“Those debates of the ‘80s and ‘90s were heated. Indeed, they were a major front in what came to be known as “culture wars” between merciless foes. Yet all sides in these culture wars believed a humanities education—history, literature, languages, philosophy—was inherently important in a democratic society. In short, the humanities were taken for granted. In our current age of austerity, this is no longer the case. Many Americans no longer think the humanities worthy of public support. This is especially true of conservatives, who in their quest to cut off state support to higher education have abandoned the humanities entirely.”
Nothing is more easy than to state the subject of “The Ambassadors,” which first appeared in twelve numbers of The North American Review (1903) and was published as a whole the same year. The situation involved is gathered up betimes, that is in the second chapter of Book Fifth, for the reader’s benefit, into as few words as possible—planted or “sunk,” stiffly and saliently, in the centre of the current, almost perhaps to the obstruction of traffic. Never can a composition of this sort have sprung straighter from a dropped grain of suggestion, and never can that grain, developed, overgrown and smothered, have yet lurked more in the mass as an independent particle. The whole case, in fine, is in Lambert Strether’s irrepressible outbreak to little Bilham on the Sunday afternoon in Gloriani’s garden, the candour with which he yields, for his young friend’s enlightenment, to the charming admonition of that crisis. The idea of the tale resides indeed in the very fact that an hour of such unprecedented ease should have been felt by him AS a crisis, and he is at pains to express it for us as neatly as we could desire. The remarks to which he thus gives utterance contain the essence of “The Ambassadors,” his fingers close, before he has done, round the stem of the full-blown flower; which, after that fashion, he continues officiously to present to us. “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what HAVE you had? I’m too old—too old at any rate for what I see. What one loses one loses; make no mistake about that. Still, we have the illusion of freedom; therefore don’t, like me to-day, be without the memory of that illusion. I was either, at the right time, too stupid or too intelligent to have it, and now I’m a case of reaction against the mistake. Do what you like so long as you don’t make it. For it WAS a mistake. Live, live!” Such is the gist of Strether’s appeal to the impressed youth, whom he likes and whom he desires to befriend; the word “mistake” occurs several times, it will be seen, in the course of his remarks—which gives the measure of the signal warning he feels attached to his case. He has accordingly missed too much, though perhaps after all constitutionally qualified for a better part, and he wakes up to it in conditions that press the spring of a terrible question. WOULD there yet perhaps be time for reparation?—reparation, that is, for the injury done his character; for the affront, he is quite ready to say, so stupidly put upon it and in which he has even himself had so clumsy a hand? The answer to which is that he now at all events SEES; so that the business of my tale and the march of my action, not to say the precious moral of everything, is just my demonstration of this process of vision. Continue reading
Strether couldn’t have said he had during the previous hours definitely expected it; yet when, later on, that morning—though no later indeed than for his coming forth at ten o’clock—he saw the concierge produce, on his approach, a petit bleu delivered since his letters had been sent up, he recognised the appearance as the first symptom of a sequel. He then knew he had been thinking of some early sign from Chad as more likely, after all, than not; and this would be precisely the early sign. He took it so for granted that he opened the petit bleu just where he had stopped, in the pleasant cool draught of the porte-cochere—only curious to see where the young man would, at such a juncture, break out. His curiosity, however, was more than gratified; the small missive, whose gummed edge he had detached without attention to the address, not being from the young man at all, but from the person whom the case gave him on the spot as still more worth while. Worth while or not, he went round to the nearest telegraph-office, the big one on the Boulevard, with a directness that almost confessed to a fear of the danger of delay. He might have been thinking that if he didn’t go before he could think he wouldn’t perhaps go at all. He at any rate kept, in the lower side-pocket of his morning coat, a very deliberate hand on his blue missive, crumpling it up rather tenderly than harshly. He wrote a reply, on the Boulevard, also in the form of a petit bleu—which was quickly done, under pressure of the place, inasmuch as, like Madame de Vionnet’s own communication, it consisted of the fewest words. She had asked him if he could do her the very great kindness of coming to see her that evening at half-past nine, and he answered, as if nothing were easier, that he would present himself at the hour she named. She had added a line of postscript, to the effect that she would come to him elsewhere and at his own hour if he preferred; but he took no notice of this, feeling that if he saw her at all half the value of it would be in seeing her where he had already seen her best. He mightn’t see her at all; that was one of the reflexions he made after writing and before he dropped his closed card into the box; he mightn’t see any one at all any more at all; he might make an end as well now as ever, leaving things as they were, since he was doubtless not to leave them better, and taking his way home so far as should appear that a home remained to him. This alternative was for a few minutes so sharp that if he at last did deposit his missive it was perhaps because the pressure of the place had an effect. Continue reading
Check out this 1986 Paris Review interview with E. L. Doctorow, who recently passed away at the age of 84.
He went late that evening to the Boulevard Malesherbes, having his impression that it would be vain to go early, and having also, more than once in the course of the day, made enquiries of the concierge. Chad hadn’t come in and had left no intimation; he had affairs, apparently, at this juncture—as it occurred to Strether he so well might have—that kept him long abroad. Our friend asked once for him at the hotel in the Rue de Rivoli, but the only contribution offered there was the fact that every one was out. It was with the idea that he would have to come home to sleep that Strether went up to his rooms, from which however he was still absent, though, from the balcony, a few moments later, his visitor heard eleven o’clock strike. Chad’s servant had by this time answered for his reappearance; he HAD, the visitor learned, come quickly in to dress for dinner and vanish again. Strether spent an hour in waiting for him—an hour full of strange suggestions, persuasions, recognitions; one of those that he was to recall, at the end of his adventure, as the particular handful that most had counted. The mellowest lamplight and the easiest chair had been placed at his disposal by Baptiste, subtlest of servants; the novel half-uncut, the novel lemon-coloured and tender, with the ivory knife athwart it like the dagger in a contadina’s hair, had been pushed within the soft circle—a circle which, for some reason, affected Strether as softer still after the same Baptiste had remarked that in the absence of a further need of anything by Monsieur he would betake himself to bed. The night was hot and heavy and the single lamp sufficient; the great flare of the lighted city, rising high, spending itself afar, played up from the Boulevard and, through the vague vista of the successive rooms, brought objects into view and added to their dignity. Strether found himself in possession as he never yet had been; he had been there alone, had turned over books and prints, had invoked, in Chad’s absence, the spirit of the place, but never at the witching hour and never with a relish quite so like a pang. Continue reading
Strether occupied beside little Bilham, three evenings after his interview with Mamie Pocock, the same deep divan they had enjoyed together on the first occasion of our friend’s meeting Madame de Vionnet and her daughter in the apartment of the Boulevard Malesherbes, where his position affirmed itself again as ministering to an easy exchange of impressions. The present evening had a different stamp; if the company was much more numerous, so, inevitably, were the ideas set in motion. It was on the other hand, however, now strongly marked that the talkers moved, in respect to such matters, round an inner, a protected circle. They knew at any rate what really concerned them to-night, and Strether had begun by keeping his companion close to it. Only a few of Chad’s guests had dined—that is fifteen or twenty, a few compared with the large concourse offered to sight by eleven o’clock; but number and mass, quantity and quality, light, fragrance, sound, the overflow of hospitality meeting the high tide of response, had all from the first pressed upon Strether’s consciousness, and he felt himself somehow part and parcel of the most festive scene, as the term was, in which he had ever in his life been engaged. He had perhaps seen, on Fourths of July and on dear old domestic Commencements, more people assembled, but he had never seen so many in proportion to the space, or had at all events never known so great a promiscuity to show so markedly as picked. Numerous as was the company, it had still been made so by selection, and what was above all rare for Strether was that, by no fault of his own, he was in the secret of the principle that had worked. He hadn’t enquired, he had averted his head, but Chad had put him a pair of questions that themselves smoothed the ground. He hadn’t answered the questions, he had replied that they were the young man’s own affair; and he had then seen perfectly that the latter’s direction was already settled. Continue reading