Even for those who enjoy the obliquities, dark passages, and the meanings buried with a shovel of Henry James’ late style, The American Scene is a trial. The sentences here are so hedged that sometimes the meaning they are drifting towards – driving towards would be too vulgar, as it was just the kind of thing Americans were always, shockingly, doing, driving here, driving there - seems to have entirely escaped them. This, one feels, is not an entirely peaceful enterprise – there is something altogether aggressive about passages in which murkiness seems to abound for its own sake.
Here’s an example:
“Who, for that matter, shall speak, who shall begin to speak, of the alacrity with which, in the New England scene (to confine ourselves for the moment only to that), the eye and the fancy take to the water? - take to it often for relief and security, the corrective it supplies to the danger of the common. The case is rare when it is not better than the other elements of the picture, even if these be at their best ; and its strength is in the fact that the common has, for the most part, to stop short at its brink ; no water being intrinsically less distinguished, save when it is dirty, than any other. By a fortunate circumstance, moreover, are not the objects usually afloat on American lakes and rivers, to say nothing of bays and sounds, almost always white and wonderful, high-piled, characteristic, fantastic things, begotten of the native conditions and shining in the native light ? Let my question, however, not embroider too extravagantly my mere sense of driving presently, though after nightfall, and in the public conveyance, into a village that gave out, through the dusk, something of the sense of a flourishing Swiss village of the tourist season, as one recalls old Alpine associations : the swing of the coach, the cold, high air, the scattered hotels and their lighted windows, the loitering people who might be celebrated climbers or celebrated guides, the resonance of the bridge as one crossed, the gleam of the swift river under the lamps. My village had no happy name; it was, crudely speaking, but Jackson, N.H., just as the swift river that, later on, in the morning light, to the immediate vision, easily surpassed everything else, was only the river of the Wildcat – a superiority strictly comparative.”
The end of my passage is not the end of the paragraph, so it might well go unnoticed that the final phrase is a bit out of whack as regards to sense. For what could possibly be the opposite of a superiority that was strictly comparative? One that arise absolutely, jettisoning comparison and wrapping itself Hegelianly in itself? It would seem that the river shares, with all things mortal, that fall from superiorities without comparison. Why would James want it otherwise?
This is in a paragraph in the early part of the book, and what it tells us, to be naked about it, is that James went to a New Hampshire resort. Why Jackson should be a name that required a certain crudeness to pronounce – in contrast to, say, London, England – is a matter of those distinctions that James is always making in his own breast, where they make sense, but very rarely explaining to the world outside that consciousness when he produces them as somehow enlightening to his theme – as though the reader would only betray his own native crudeness by asking.
William James, in a letter to his brother written in 1887, speaking about his New Hampshire house – which one imagineswas the object towards which Henry James, in 1907, was striving - wrote teasingly about the James’ strained sensibility with regard to the crude: “With house provided, two or three hundred dollars a year will support a man comfortably enough at Tamworth Iron works, which is the name of our township. But, enough! My vulgarity makes you shudder…” In one way, Henry James’ American Scene is just a long shudder, evoked by the American things William James rather loved.
Here I think is a key to the aggression of the style, which is an argument, or rather, the performance of an argument, against pragmatism and the world view that, for Henry James, it represented. Pragmatic prose, which tests itself –its truth - against its use in the world, would tend to plane away and break up the sentences and congeries of reference with which James loads up the books of his last period. Of course, by this time James was writing with a secretary, and the note of the oral, of the dictated, which overflows the orderly stops of the written had seeped into the written, which consequently swelled with modifications, irrelevancies, sudden and seemingly off topic references, and the kind of obiter dicta that, examined in the cruel light of logic, was not quite sound. In a sense, if pragmatic prose installed that collegiate thing, the “test”, as the supreme ritual to which all writing must bow, James fought back by pressing on the original notion of the test, which was of bodily strength, or muscular accident, and sought to create overwhelming effects. In the society where all things are put to pragmatic text, the old is doomed to be cleared away, and even the new is constructed to be taken down and replaced at the first profitable opportunity. For Henry James, the creative side of creative destruction is a little too heartless, a little too dumb to understand or sympathize with the destroyed, and in that falls below the value of the latter, which so often understands all too well the motives and feelings of its destroyer.
Of course, there is more than a note of this in William James’ work, too – he was scathing about the Chatauqua culture, and wrote an essay deploring American nervousness in the same decade that his brother wrote The American Scene, where that nervousness was portrayed as an all-devouring monster.
But although Henry James’ book displays a gigantic distaste for what the country in which he was born had become (a distaste that sometimes plunges into crude xenophobia and latent anti-semitism in the famous passages about immigrants in New York), there is also a moment, a rather startling moment, when James displays something else, something that is coordinate with another thing going on in 1907 in the world of art – the re-evaluation of the primitive.
In the Boston chapter, after James makes a point of the fact that the couples he sees strolling around Beacon Hill on Sunday are speaking Italian (and the point is not meant to underline some beautiful cultivation of the American mind that embraces the opportunity to exercise the language of Dante in the heights of Boston, but rather to hint at the the degradation of the American stock via the immigrant from Naples), he almost makes up for the drop into suburban prejudice by contemplating, in the Museum of Fine Arts then on Copley Square, one of the statues in the collection that is also an immigrant to the New World:
“It is of the nature of objects doomed to show distinction that they virtually make a desert round them, and peace reigned unbroken, I usually noted, in the two or three Museum rooms that harbour a small but deeply-interesting and steadily-growing collection of fragments of the antique. Here the restless analyst found work to his hand only too much ; and indeed in presence of the gem of the series, of the perhaps just too conscious grace of a certain little wasted and dim-eyed head of Aphrodite, he felt that his function should simply give way, in common decency, to that of the sonneteer. For it is an impression by itself, and I think quite worth the Atlantic voyage, to catch in the American light the very fact of the genius of Greece. There are things we don't know, feelings not to be foretold, till we have had that experience which I commend to the raffiné of almost any other clime. I should say to him that he has not seen a fine Greek thing till he has seen it in America. It is of course on the face of it the most merciless case of transplanting - the mere moral of which, nevertheless, for application, becomes by no means flagrant. The little Aphrodite, with her connections, her antecedents and references exhibiting the maximum of breakage, is no doubt as lonely a jewel as ever strayed out of its setting ; yet what does one quickly recognize but that the intrinsic lustre will have, so far as that may be possible, doubled ? She has lost her background, the divine creature has lost her company, and is keeping, in a manner, the strangest ; but so far from having lost an iota of her power, she has gained unspeakably more, since what she essentially stands for she here stands for alone, rising ineffably to the occasion. She has in short, by her single presence, as yet, annexed an empire, and there are strange glimmers of moments when, as I have spoken of her consciousness, the very knowledge of this seems to lurk in the depth of her beauty. Where was she ever more, where was she ever so much, a goddess and who knows but that, being thus divine, she forsees the time when, as she has “moved over,” the place of her actual whereabouts will have become one of her shrines? Objects doomed to distinction make round them a desert, I have said – but that is only for any cross confidence in other matters. For confidence in them they make a garden, and that is why I felt this quarter of the Boston Art Museum bloom under the indescribably dim eyes, with delicate flowers.”
To catch in the American light the genius of Greece – this is a sentence worthy of one of the modernists; but since James has been presenting himself here more in the guise of the Ancient American Mariner, come to port and finding crudeness, vulgarity and impatience dealing deathblows to the country from which so long ago he had embarked, I don’t just want to annex it to the movement that found what was most ancient to be what was most new – the paleolithic sculpture, the first epic, etc.
Lautreamont, who Henry James doubtless never read, had already written of the beauty - comparative, it must be said – of the “chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.” Henry James did not present himself as the kind of writer who was bent on seeing the sublime in the abject, or the marvel in the junkheap, but the juxtaposition of this Aphrodite with the American light, and the curious idea that this immigrant, in a nation whose immigrants have been given a baleful stare by Henry James, will gain in the move over, does make us pause. First, because we tend to forget, in the authority that James lends his judgements, that he himself has moved over, he himself is an immigrant in an England in which the American accent is suspect. And second, because if all there was to Henry James was a protest against American vulgarity, he could stand in line – who hasn’t protested against that? It is, in fact, the most vulgar thing in the world.
But the superiority in whose name he is protesting is not that of any established order that he could really point to. In all of James’ novels set in Europe and Great Britain, it is clear that the characters, even as they lounge in the country homes, are surrounded by a Dickensian squalor that supports those country homes. This is not just there in the foreground of Princess Casamissama, but it is on the edges of all his great novels – it is the region into which Kate Croy, in the first chapter of Wings of the Dove, proposes to plunge, and in plunging drown herself, when she goes to visit her father, a man who is basically a class conman, a pretender – a stinker.
It is on behalf of another order that James, or at least the better spirit in James, recoils in the American Scene. In this order, there is a chance for both naiveté and refinement – there is a chance, that is, for the civilization of sensibility in which his characters, down to the telegraph clerks, move, alert for every nuance in the Other, and to that extent giving the Other the ultimate tribute of possessing nuance, rather than being wired for the better deal. Although the mood in The American Scene seems to write finis to the possibility of such a civilization flourishing in a society that so agressively sells all that it has – for there is nothing that turns naiveté so quickly into a crafty strategy like the cult of sales and its attendent, the cult of the celebrity – the Aphrodite moment proposes something else, something at the end of the creative destruction that has written Henry James so largely, or so he thought, out of the script.