The American Scene Essay - Critical Context

Henry James

Critical Context

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...

(The entire section is 423 words.)