A Little Tour in France by Henry James; Farrar, Straus & Giroux; New York

Mark Twain was so disgusted by the superficial and sentimental nonsense in most American travel books that he said he wanted to eat “a tourist for breakfast.” But instead of devouring American tourists he delightfully caricatured their bungling stupidity, their romantic misconceptions, and their boorish provincialism in Innocents Abroad. This is all quite amusing until one realizes how slight Twain’s caricature often is and how much serious damage America’s unofficial ambassadors continue to inflict upon our international image through their arrogant insensitivity as they circle the globe collecting souvenirs for themselves and dispensing insults to foreigners.

Henry James was an American tourist of a superior sort. As is evident in this centennial reprint of his A Little Tour in France, he caught nuances as he traveled rather than accumulating knick-knacks. Best known for his subtle fictional explorations of Paris, James wrote A Little Tour to record his observant explorations of the French provinces, a region James regarded as “discovered, or at least revealed, by Balzac.” Though this book is not so substantive nor as carefully crafted as his novels, James’s deft attentiveness to detail marks him as a worthy follower of the great French realist. Seventeen years after publishing the first edition of this work, James deprecatingly described it as merely “the perception of surface” which evaded “very complex underlying matters.” But for someone as steeped in French language and culture as James, the “surface” is far thicker than it is for most. Indeed, when the first chapter opens with “We good Americans,” the reader can only wish that more Americans deserved to be included with James in his pronoun.