The main resource of a small New York boy in this line at that time was the little sheath-like jacket, tight to the body, closed at the neck and adorned in front with a single row of brass buttons — a garment of scant grace assuredly and compromised to my consciousness, above all, by a strange ironic light from an unforgotten source. It was but a short time before those days that the great Mr. Thackeray had come to America to lecture on The English Humorists, and still present to me is the voice proceeding from my father’s library, in which some glimpse of me hovering, at an opening of the door, in passage or on staircase, prompted him to the formidable words: ‘Come here, little boy, and show me your extraordinary jacket!’ My sense of my jacket became from that hour a heavy one — further enriched as my vision is by my shyness of posture before the seated, the celebrated visitor, who struck me, in the sunny light of the animated room, as enormously big and who, though he laid on my shoulder the hand of benevolence, bent on my native costume the spectacles of wonder. I was to know later on why he had been so aroused and why, after asking me if this were the common uniform of my age and class, he remarked that in England, were I to go there, I should be addressed as ‘Buttons.’ It had been revealed to me thus in a flash that we were somehow queer, and though never exactly crushed by it I became aware that I at least felt so as I stood with my head in Mr. Brady’s vise. Beautiful most decidedly the lost art of the daguerreotype; I remember the ‘exposure’ as on this occasion interminably long, yet with the result of a facial anguish far less harshly reproduced than my suffered snapshots of a later age. Too few, I may here interject, were to remain my gather impressions of the great humourist, but one of them, indeed almost the only other, bears again oil the play of his humour over our perversities of dress. It belongs to a later moment, an occasion on which I see him familiarly seated with us, in Paris, during the spring of 1857, at some repast at which the younger of us too, by that time, habitually flocked, in our affluence of five. Our youngest was beside him, a small sister, then not quite in her eighth year, and arrayed apparently after the fashion of the period and place; and the tradition lingered long of his having suddenly laid his hand on her little flounced person and exclaimed with ludicrous horror: ‘Crinoline? — I was suspecting it! So young and so depraved!’
Excerpted from ‘A Small Boy and Others: A Memoir’ by Henry James (Turtle Point Press and Gibson Square Books)