A few days before his sixtieth birthday, in 1903, Henry James wrote to his brother William of his desire to return to his native land after twenty-some years of self-exile. William quickly responded that the trip was a bad idea; he could imagine “the sort of physical loathing with which many features of our national life will inspire you,” including “the vocalization of our countrymen…. It is simply incredibly loathsome.” Henry was undeterred:
Simply and supinely to shrink—on mere grounds of general fear and encouraged shockability has to me all the air of giving up, chucking away without a struggle, the one chance that remains to me in life of anything that can be called a movement: my one little ewe-lamb of possible exotic experience, such experience as may convert itself, through the senses, through observation, imagination and reflection now at their maturity, into vivid and solid material, into a general renovation of one’s too monotonised grab-bag.
A slightly campy challenge to his older brother this was, joined to the claim that he would gain material for his writing from a return to his beginnings. He wanted the shocks that William mentioned, wanted also the “exotic experience” of traveling beyond New York and New England to see the entire country: the South and the Midwest and the Far West all the way to California.
Henry did, of course, experience the horrors predicted by William, including the “slovenly” use of “vocal sound, in men and women alike…a mere helpless slobber of disconnected vowel noises,” as he put it in “The Question of Our Speech,” a commencement address he gave at Bryn Mawr. But his essay-travelogue about the trip, The American Scene, which features as narrator-protagonist a self that James calls “the restless analyst,” is complex, nuanced, and brilliant as well as exasperating, one of the great works of American sociology, and an enduring indictment of what Americans had made of their land.
Between August 1904 and July 1905 James traveled: south to Philadelphia, Washington, Richmond, Charleston, Palm Beach, and St. Augustine—despite frequent returns to Boston for bouts of dentistry—then west to St. Louis, Chicago, Indianapolis, and Milwaukee, then on to Los Angeles and San Diego and up to San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. It was all done by train: even Chocorua, New Hampshire, where William had a summer house, could be reached by train—it then was close to the apogee of the American rail network. The trip also turned out to be profitable, since James soon was commanding $500 to present a lecture, on the French novelist Balzac of all improbable subjects, to audiences not only in Philadelphia and Chicago but also St. Louis and Indianapolis. The American Scene ends following the trip to Florida; a projected second volume on the trail west never was written.
It’s his birthplace, New York, that especially engages James’s restless attention. At times his four chapters on the city make for very unpleasant reading, especially his visits to the Jewish “Ghetto” on the Lower East Side and to the “visible act of ingurgitation” of immigrants on Ellis Island. James is a snob, nostalgic for the traditional cityscape of Washington Square that he knew as a boy, and for a more homogeneous upper class. He speaks the unreflective anti-Semitism of his time and caste—yet he also spends an evening in the Yiddish theater. He is shaken by the flood of immigration (a record 1,004,756 arrivals were recorded in 1907, the year The American Scene was published). Yet all this leads him not to rejection but rather to the reflection that old New Yorkers held the land in “unsettled possession,” and it is they, not “the aliens,” who must adjust, must go more than halfway toward meeting the new arrivals. Who in America is not an alien? he asks. New York is for James a lesson in “dispossession,” a theme that haunts the whole of The American Scene, suggesting that American civilization is a kind of temporary encampment in a land grabbed but not truly possessed.
James summarizes the moral that America emerging from the Gilded Age seems to offer: “To make so much money that you won’t, that you don’t ‘mind,’ don’t mind anything—that is absolutely, I think, the main American formula.” It follows that if you don’t make money you will “mind” the public thinness and waste of American life, and be reduced to “the knowledge that America is no place for you.” There is a grim social price paid by American “progress”; finding in the city streets a “new style of poverty” compared with what he had observed in European cities, James notes: “There is such a thing, in the United States, it is hence to be inferred, as freedom to grow up to be blighted, and it may be the only freedom in store for the smaller fry of future generations.”
The “restless renewal” of the city, the constant destruction and rebuilding of the New York skyline, obsesses him. He could not appreciate the skyscraper, and he abhorred the “religion” of the elevator, “the packed and hoisted basket” that made tall buildings possible, which he turns into “an almost intolerable symbol of the herded and driven state” of New Yorkers. In contrast to European cities, New York never proposes to have the dignity of the old. Buildings and entire blocks are always coming down, and new ones going up. He hears the “powers above”—those who crack the whip—speak to the city:
There’s no step at which you shall rest, no form, as I’m constantly showing you, to which, consistently with my interests, you can. I build you up but to tear you down, for if I were to let sentiment and sincerity once take root, were to let any tenderness of association once accumulate, or any “love of the old” once pass unsnubbed, what would become of us, who have our hands on the whipstock, please?
New York, in sum, gives James the “interesting, appealing, touching vision of waste.”
What America offers in lieu of a settled social order is the artificial society of the hotel, a place of apparent free enjoyment for an army of puppets under the control of the “master-spirits of management.” The hotel is “a synonym for civilization,” and James asks if “the hotel-spirit may not just be the American spirit most seeking and most finding itself.” He wanders through the “immense promiscuity” of the Waldorf-Astoria, finding in it the notably American “supremely gregarious state.” It’s an institution devoted to “the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” a kind of utilitarian luxury available to all who can pay the price.
He returns to “hotel-civilization” when he stays at the Breakers in Palm Beach. Finding that this grand establishment doesn’t really pay attention to the individual’s wants, James reflects in more and more inflated terms on the tyranny of the hotel spirit and its willing victims. The hotel comes to stand for the lack of understanding of what is being passed off as civilization to the American populace: “Beguiled and caged, positively thankful, in its vast vacancy, for the sense and the definite horizon of a cage.” So it is that the compromise demanded of the individual by the “jealous cultivation of the common mean, the common mean only, the reduction of everything to an average of decent suitability” becomes a kind of betrayal of the original democratic idea.
James’s strictures on the simulated civilization of the hotel don’t quite prepare us for his appreciation of a different American innovation, the country club. But he recognizes in it the invention of a new form of sociability proper to a democracy, anchored in the family. The country club, he claims, “is everywhere a clear American felicity; a complete product of the social soil and air which alone have made it possible.” James, who belonged to the Athenaeum and the Reform Club in London, perceives that the country club “wouldn’t do in Europe”; it belongs to the new society: “It becomes, for the restless analyst, one of the garden-lamps in which the flame of Democracy burns whitest and steadiest and most floods the subject.” To see the country club as a preeminently democratic institution has struck some of James’s commentators, including W.H. Auden and F.O. Matthiessen, as obtuse. To be sure, from most perspectives it represents hierarchy, selection, and exclusion. No Jews, no Blacks, no working class, no lower-middle class: the country club was for the aspiring American elite, those who had made enough money and established themselves as sufficiently genteel to raise barriers and close gates against others.
Yet I think James is on to something here. He doesn’t see American democracy as dedicated to equality—it never has been—but rather to what he calls “eligibility,” which can be made good only through acquired wealth. He isn’t naive about qualifications for this eligibility; they simply strike him as definitional of American democracy in a way he often and loudly deplores throughout The American Scene. If the country club plays a redemptive part in American culture, it’s because it takes what is most characteristic of New World society and makes it pleasant. Country clubs represent American manners as “the apotheosis of the Family—a truth for which they have by no means received due credit.” If family is important in Europe as well, it is in a vertical sense of descent, how your origins and blood define you, whereas in America it’s horizonal, a question of “lateral spread.” Country clubs accept “the Family as the social unit—accept its extension, its whole extension, through social space.”
James sets in relief the radical nature of an institution based on neither gender nor age exclusion, though inevitably creating other exclusions that bring it into being as the appanage of families that have acquired wealth and status:
With no palpable result does the democratic idea, in the States, more bristle than with the view that the younger are “as good” as the elder; family life is in fact, as from child to parent, from sister to brother, from wife to husband, from employed to employer, the eminent field of the democratic demonstration. This then is the unit that, with its latent multiplications, the Country Club takes over….
It was thus a new and original thing—rare phenomenon—and actually an “important” one; for what did it represent…but the active Family, as a final social fact, or in other words the sovereign People, as a pervasive and penetrative mass, “doing” themselves on unprecedented lines?
In his search to articulate what his native land has become following the Gilded Age, James is by no means wrong to single out the country club.
James’s itinerary led him through the major cities on the eastern seaboard. He is particularly eloquent in his portrait of Richmond, Virginia, as tasting of “the very bitterness of the immense, grotesque, defeated project—the project, extravagant, fantastic, and to-day pathetic in its folly, of a vast Slave State.” The monumental equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee is a reminder “of having worshipped false gods.” But he expresses a curious affection for Washington, D.C.—the “City of Conversation,” he calls it—largely because it’s a place where no one is in business, and you can forget “the colossal greed of New York.” We don’t today much identify Washington as a place of good conversation, but for James it may have been since he lodged with his old friend Henry Adams, next door to another old friend, John Hay, now secretary of state, and renewed acquaintance with others long known: the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the painter John La Farge.
Through Hay’s influence he lunched with the man he dubbed “Theodore Rex” at the White House and then attended a grand diplomatic reception, where he was seated at President Roosevelt’s table. They were far from friends: James, firmly opposed to jingoistic empire building, once called Roosevelt “the mere monstrous embodiment of unprecedented and resounding noise”; and Roosevelt was on record as saying that James was “a miserable little snob.” No one could be further from his manly ideal of “the strenuous life.” But they both behaved politely, and James in a letter to Edith Wharton described the president as “verily a wonderful little machine.”
The architect Charles McKim invited him to still another dinner, with the president and Supreme Court justice John Marshall Harlan among the guests, a dinner “beautifully done—but the Eagle screamed in the speeches as I didn’t know that that Fowl was still (after all these years and improvements) permitted to do.” America was now, for better and mostly worse, a world power.
It came as something of a surprise to the deeply private James that he proved such a success as a lecturer, attracting audiences of five to six hundred people in packed halls. His lecture “The Lesson of Balzac” is a rich and dense affair even on reading. But Balzac was far better known in 1904 America than he is now, and James’s audiences were often women’s clubs firmly devoted to cultural uplift. He was by then a celebrity-by-absence in his native land, and people came, if just to see him. In Indianapolis, he brought out the whole of the city’s cultural elite when he spoke before a joint session of the Indianapolis Literary Club, the Contemporary Club, and the Irvington Atheneum (their names remind us of the place of cultural associations and societies in the cultivation of the American mind)—an event celebrated in the local press. The talk was reviewed by some with enthusiastic praise, by others with more reserve: “It was a panorama of word pictures requiring an hour to unroll…. He apparently assumed that all the brilliant assemblage were authors, novelists, or shortly to become so.”
Peter Collister’s helpfully if overly annotated scholarly edition of The American Scene includes in an appendix “The Lesson of Balzac” and “The Question of Our Speech,” as well as an article James wrote for Harper’s Bazaar, “The Manners of American Women.” This last is a remarkably interesting reflection not simply on the apparent lack of manners among young American women he observes “shouting, flouncing, romping, uproariously jesting” on a train (“romping” is never a good thing for women to be doing in James), but on the question of what “manners” are and are for. He sees them as a system of social relations, as “forms” that permit social interaction without undue friction and anxiety, and once again, the antidote to “a civilization addicted to nothing if not to waste”:
Manners are above all—and it is the best plea for them—an economy; the sacrifice of them has always in the long run to be made up, just as the breakages and dilapidations have to be paid for at the end of the tenancy of a house carelessly occupied. These changes in the mass become so large that the tenant ruefully asks if a little less smashing mightn’t have been the better plan. By an excess of misuse moreover a house is fatally disfigured…the vision of such waste is a vision of barbarism.
James’s indictment claims that American social life has been made more, not less, difficult by the abolition of forms. Lack of form is everywhere a problem, in the American landscape as well. James praises the fencing in of Harvard Yard (completed early in the twentieth century) as “an admirably interesting example of the way in which the formal enclosure of objects at all interesting immediately refines upon their interest, immediately establishes values.”1 The pastoral New England landscape through which he tramped during his stay with William in New Hampshire is Arcadian but nonetheless lacking in form: “vague, empty, rock-roughened pastures,” with many a sign of farms abandoned. This makes him think of the difference made in the English landscape by “the squire and the parson,” not, I think, as important persons in the social hierarchy so much as agents whose buildings and enclosures give form to the landscape.
As he travels southward, James notes the uncared-for, “forlorn and depressed” people and landscapes outside the window of his train with a sense of unease, that of
the spectator enjoying from his supreme seat of ease his extraordinary, his awful modern privilege of this detached yet concentrated stare at the misery of subject populations…. It was a monstrous thing, doubtless, to sit there in a cushioned and kitchened Pullman and deny to so many groups of one’s fellow-creatures any claim to a “personality.”
Yet this view of abject persons and places in the richest of countries, from the comfort of the expensive Pullman car, offers a dramatic rendition of James’s position and his diagnostic problem. The view from the Pullman window becomes the framing device of the eloquent final passage of The American Scene—a passage so potent that James’s American publisher, Harper & Brothers, dropped it; it appeared only in the English edition.
As he looks from the window, the rumble of the train’s wheels seems to say, “See what I’m making of all this,” a question then picked up by one of the indigenous people displaced by American civilization, “one of the painted savages you have dispossessed”:
Beauty and charm would be for me in the solitude you have ravaged, and I should owe you my grudge for every disfigurement and every violence, for every wound with which you have caused the face of the land to bleed…. You touch the great lonely land—as one feels it still to be—only to plant upon it some ugliness about which, never dreaming of the grace of apology or contrition, you then proceed to brag with a cynicism all your own. You convert the large and noble sanities that I see around me, you convert them one after the other to crudities, to invalidities, hideous and unashamed; and you so leave them to add to the number of the myriad aspects you simply spoil, of the myriad unanswerable questions that you scatter about as some monstrous unnatural mother might leave a family of unfathered infants on doorsteps or in waiting-rooms.
The “missionary Pullman” becomes symbolic:
It seemed to stand for all the irresponsibility behind it…. “You deal your wounds—that is the ‘trouble,’ as you say—in numbers so out of proportion to any hint of responsibility for them that you seem ever moved to take…. Is the germ of anything finely human, of anything agreeably or successfully social, supposably planted in conditions of such endless stretching and such boundless spreading as shall appear finally to minister but to the triumph of the superficial and the apotheosis of the raw?”
James an early ecologist? The ecology he cares about is not only of the land but of a people he finds failing to implant an ordered vision on the land. “Painted savage” may offend our contemporary sensibility, but choosing the perspective of the Native American to record how the white man has laid waste to the landscape is brilliantly effective. It anticipates the famous last page of The Great Gatsby, with its vision of a pristine Long Island just before the settlers landed:
For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
After The American Scene, James undertook to deal with his American experience in a novel, The Ivory Tower, never finished, not even very far advanced, which features the rapacious capitalist Abel Gaw—what a name—and the consequences of great wealth and enormous inheritances in the doubtful “society” of Newport.2 It’s all about what the young European-educated protagonist Graham Fielder calls “the awful game of grab.” The plot apparently was intended to turn on the inheritance Fielder receives and lets himself be defrauded of, but James’s notes for the novel emphasize the background:
It’s a question of all the intensest modernity of every American description; cars and telephones and facilities and machineries and resources of certain sorts not be exaggerated; which I can’t not take account of.
But it is a story that seems once again to speak at the last of dispossession. Rich as never before in possessions, America is ultimately barren.
On fencing and framing in The American Scene, see the interesting discussion by Susan Winnett in Writing Back: American Expatriates’ Narratives of Return (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). ↩
The Ivory Tower was reissued by New York Review Books in 2004, with an introduction by Alan Hollinghurst, a preface by Percy Lubbock, and an essay by Ezra Pound. ↩