Henry James wrote lavishly of Baltimore

June 13, 1995|By JACQUES KELLY

Henry James was one of the most respected writers of his day, but there was no fanfare when he stepped off a train at Baltimore's old Union Station 90 years ago.

In the Baltimore of 1905, horse-drawn taxis waited at the railway depot's Charles Street side. The 62-year-old American novelist's next destination was the recently completed Belvedere Hotel at Charles and Chase streets.

"I arrived late in the day, and the day had been lovely; I alighted at a large fresh peaceful hostelry, imposingly modern yet quietly affable, and, having recognized the deep, soft general note, even from my windows, as that of a kind of mollified vivacity, I sought the streets with as many tacit questions as I judged they would tolerate, or as the waning day would allow me to put," James wrote in the chapter devoted to Baltimore in his 1907 journal of his East Coast impressions, "The American Scene."

"It took but that hour, as I strolled in the early eventide, to give me the sense of the predicament I have glanced at; that of finding myself committed to the view of Baltimore as quite insidiously 'sympathetic,' quite inordinately amiable, which amounted, in other words, to the momentous proposition that she was interesting. . . ."

"So I walked around that dear little city looking for the peculiar parts -- all with the singular effect of rather failing to find them and with my impression of felicity at the same time persistently growing," he wrote.

Literary scholars tell us that James (1843-1916) visited Baltimore beginning June 10, 1905. He stayed perhaps a few days and was then off to another destination. The author of "The Ambassadors" and "The Golden Bowl" seemed to have enjoyed his visit here.

He curiously stayed away from the downtown, then known as the Burnt District because of the 1904 Baltimore Fire. He did go to Druid Hill Park and the new suburb of Roland Park.

Here is the way the prolific author found Mount Vernon Place: "I mounted, in the golden June light, the neatest, amplest, emptiest street-vista, the builded side of a steepish hill, and, having come in due course to a spacious summit, laid out with monumental elegance and completely void, for the time, of human footstep. . . ."

It was June, and the coming heat was chasing residents into their summer homes, perhaps to Mount Washington, Relay or Bel Air. No wonder the city streets seemed strangely deserted.

Houses were everywhere closed, and the neat perspective, all domiciliary and all, as I hinted, tended mildly to a vague elegance . . . [the houses] suggested rows of quiet old ladies seated, with their toes tucked upon uniform footstools, under the shaded candlesticks of old-fashioned tea-parties," James wrote.

He delighted in the Maryland landscape and trees, which he judged far superior to those in New England. He liked our roses and gardens, but came back to the trees: "The Maryland boughs . . . creating in the upper air great classic serenities of shade, give breadth of style . . . [and] almost academic grace."

Late in one of the days of his Baltimore visit, James stopped by the Carroll House, which is not clearly identified, but is likely to be Homewood, the mansion on the grounds of the Johns Hopkins University in the 3400 block of N. Charles St.

In 1905 Baltimore, this address was suburban: "Attained, for the high finish of the evening, by another plunge, behind vaguely-playing carriage lamps, into the bosky, odorous, quite ridiculously romantic suburban night, this was the case of an ancient home without lapses or breaks, where the past and present were in friendliest fusion. . . ."

At that time, James was at the zenith of his career. He was invited to the White House to dine with Theodore Roosevelt.

And yet James's tribute to Baltimore has not gotten recognition. Perhaps this is an oversight. Perhaps this is because his sentences are so hard to read.

"If he had spent more time in Baltimore, there is no guarantee he would have liked it," said Charles Duff, a West Lanvale Street resident who recently gave a talk at the Walters Art Gallery on the Baltimore that James visited.

"We don't know who showed him around. They obviously were the right people," Duff said.

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