Why Henry James Hated the Arch

Henry James by John Singer Sargent

Writer Henry James (1843-1916) used Washington Square as the name and setting for arguably his most well-known novel published in 1881. Washington Square also holds the claim of being one of his least favorite books of those he wrote. The park and surrounding Greenwich Village neighborhood were quite familiar to James. The author grew up at 2 Washington Place.

The official dedication ceremony and unveiling of the Arch took place on May 4th, 1895. (As I wrote the other day, this makes the Arch now 123 years old.) Living for a spell in Europe, Henry James returned to the area in the early 1900s to find the new Arch erected and his childhood home demolished. Both occurrences were sources of great displeasure.

Henry James Returned from Europe to Find His Childhood Home Demolished by NYU

Walking off the Big Apple recalled this “uneasy homecoming,” and how James “was really ticked off at NYU when the university tore down his boyhood home.” He felt “the effect … was of having been amputated of half my history.” James observed “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.'”

(Note: Tablet equals plaque.)

Many people remain “ticked off” at NYU. Continuing the destruction to this day…

No Love for the Arch

James described the Arch, which was modeled after the Arc de Triomphe, 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.”

Author Pete Hamill in his book, Downtown: My Manhattan, wrote that Henry James “hated” the Arch and surmises that the new “bohemia” taking place in the area might have been the reason that the noted writer became “a British subject” in 1915.

Perhaps the loss of his childhood home and the advent of the Arch pushed him across the sea. It may have all been too much for Henry James. He died one year later.

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The portrait of Henry James above is by John Singer Sargent.

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