When writing an essay about Henry James 's cosmopolitanism, it's important to consider that for successive generations of scholars and critics, the literary identity of Henry James has been difficult to pin down with any degree of precision. This is understandable, given that Henry James was a multifaceted man and...
When writing an essay about Henry James's cosmopolitanism, it's important to consider that for successive generations of scholars and critics, the literary identity of Henry James has been difficult to pin down with any degree of precision. This is understandable, given that Henry James was a multifaceted man and writer. There is the American Henry James, as well as the international Henry James, a writer who seems to put aside his national identity to embrace a more cosmopolitan worldview.
To a large extent, James's cosmopolitanism is a conscious attempt on his part to highlight certain aspects of contemporary American life that he finds disagreeable, such as rampant materialism, the rise of mass culture, and a growing swagger on the international stage.
James's version of cosmopolitanism involves a separation from what he sees as a certain parochialism in American culture. To a considerable extent, this was a necessary consequence of the development of American art and letters in the late 19th century, which increasingly no longer looked to Europe for inspiration.
What is particularly interesting about James's cosmopolitanism is that it represents something of a departure from his earlier work. One work to look at for your essay is The American, which shows James's early attitudes. In it, he puts forward a critical view of Europe, common among Americans at the time, as a continent in irreversible decline, steeped in decadence.
A later work to analyze would be The Ambassadors, which shows a marked shift towards a more cosmopolitan outlook. In that book, James moves away from a narrowly American identity by putting forward the notion of art as transcending the limitations of national boundaries, thus providing the basis of a genuinely international culture.
At the same time, in exploring James's version of cosmopolitanism, it's important to acknowledge its inherent limitations, not the least of which is its cultural elitism. The art that James envisages as providing the foundation of an international culture is unmistakably high art, the kind that, of its nature, can only be produced and consumed by a relatively small minority. In his attachment to high art and its values, James demonstrates a certain distaste for the relatively democratic and egalitarian nature of modern American life.