The American Scene

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At once impressionistic autobiography and documentary travelogue, personal reminiscence of his native land and cultural critique of American modernity, The American Scene's idiosyncratic hybridity has led contemporary critics to consider it one of Henry James's (1843–1916) most important works. At the time of its initial publication in 1907 (which followed the serialization of many sections in Harper's Monthly Magazine, the North American Review, and the Fortnightly Review), the book's reception was rather tepid. The informal review that James's brother William James (1842–1910) wrote in a letter to him on 4 May 1907 indicates why, yet it also suggests the reason that The American Scene would later command so much interest. William James is impatient with his brother's "perverse" and "unheard-of method" of writing, whose difficulty and indirection require too much from readers in "this crowded and hurried reading age." As an "account of America," it is "supremely great," but it is "largely one of its omissions, silences, vacancies." It consequently produces "the illusion of a solid object, made (like the 'ghost' at the Polytechnic) wholly out of impalpable materials, air, and the prismatic interferences of light, ingeniously focused by mirrors upon empty space." The overall effect, according to William James, "is but perfume and simulacrum" (2:277–278, passim). While William James betrays his conventional genteel taste in literary style, his complaint points toward Henry's more innovative, modernist—perhaps even postmodernist—sensibility.

As The American Scene combines James's late style of indirection and "prismatic interferences" with his deeply engaged powers of observation and critique, it testifies to his capacity to convert the arguably humble genre of travel narrative into a highly complex drama of the making of modern subjectivity, indeed, of modernity itself. James was certainly a practiced travel writer, having previously published such works as A Little Tour in France (1885) and many of the essays that comprise Italian Hours (1909). But The American Scene was occasioned by distinctly personal and particular circumstances, that is, by James's decision upon turning sixty in 1903 to make an extended trip to the United States, which he had not seen in twenty years. Publishing his impressions would help to finance the trip, as would lecture engagements which he later decided to accept. Having recently sent off to the publisher what was to be his last complete novel, The Golden Bowl (1904), James set sail in August 1904 and did not return to England until July 1905, staying several months longer than originally intended. His journeys took him up and down the northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states and southward to Richmond, Charleston, and Florida as well as westward to Chicago, Saint Louis, and California. The text covers only the eastern and southern portions of the trip; he had planned to write a sequel treating the midwestern and western portions but never did.


As William James's comments indicate, American culture by the turn of the century, with its "crowded" and "hurried" ways, had undergone an urban transformation. Urban modernity's new and often disorienting features elicited journalistic, fictional, sociological, and philosophical attention—as seen, for instance, in Stephen Crane's New York sketches (1892–1896), Abraham Cahan's novella Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896), Theodore Dreiser's novel Sister Carrie (1900), the sociologist Robert Park's PhD dissertation "The Crowd and the Public" (1904), and the German philosopher Georg Simmel's influential essay "The Metropolis and Mental Life" (1903). Works such as these wrestle—sometimes with buoyant humor, sometimes with brooding seriousness—with the psychological and social effects of urbanization: immigration, wage labor, and poverty; hyperrationality, anonymity, and isolation; corporate capitalism, consumerism, and desire. The American Scene is best seen within this discursive context, for James dwells at length on urban modernity's manifestations, combining severe critique with extravagant relish. His willingness to plunge both psychologically and rhetorically into what instinctively troubles his genteel sensibility distinguishes him from more traditional analysts of American culture such as Henry Adams and E. L. Godkin.

From the outset James considers his decades-long absence from the country of his birth not a liability but, as he writes in the preface, a "great advantage . . . since if I had had time to become almost as 'fresh' as an inquiring stranger, I had not on the other hand had enough to cease to be, or at least to feel, as acute as an initiated native." Convinced that he would "understand" and "care" more yet also "vibrate with more curiosity" than other visitors (p. xxv), James alternately describes himself as, among other personae, "the restored absentee" (p. 118), "the repentant absentee" (p. 2), "the visionary tourist" (p. 106), "the shuddering pilgrim" (p. 94), "the hovering kindly critic" (p. 97), "the lone observer" (p. 465), and most notably "the restless analyst" (p. 7). He thus fashions himself as both intimately bound up with and impersonally detached from American culture. The mutual interference, to borrow his brother's term, of these modes of subjectivity heightens the text's sense of decentered restlessness, which James both records as American modernity's signature attribute and also himself embodies. In other words, James develops a persona who mimes American modernity, a persona whose intense observational and affective engagement with his subject matter imbues him with this subject's dynamic disequilibrium.

This dispositional elasticity is on display, for instance, in James's commentary on New York's "great religion of the Elevator" (p. 186). To his mind, "the packed and hoisted basket" required by the new architectural form, the skyscraper, is a loathsome mode of transportation, "an intolerable symbol of the herded and driven state and of that malady of preference for gregarious ways, of insistence on gregarious ways only" (p. 187). Despite such visceral contempt for the modern elevator's disciplinary order, James not only submits to it but does so in order also to experience an even more intense form of gregariousness. Having been hoisted to the "upper reaches" of one of New York's skyscrapers, James gains a view of the streets below that simultaneously triggers revulsion and "allure":

The assault of the turbid air seemed all one with the look, the tramp, the whole quality and allure, the consummate monotonous commonness, of the pushing male crowd, moving in its dense mass—with the confusion carried to chaos for any intelligence, any perception; a welter of objects and sounds in which relief, detachment, dignity, meaning, perished utterly and lost all rights. It appeared, the muddy medium, all one with every other element and note as well, all the signs of the heaped industrial battle-field, all the sounds and silences, grim, pushing, trudging silences too, of the universal will to move—to move, move, move, as an end in itself, an appetite at any price. (Pp. 83–84)

With this Whitmanesque eroticization of the urban landscape, with this hyperbolic rush of interfering grammatical units, James's rhetorical excess discloses his willingness to abandon the constraints of the traditional genteel humanist. In unleashing a verbal "welter"—words being his "medium"—James mimes the very scene whose embattled and "heaped" "signs" disorient him.

James's return to the United States took place during the post-Plessy era in which much of the North had acquiesced to, if not outdone, the South's Jim Crow practices. But when he travels to the South, the alluring signs of the industrial battlefield give way to "lurid, fuliginous, vividly tragic" signs of the Confederate battlefield (p. 369). Richmond, in particular, "the Confederate capital," occasions his meditation on the region's "blood-drenched" past (p. 369). He voices bitter dismay over the South's seeming inability to shed its wartime "provinciality" (p. 374). He recalls the southern blacks he had encountered a few days earlier in the Washington, D.C., railway station, and he now protests their "ragged and rudimentary" conditions along with the South's denial of the black's "rights as a man" (p. 375). While declaring himself a "non-resident," hence unfit to moralize too harshly (p. 376), James suggests that the "haunting consciousness thus produced" by current racist ideology and practice "is the prison of the Southern spirit" (p. 375); it is what keeps both blacks and whites in a "blighted or stricken" state (p. 377). James may "tread . . . on tiptoe" (p. 376) around what was then so often called "the Negro problem," but his discerning honesty and social intelligence outstrip his reticence.


The political implications of James's dispositional elasticity become more visible when he turns to such sensitive topics as the immigrant alien, specifically, Jewish ones. As an urban flaneur bent on encountering new and disorienting social phenomena, James explores the Bowery, the Lower East Side, and even Ellis Island in search of what Jacob Riis some half-dozen years earlier dubbed "the other half." Some critics have considered these segments of The American Scene to be fraught with elitist condescension and anti-Semitism. But such views ignore James's animated engagement with social otherness and his empathetic treatment of the plight of immigrants. This orientation is on view when he recounts his visit to "terrible little Ellis Island, the first harbour of refuge and stage of patience for the million or so of immigrants annually knocking at our official door" (p. 84). James observes the depersonalizing, indeed alienating, effects of the "official" processing that immigrants undergo before being permitted to enter the country proper: "Before this door, which opens to them there only with a hundred forms and ceremonies, grindings and grumblings of the key, they stand appealing and waiting, marshalled, herded, divided, subdivided, sorted, sifted, searched, fumigated, for longer or shorter periods" (p. 84). To be sure, James is bewildered by the sight of such "ingurgitation" (p. 84) of immigrants and later by the "babel of tongues" (p. 118) the aliens create in Central Park as well as by the discovery of an Armenian laborer in the New Hampshire countryside (p. 119). Indeed James appears to find repugnant the Jews' fated mode of diasporic proliferation, comparing them to

snakes or worms . . . who, when cut into pieces, wriggle away contentedly and live in the snippet as completely as in the whole. So the denizens of the New York Ghetto, heaped as thick as the splinters on the table of a glass-blower, had each, like the fine glass particle, his or her individual share of the whole hard glitter of Israel. (P. 132)

Moving from one conspicuously peculiar trope to another, he goes on apologetically to compare the ghetto Jews to "a long nocturnal street where every window in every house shows a maintained light" (p. 132), thus revealing his intense curiosity about and confusion by the new sociocultural realities of urban modernity. His shifting and prismatically interfering responses to this new order comprise James's representational method of conveying urban modernity's multiplicity, what he calls its "perpetually provisional" conditions (p. 408).

More pointedly made a target of James's critique than its immigration policies and processes is what he calls America's "hotel-spirit" (p. 441). If the officious and bureaucratic manhandling of the immigrant masses discomfits, what proves astonishing is the American propensity to transform so relatively modest a commercial enterprise as innkeeping into a massive managerial concern, one "of extraordinary complexity and brilliancy, operating—and with proportionate perfection—by laws of their own and expressing after their fashion a complete scheme of life" (p. 102). Dilating on the cultural and ideological significance of the "amazing hotel-world" (p. 102) exemplified by the Waldorf-Astoria, James observes how "the American genius for organization" and "consummate management" (p. 105) all too successfully and perfectly matches Americans' utilitarian impulse: the hotel, "blissfully exempt from any principle or possibility of disaccord with itself," is "so comprehensively collective—that it made so vividly, in the old phrase, for the greatest happiness of the greatest number" (p. 104). James likens this commercial order to an orchestra whose "colossal" conductor possesses "absolute presiding power, conscious of every note of every instrument, controlling and commanding the whole volume of sound, keeping the whole effect together" (pp. 106–107); the orchestra in turn is refigured as "an army of puppets" whose leader "has found means to make them think of themselves as delightfully free and easy" (p. 107). Without leveling the charge directly, James suggests how perilously near Americans are to surrendering themselves to plutocratic managerialism.

In staging this critique of American modernity's expansive utilitarian ideology, James can be seen to anticipate by several decades the sort of neo-Marxist analysis of the "culture industry" that Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer develop in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944). But in an important sense James is unlike Adorno and Horkheimer: they are constrained as he is not by the imperative of consistency, which is legislated both by social philosophy's discursive conventions and, seemingly, by their intellectual disposition. They do not, as James does, follow up a withering critique with an account of "certain aimless strolls" that restore to New York its enduring, even endearing, attraction. Unlike them, James confesses the "secret" that despite New York's "ugliness" he is "willing at the lightest persuasion" to let go of the critical orientation, impelled as he is by "one of those loyalties that are beyond any reason" (pp. 107–108). An American born and partly raised, James recognizes his embeddedness in, and even indebtedness to, American culture's contradictions:

"It's all very well," the voice of the air seemed to say, if I may so take it up; "it's all very well to 'criticize,' but you distinctly take an interest and are the victim of your interest, be the grounds of your perversity what they will. You can't escape from it, and don't you see that this, precisely, is what makes an adventure for you . . . of almost any odd stroll, or waste half-hour, or other promiscuous passage, that results for you in an impression? . . . You care for the terrible town. (P. 108)

As indicated by his poetic license to transform the air into interlocutor, James insists on multiple and mutually interfering voices. He thus reveals how deeply inflected his discourse is by the American idiom. In this stagey talk one can almost hear Ralph Waldo Emerson's appeal to his many and contradictory moods or Walt Whitman's declaration that he is multitudinously large and therefore has leeway to contradict himself. Without perhaps such copious measures of plenary idealism, James in The American Scene registers, by way of his perambulatory and hybrid persona, the prismatically interfering conditions that constitute American modernity.

See alsoThe Ambassadors; City Dwellers; Jews; New York; Tourism and Travel Writing


Primary Works

James, Henry. The American Scene. 1907. Introduction and notes by Leon Edel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968.

James, William. The Letters of William James. Edited by Henry James, 2 vols. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1920. The editor is William James's son, not his brother the novelist.

Secondary Works

Agnew, Jean-Christophe. "The Consuming Vision of Henry James." In The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History 1880–1980, edited by Richard Wightman Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears, pp. 67–100. New York: Pantheon, 1983.

Cameron, Sharon. Thinking in Henry James. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Edel, Leon. Henry James, the Master: 1901–1916. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1972.

Esteve, Mary. "Anerotic Excursions: Memory, Celibacy, and Desire in The American Scene." In Questioning the Master: Gender and Sexuality in Henry James's Writings, edited by Peggy McCormack, pp. 196–216. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2000.

Posnock, Ross. The Trial of Curiosity: Henry James, William James, and the Challenge of Modernity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Rowe, John Carlos. Theoretical Dimensions of Henry James. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.

Taylor, Gordon O. "Chapters of Experience: Henry James." In his Chapters of Experience: Studies in Modern American Autobiography. New York: St. Martin's, 1983.

Trachtenberg, Alan. "The American Scene: Versions of the City." Massachusetts Review 8 (summer 1967): 281–295.

Mary Esteve

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The American Scene