National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
Washington Square

Washington Square

by Henry James

We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.


The Life and Times of Henry James

  1. 1840s
    • 1842: Ralph Waldo Emerson delivers a lecture series in New York City, where he meets Henry James, Sr.
    • 1843: Henry James, Jr., is born to parents Mary and Henry, Sr., on April 15.
    • 1848: Three hundred people—including Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott—attend the first women's rights convention, in Seneca Falls, New York.
  2. 1850s
    • 1855: The James family leaves New York for an extended stay in Europe. Henry contracts malaria during the passage.
    • 1857: As banks begin to collapse, the Panic of 1857 leads to a severe economic depression in America lasting three years.
  3. 1860s
    • The James family returns to the United States.
    • 1860: Abraham Lincoln elected president.
    • 1861: The U.S. Civil War divides the nation.
    • 1868: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony form the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA).
  4. 1870s
    • 1870: The Fifteenth Amendment is ratified, yet despite its gender-neutral language, women are turned away from the polls.
    • 1875: James lands the position of Paris correspondent for the New York Tribune; his novel Roderick Hudson is published.
    • 1878: The first International Women's Rights Congress is held in Paris.
  5. 1880s
    • James's fame grows with the publication of Washington Square (1880) and The Portrait of a Lady (1881).
    • Impressionist painters such as Cézanne, Renoir, Monet, Cassatt, and Degas create art known for visible brush strokes, striking use of light, and ordinary subject matter.
    • 1889: The Eiffel Tower is completed.
  6. 1890s
    • 1890: Construction of the stone arch at Washington Square begins.
    • 1897: James lives in Europe; his fiction remains popular on both sides of the Atlantic. He publishes The Spoils of Poynton.
  7. 1900s
    • 1901: Queen Victoria dies.
    • 1906: Women's rights advocate Susan B. Anthony attends suffrage hearings in Washington, DC, but dies with the right to vote still not won.
    • 1908: Henry Ford begins mass-producing the Model T car.
  8. 1910s
    • 1914: World War I begins.
    • 1916: Henry James dies in Sussex, England, on February 28.
    • 1919: The Nineteenth Amendment, extending suffrage to women, is proposed and ratified the following year.

“It was almost the last outbreak of passion of her life; at least, she never indulged in another that the world knew anything about. But this one was long and terrible; she flung herself on the sofa and gave herself up to her grief.”
—from Washington Square

The History of Washington Square

The history of New York's Washington Square reflects the growth of the nation and the evolution of America's most populated city. During the 1600s, the area—a Native American village—was marshland fed by the Minetta Brook. In the late 1700s the area still lay outside the city limits and became a “potter's field,” a place for the burial of unknown or penniless people and for those who died of contagious disease. Though the area wasn't used as a cemetery after the city bought the land in 1826, thousands remain buried beneath the park's monuments and tree-lined sidewalks.

The city first operated the land as a military parade ground named after the great Revolutionary War general and first president of the United States, George Washington. The surrounding area became one of the most desirable addresses in all of Manhattan. As the neighborhood grew, the land was turned into a park. Greek Revival mansions like that of the Sloper family in Washington Square were built overlooking the grounds allowing those that could afford it to escape the congestion of the downtown area.

In 1889, a wooden arch was erected in the park to commemorate the centennial of the presidential inauguration of George Washington. In 1892, the arch was replaced with a marble arch designed by New York architect Stanford White, who modeled the arch after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Though erected long after the fictional Catherine Sloper and Morris Townsend would have strolled along the park's paths, the arch is Washington Square's most iconic monument.

Today Washington Square Park rests at the base of busy Fifth Avenue, surrounded by New York University (NYU) in the trendy neighborhood of Greenwich Village. Outdoor chess tables and Scrabble boards encourage competitive tournaments and attract onlookers. College students lounge on park benches reading textbooks while neighborhood residents walk their dogs. On the north side the mansions of old New York stand sentry, reminding visitors of a time when young ladies like Catherine Sloper entertained suitors in parlors overlooking the park.

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