englishman writing about America . . . and so far from being ashamed of such an ambiguity I should be exceedingly proud of it, for it would be highly civilized.” But the “ambiguity” at the heart of James’s fiction turns primarily on questions of motivation and sensibility that take his protagonists to the edge of experience rather than its heart, to the possibility of “civilization” rather than its realization. The Jamesian ideal may be cosmopolitanism, but the Jamesian fact is usually isolation—the “expatriate’s . . . curse.” Weintraub traces that curse from James to Eliot:“Prufrock” itself echoed James in its verbal mannerisms . . . and there was The Ambassadors, not only filled with decorous understatement, but with the line “Prufrock” appears to echo, from Mme. de Vionnet’s parting with Lambert Strether, “. . . we might, you and I, have been such friends.”

Despite the curse of isolation, Weintraub makes abundantly clear that England’s call to the aspiring American writer and artist was hardly the destructive lure of a siren. There was a “professional practicality” in going to London which outweighed even the psychic pleasures of cultural discovery; poets were published in London and painters were able to get commissions. And once an American writer or artist was recognized in London, American acceptance usually followed without question. Unsure of its own taste, America gratefully succumbed to British instruction in all things pertaining to culture—even in the matter of evaluating American talent itself. Earlier in the nineteenth century, Melville’s brother had arranged for a London publication of Typee “so that the book might have a chance for success at home.” The refusals of New York publishers convinced California novelist Gertrude Atherton in the...

(The entire section is 1826 words.)