In the following passage from Notes of a Son and Brother, the second of his autobiographical volumes, James makes clear one of the major differences between nineteenth-century British and American conceptions of respectability, gentlemanliness, and social position. Whereas in England to achieve social position and prestige one had to have distance from the source of one's wealth, unless of course it came from land and was inherited. Someone who had earned substantial wealth in business could not be a gentleman. He could only hope that his descendants who did not have to work would become considered gentlemen and ladies. In diametrical contrast, American children of this period felt embarrassed if their fathers were not in business. For a nineteenth-century American man not to earn one's own money was to be . . . unmanly. — George P. Landow

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he whole basis of . . . the Brighton life, the Folkestone life, the Bath or the Cheltenham or the Leamington life, was that your occupation or avocation should be vague enough; or that you shouldn't in other words be, like everyone you might know save a dozen or so at the most, in business. I remember well how when we were all young together we had, under pressure of the American ideal in that matter, then so rigid, felt it tasteless and even humiliating that the head of our little family was not in business, and that even among our relatives on each side we couldn't so much as name proudly anyone who was—with the sole exception of our maternal uncle Robertson Walsh, who looked, ever so benevolently, after our father's "affairs," happily for us. Such had never been the case with the father of any boy of our acquaintance; the business in which the boy's father gloriously was stood forth inveterately as the very first note of our comrade's impressiveness. We had no note of that sort to produce, and I perfectly recover the effect of my own repeated appeal to our parent for some presentable account of him that would prove us respectable. Business alone was respectable—if one meant by it, that is, the calling of a lawyer, a doctor or a minister (we never spoke of clergymen) as well; I think that if we had had the Pope among us we should have supposed the Pope in business, just as I remember my friend Simpson's telling me crushingly, at one of our New York schools, on my hanging back with the fatal truth about our credentials, that the author of his being (we spoke no more of "governors" than we did of "parsons") was in the business of a stevedore. That struck me as a great card to play—the word was fine and mysterious; so that "What shall we tell them you are, don't you see?" could but become on our lips at home a more constant appeal. It seemed wantonly to be prompted for our father, and indeed greatly to amuse him, that he should put us off with strange unheard-of attributions, such as would have made us ridiculous in our special circles; his "Say I'm a philosopher, say I'm a seeker for truth, say I'm a lover of my kind, say I'm an author of books if you like; or, best of all, just say I'm a Student," saw us so very little further.

Related material


James, Henry. in Autobiography. Ed. F. W. Dupee/ New York: Criterion Books, 1956.

James, Henry. Notes of a Son and Brother. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913. Project Gutenberg online version produced by Chuck Greif and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.

Last modified 16 April 2020