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Italian Hours Essay

Italian Hours, Henry James’s most acclaimed collection of travel stories written between 1882 and 1909, is a very interesting piece of travel literature. However, it does much more than a typical work in the genre would do, that is describing author’s experiences in a foreign, usually exotic, country. Instead, Italian Hours can be seen as an important document from a historical and anthropological perspective, since it catalogues living conditions, attitudes, customs and traditions of Italian people at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.

There are other prominent examples of travel literature, such as Tocqueville’s Journey to America, which provide in-depth explorations of cultural idiosyncrasies and social organization of different societies; Italian Hours should be seen as one of the works in the latter category. James’s opinions on various matters are all more interesting for the reason that his perspective, as of an American writer and tourist, is “an embodiment of modernity by definition” (Manolescu-Oancea 2010, para. 1), while Italy is conventionally regarded to be a country that has entered the period of modernity later than other major European powers.

In the subsequent paragraphs, a number of examples of the aforementioned will be presented. It is necessary to keep in mind that James’s work touches upon a wide variety of philosophical topics, which are all very intriguing yet unfortunately cannot be covered in this essay due to space constraints. This essay will focus primarily at James’s interpretation of social conditions, developments, and debates in Italy of the aforementioned period. The concluding section will briefly discuss the place of Italian Hours among other works of travel literature set in Italy.

Along with describing natural beauties and historical sites of Italy, James devotes significant attention to analyzing people’s daily lives, which allows for a deduction about social structures that existed in Italy of those times. For instance, when describing Sienna, James (2008) talks of it as of a city that is still in the 14th century, with numerous and rich nobility that is “perfectly feudal and uplifted and separate” (p. 242). There is no middle class, or bourgeoisie; instead “immediately after the aristocracy come the poor people, who are very poor indeed” (James 2008, p. 42). A great divide between rich and poor has been very characteristic of Italy of the late 19th and early 20th century. The miserable situation of poorer Italians is exacerbated by the government that wields unreasonably high taxes. Upward social mobility is a rare phenomenon, and most Italians born outside of the upper classes were expecting a life of struggle and destitution. When recollecting his time in Venice, James writes that Italians’ “habitations are decayed; their taxes heavy; their pockets light; their opportunities few” (James 2008, p. 13).

It is necessary to keep in mind that the unification of Italy occurred quite late in the 19th century. A lot of problems remained unresolved following the unification, ranging from economic deprivation to epidemics of fatal disease. Most researchers name “the huge material gulf between north and south” (p. 168) as one of the most pressing problems of the time: previously Austrian provinces of Lombardy and Venetia were more developed then southern provinces like Sicily. The following statistics give a fairly comprehensive picture of the level of economic development in the immediate aftermath of the unification: In 1870s the primary sector [agriculture, mining and forestry] accounted for 62 percent of total employment against less than 50 percent for France, Germany and the USA. For the UK the figure was only 22. 7 percent. Most of the industrial development was concentrated in very few areas, namely Lombardy, Piedmont and a few firms in the region of Naples” (Faini & Venturini 1994, p. 74). Yet the disparities in life quality between different provinces of Italy are not salient in James’s writings.

Keen on noticing regional differences, the author of Italian Hours speaks of Italian people as generally poor, although income gap becomes more and more extreme as one moves southwards. Poor economic conditions have resulted in mass emigration of Italians to other country, mostly to the United States, which seems particularly ironic in the context of James’s observations about Italy and America. James (2008) describes Italians as simple and unpretentious; he writes of them as of people that “have at once the good and the evil fortune to be conscious of few wants” (p. 3). However, early modernity has already associated sophistication with having a variety of needs that are hard to satisfy. In accordance with these criteria, Italians might come across as being less civilized than other peoples, although such view is definitely misguided. Enjoying simple pleasures can be a sign of wisdom and contemplative approach to life; although many of the pleasures Italian cities offer might seem to be “superficial pastimes” (James 2008, p. 14), they are no less pleasurable from it.

Enjoying works by great masters of the past or magnificent nature are some of the activities Italians often indulge in. One of the issues that have been heatedly debated at the times of James’s travels was the question of whether to restore or preserve ancient ruins, and how to do it. In Italian Hours, the author presents his negative “assessment of the results of renovation in Italian cities and in his criticism of the intrusions of modernity in the cityscape” (Manolescu-Oancea 2010, para. 1). In his opinion, buildings should be seen as humans, having their own lifecycles and histories, and therefore mortal.

Moreover, buildings have a unique ability to tell stories of people who have once inhabited them and sometimes even have to atone for their sins: “Houses not only look like ageing bodies, they also seem to be permeated with the life of their former inhabitants, which lends them a dark human aura, a psyche” (Manolescu-Oancea 2010, para. 6). As with cityspaces, natural landscapes for James are not “merely a picturesque backdrop for romantic adventure…[but are]…endowed with some of the richness of symbolic values inherited from great historical events” (Mariani 1964, p. 42).

Since the richness of Italian history and nature are so impressive, James notes with regret that so many Italians live in poverty. On the other hand, he believes that being constantly surrounded by breathtaking beauty is a fair compensation; moreover, the peculiarly lighthearted approach to life Italians have helps them cope with daily problems. Although a lot of criticism of social reality of the late 19th century and early 20th century is present in James’s text, a comparison with his own country, America, is usually to the disadvantage of the latter.

In Monte Mario outside Rome, James (2008) observes “the idle elegance and grace of Italy alone, the natural stamp of the land which has the singular privilege of making one love her unsanctified beauty all but as well as those features of one’s own country toward which nature’s small allowance doubles that of one’s own affection” (p. 166). In comparing American and Italian cuisine, the author recollects Grotta Ferrata, a rather insignificant and unkempt village, yet al fresco food for its fair “couldn’t fail to suggest romantic analogies to a pilgrim from the land of no cooks” (James 1995; cited in Collister 2004, p. 95). When James expresses dissatisfaction with new developments in the centre of Florence, he thinks of America again, fearful of the ancient city being disfigured “under the treatment of enterprising syndics, into an ungirdled organism of the type, as they viciously say, of Chicago” (James 2008, p. 257). Even in term of attitudes, James (2008) appreciates the fact that Italians are more down-to-earth and relaxed than his fellow men when he fears that a day may come when people “rush about Venice as furiously as people rush about New York” (p. 57).

Thus, while modernity and speed become synonymous with the New World, James’s observations unmistakably point to “cultural wrong-headedness and impoverishment of the America” (Collister 2004, p. 196). At the same time, Italy is to James “literally picturesque – real life composes itself into art at every turn” (Collister 2002, p. 340). Constant reminiscences of the New World serve several particular functions in James’s writing. First of all, it appears to be symbolic of his attempts to establish an emotional connection with his readers and – through his personal perspective – to help establish a connection between his readers and Italy.

This device is frequently employed in travel literature: the reader can feel overwhelmed with descriptions of faraway places and strange cultures that bear no resemblance to their own; it is therefore the role of a writer to create a minimum level of comfort by recalling familiar places and phenomena. In such a way, readers can comprehend the mode of life in distant lands building on their own experience in their home countries. On the other hand, such reminiscences serve another purpose, as Manolescu-Oancea (2010) argues: James’s constant references to America and to his Americanness introduce a special kind of alienated perspective, both geographical and temporal, which is decidedly American in outlook” (para. 20).

James’s fascination with Italy has been enduring, yet there were moments in his life when the writer has expressed a significant degree of dissatisfaction with living conditions there. Rome is the city that has come is for the most criticism in his private letters; in one of them he even writes the following: “I feel that I shouldn’t care if I never saw the perverted place again” (James 1907; cited in Lubbock 2008, p. 2). This perhaps can be attributed to the fact that his brother, William, has contracted malaria while in Rome and had to move southwards to Florence to improve his health (Gale 1959). It is indeed interesting to observe how both James’s life and writings create a rather accurate account of what it was like to live in Italy at the end of the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century. James’s Italian Hours is one among many other literary travelogues of Italy; Sterne’s Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768) and Dickens’ Pictures from Italy (1845) are perhaps the most known of them.

What distinguishes Italian Hours, however, is that it “follows no chronology and even the geographical ordering – much dwelling upon Venice and a movement southwards as far as Naples with a return to Tuscany – is (unlike Goethe’s Italienische Reise) arbitrary” (Collister 2004, p. 194). At the same time, the peculiarity of the narrator’s style gives a powerful and overarching sense of organization to this seemingly odd collection of stories.


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