Henry James, Englishman

On this day in 1915 Henry James wrote to the British prime minister, Herbert Asquith, to inform him of a “desire to offer myself for naturalisation in this country.” James was seventy-two years old and had resided in England for forty years. Becoming a British citizen in the early days of WWI–Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo on this day in 1914, triggering the war (and on this momentous day in 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was signed, formally ending the hostilities)–was James’s way of signaling “my explicit, my material and my spiritual allegiance, and throwing into the scale of her fortune my all but imponderable moral weight–a poor thing but mine own.”

Beneath such rotundity there was both heartfelt emotion and a joke. Naturalization was a straightforward process that didn’t require writing letters to the prime minister. It did require that four citizens testify to the applicant’s good character and literacy.  Asquith was a tea-and-luncheon pal, and James thought it would be amusing to get the prime minister to vouch for his “apparent respectability, and to my speaking and writing English with an approach to propriety.” Not wishing to detract from the war effort, James assured Asquith that only his quick signature was required, “the affair of a single moment.” Asquith was delighted, the application went through in record time, and within a month James had surrendered his American passport, taken the oath of allegiance to King George V, and written to friends, “Here I stand, I can no other.”

The event attracted much publicity. In contrast to the British newspaper reports beginning, “We are able to announce…,” the American press generally interpreted James’s action as a snub–yet another by one who had been looking down his nose at America for decades, and whose father, for all his wealth and learning, could take tea with Thoreau. Although he denied the general charge of anti-Americanism, James certainly wanted his gesture to sting at home, and thereby to help prod the U.S. into the war.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.