One day in the summer of 2001 I found myself in the old ecclesiastical city of Würzburg, not far from Germany's geographical center, walking up the great staircase of the Residenz, which was begun in 1720 by Balthasar Neumann for the town's ruler, Prince-Bishop Johann Philipp von Schönborn. Built of warm golden sandstone, with an interior of marble and gilt, it was an extravagant place even by the standards of 18th-century absolutism. The philosopher David Hume, on a visit in 1748, described it as "more complete and finished" than Versailles—and that was before the paint job. In 1752, Gianbattista Tiepolo was hired to work a fresco over the entirety of the ceiling toward which I was now climbing, and in the process transformed the already majestic flight of stairs into one of the grandest spaces in Europe: the Continent's largest fresco, all the guidebooks say, so large that it's impossible to see the whole thing at once. There's always something behind you or hidden by the turn of the stairs, and each step, each twist of the head, reveals something new, as though the picture were moving around you.
Certainly the vault's subject enforces that sense of cinematic motion, for Tiepolo's project was to paint an allegory of the four continents. As I ascended the first steps, America began to rise before me, a vision dominated by an enormous alligator and a bare-breasted, feather-headdressed maiden. There were palm trees and bows and arrows, Indians and the banners of the conquistadores, high mountains and a cannibal feast, all of it on a dim north wall where the colors seemed misty and low. Then I reached the landing and turned, and on the opposite wall saw bright Europe. Far fewer people here were naked. Instead, there were musicians and painters, crosses and crosiers, Europa with her flower-horned bull, a greyhound, some fragments of architecture, and, away in the corner, Tiepolo himself, looking rather tired.
In making the turn toward Europe, in walking up those stairs, I began, in that summer that now seems so distant, to spin a theory about the whole business of being an American. It was a theory forged during a time of peace and goodwill, when for a few brief moments we Americans seemed as welcome in Europe as at any time since World War II. And it comes back to me today when the newspapers and broadcasts on both sides of the Atlantic are so full of mutual accusations and suspicion. Now that many of us are experiencing a new and alienating wave of European distrust, when we may fear being reviled for our nationality on a continent whose culture we share, it seems necessary to think hard about just what our relation to Europe has been. What has it meant, as a destination rather than a place of origin?What has it said to us, as Americans?
In that June of brilliant, peaceful sunshine, surrounded by Tiepolo's splendid world, I could not help but see myself as having stepped for a moment into one of Henry James's stories about the American encounter with old Europe. "A Passionate Pilgrim," the title story of his first book, tells the tale of an American who believes he has an ancestral claim to an English manor. The piece is sentimental and far from James's best, but it does supply a necessary phrase, as does a letter he wrote not long after to Charles Eliot Norton: "It's a complex fate, being an American, and one of the responsibilities it entails is fighting against a superstitious valuation of Europe." In fact, the main character in "A Passionate Pilgrim" dies of that superstition, broken by his discovery that England cannot provide a home for him. I had some of that superstition, too, and like James I had a sense that as an American I was both a latecomer to and the inheritor of the world that lay painted on the wall above me. (Though for me that world had been in no way fatal, and the passion part had taken the substantive form of my own marriage to a Swiss art historian.)
Americans used to go to Europe—"old Europe"—in search of a larger life. We went because living abroad expanded our sense of what an American could be; offered, paradoxically, a different and richer and grander way of being an American than we could find at home. In James's day we came to grasp at an antique culture, to talk with a history that stretched back beyond our grandparents; in the 1920's, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald joined Gertrude Stein in Paris, escaping the insular prohibitions of Main Street. Later, black writers and musicians (James Baldwin, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis) traveled to Europe, because there they could be American in a way that they couldn't in America itself. But in a sense this was true for all Americans, James included: Europe allowed us to see ourselves in purely national terms, to shuck the more local affiliations of race or region or even family. And the fiction of expatriation, from Portrait of a Lady to the early work of Hemingway and on to James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room and even Patricia Highsmith's Talented Mr. Ripley, has used Europe as a kind of litmus paper against which to test an abstract American identity.
Or at least that's what such fiction used to do. A decade after "A Passionate Pilgrim," and back in Boston for the first time since he had made his own choice of London, James observed that the American writer "must deal, more or less, even if only by implication, with Europe; whereas no European is obliged to deal in the least with America." Not true, I couldn't help thinking, as I looked up at the camel caravans of Tiepolo's rather Arab-dominated Africa, not now, not anymore. We Americans were still nearly all of us superstitious about Europe, we bought its food and cars and cosmetics, its furniture and clothing; it still set the fashions, or some of them. But often it no longer seemed necessary, no longer something with which we were "obliged to deal," and our own country stood in its place, as even James had suspected it someday might. The complexities of our fate might still be worked out in relation to Europe but not to it alone.