Brief Thoughts On: Henry James - Daisy Miller / Natasha Trethewey - Native Guard

When reading through Daisy Miller and Native Guard, one cannot escape the phrase from Raymond Williams’ Keywords when he quotes Herder’s Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind stating, “The very thought of a superior European culture is a blatant insult to the majesty of Nature” (Williams 89). This assertion of a superior European culture, whether it is hidden in their subversive and required social niceties or clearly displayed by the white man’s overtly disparaging behavior towards non-whites, repeatedly manifests through key characters in each story. Not only is this superiority an insult to nature, but an insult to other societies’ culture, specifically their methods of interacting with each other and moral values. Trethewey’s exploration of America in the midst of the Civil War brings up the topic of disrespect and non-consideration for African American soldiers, while James’ Daisy Miller discusses a several differences between Americans and Europeans in the latter half of the nineteenth century, in comparison with each other and against themselves. The prime examples being a comparison of the Miller family’s behavior as newly wealthy American tourists in Europe against Winterbourne’s experienced class of Americans in Europe, and the respectful gentleman juxtaposed against Giovanelli and his wickedly selfish and unconcerned actions regarding Daisy; his disregard for her is not too dissimilar to that of the white American soldiers devaluing of black soldiers in Native Guard which I will discuss later.

Winterbourne’s observations concerning Randolph and Daisy Miller admit an obvious condescension, despite his attempts to sympathize with them at various times. During his very first impression of Randolph, he observes him to be “an urchin of nine or ten...diminutive for his years” (James 3). This may be a small detail, but without even interacting with the boy he sizes Randolph up as a mischievous, raggedy boy of small stature. These are not positive connotations for a young boy. Then his assessment of Daisy is similarly condescending after their first conversation when he notes, “He had never yet heard a young girl express herself in just this fashion...such things seemed a kind of demonstrative evidence of a certain laxity of deportment” (James 6). This is hardly a generous description of the American girl. Despite him being “charmed” by her conversation, he admits such behavior to be lacking behavior and manners. Manners that are unknown to newly wealthy Americans visiting foreign lands but understood by himself and other gentleman familiar with European custom such as keeping a distance with your courier or limiting your flirtations. This judgement would be innocent enough if Winterbourne and his society of gentlemen left it at this initial stage, but Winterbourne’s conversation with Mrs. Costello reveals an attitude of superiority when he outright states, “She is completely uncultivated...But she is wonderfully pretty, and, in short, she is very nice” (James 9). Describing her as “nice” is well enough. She is certainly nice and amiable, even if she is a bit silly in Winterbourne’s eyes, this much is undeniable to him. When he describes Daisy as “uncultivated”, however, he reveals another layer of superiority. As Raymond Williams relays in Keywords, “Cultivation and cultivated went through the same metaphorical extension from a physical to a social or educational sense” (Williams 92). Here Winterbourne is observing that Daisy is lacking in social awareness and education. This lack of awareness, or in some instances willingness to participate in social norms of her environment keep her in a separate class of “American tourist”. This separate class we can hear in his and Mrs. Costello’s tone and speech is lesser than themselves. They consistently devalue Daisy’s behavior even in its innocent stages before her questionable rendezvous with Giovanelli. Mrs. Costello quickly turns her opinion of the family to be “hopelessly vulgar” (James 16). This is continued and extended by the hotel employees who laugh at her visitations with gentlemen.

We do, however, see Winterbourne show compassion in considering Daisy’s position when, “He felt very sorry for much that was pretty, and undefended, and natural assigned to a vulgar place among the categories of disorder” (James 27). Though his evaluation of her carries a superiority in feeling sorry for her, he recognizes that her environment is one of disorder and vulgarity. This is an important recognition, as it frees her from a considerable blame as the ignorant American tourist, placing much of the fault with the place she is visiting. The extension of this vulgar place is Giovanni, who on the surface, even to Winterbourne seems kind enough, even though he does not run in the same prestigious circles, but he reveals a boorish lack of class when he takes her away and puts her at risk, ultimately resulting in her death. Winterbourne, as a gentleman, is appalled at Giovanni’s behavior even asking, “Why the devil...did you take her to that fatal place?” (James 31). For that question, he receives no answer, but it is quite clear that Giovanni never considered or cared for Daisy’s safety. His lack of manners is so severe that he would carelessly throw away a life and show extraordinarily little remorse when he retires, practically not upset by the incident and his selfish action’s consequences. In this sense we can see Winterbourne’s need and want to value the customs and traditions of the European gentleman and his society.

Giovanni’s complete lack of respect for Daisy, only seeing her as a tool, a supremely pretty girl he can use and toss away even with no real hopes of marriage, mirrors the white American soldier’s seeing African American soldiers as tools for furthering their own ambitions as illustrated in Native Guard. They even go so far in their profiling as to fire upon them, “white sailors in blue firing upon us as if we were the enemy...Smoke that rose from each gun seemed a soul departing” (Trethewey 1038). White sailors took the lives of black soldiers in their own army, needlessly crushing souls and subsequently labeling it “an unfortunate incident” shows an obvious lack of value for their lives. Of course, at a time when America was fighting a war draped in the controversy of slavery, this lack of consideration seems to be commonplace. Native Guard is fraught with examples of white supremacist actions like leaving “colored troops, dead on the battlefield at Port Hudson...unclaimed” (Trethewey 1039). They are not even considered human. This is a clear step beyond Giovanni’s attitude toward Daisy in practicality, but not necessarily in attitude, as he still left her dead without visitation or explanation, even when directly questioned. When the narrator considers Dumas, his valuation of the man for allowing any sort of freedom as “a fair master to us all” and himself as “a manservant, if not a man” is a hopeful departure from this devaluing of black lives (Trethewey 1039). This is more hopeful than Daisy’s purposeless, yet foolish death.

Works Cited

James, Henry. Daisy Miller. Project Gutenberg, 1878,

Trethewey, Natasha. "Native Guard". JSTOR, Accessed 18 July 2023.

Williams, Raymond. “Culture.” Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2017, pp. 88–92.