James was addressing only the most intelligent readers imaginable—both of his day and of the future. Now in the twilight of his career, he had long since reconciled himself to being appreciated only by the best minds in the United States, England, and France and to being ignored by purchasers of best-selling popular fiction and theatergoers who wanted only sentimental melodrama. He simply could not alter his literary style, which remained complex, imagistic, and demanding.
The account opens with its narrator eager to exchange New York, repeatedly called “the terrible town,” and New Jersey, with its ugly roads and evidence of crude new money, for safe New Hampshire, which has a “feminine” landscape instantly reminding him of Italy. An example of his recurrent disorientation comes when, in the library of the Law School at Harvard University, he spies an old friend but does not walk over and speak to him. Returning to Manhattan for a closer inspection, James senses its power but likens its new skyscrapers to pins in a huge pincushion, and to broken teeth of an upended comb whose shadows eclipse revered old buildings. On Ellis Island, he is oppressed by the sight of alien hordes and feels stunned, actually dispossessed himself. Here and later, he expresses ambivalent attitudes toward America’s old and new minorities, especially Irish, blacks, Italians, Chinese, and the “swarming . . . of Israel.” James dislikes new Gotham’s overly democratic and costly dinner parties thrown by childish hosts and hostesses in honor of nothing, and its traditionless clubs, filthy Bowery, and irrelevant theatrical offerings; however, he does like Central Park, the new Public Library, and the Metropolitan Museum. The sky, the sea, and the sunsets of Newport offer a refreshing change, yet there also James sees evidence of carelessly scattered money: macadamized roads leading to a string of palacelike mansions where cozy cottages once stood. It is mostly the same when James goes to Boston, which now has new public buildings and residential expansion, but at the cost of a diminished heritage. Concord and Salem remain valuable for James only because they remind him of the American Revolution and of certain great writers.
Next, James moves to the mid-Atlantic region. He begins by contrasting Philadelphia’s serene, animated, intimate old society to rumors of current political corruption; happy to recall the city’s old heroes, he praises both Independence Hall and Carpenters’ Hall. The absence of tall buildings in Baltimore pleases James, who compares row houses there to “quiet old ladies seated, with their toes tucked-up on uniform footstools, under the shaded candlesticks of old-fashioned tea-parties.” Elitist as he is, he revels...
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The American Scene is regarded by many critics as the finest turn-of-the-century account of American manners, morals, urban life, and land-and seascapes. Morton Dauwen Zabel calls it “one of the travel classics of modern literature.” W. H. Auden notes that James’s virtues of “self-knowledge . . . and his critical literary sense . . . are nowhere more conspicuous than in The American Scene.” Irving Howe calls it “one of those recurrent attempts . . . to get at ’the essence’ of the American experience, as if ultimately this country were the working-out of a Platonic idea.” And Leon Edel sees “in the humanism of James’s book an abiding patriotism: that of a man writing out of a deep love of country and a concern for its future.” Almost every recent commentator admires the work, but not so the most virulent anti-Jamesian of them all, Maxwell Geismar, who labels The American Scene “probably . . . James’s worst-written, and mainly most vacant, empty, and chatterbox book; as though the writer’s own consciousness as regards his lack of real knowledge about his ostensible subject had impelled him into almost hysterical bursts of verbal virtuosity.” This savage opinion is shared by almost no knowledgeable critic, and perhaps by few ordinary readers, of James.
The American Scene belongs on a shelf with a small number of books concerning sections of and life in America, as seen by perceptive...
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