Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1124
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 in country-club exclusivity in the old city. Washington, D.C., challenges him. He likes the “leafy moment” of his May visit, brands the architecture and statuary interesting often but negligible sometimes, calls the whole city Janus-like because it is partly majestic and partly squalid, and defines well-sited Mount Vernon as “exquisite.” Sophisticated conversation is possible in Washington because men here are not commercial and therefore do not regard fine talk as suitable only for women, as they do in other American cities.
In the Old South, James concludes that the consequences of slavery in Richmond (and elsewhere) are a romantic, mysterious past, adorable present-day weaknesses, and “ragged and rudimentary” blacks “in possession of . . . rights.” He comments that Robert E. Lee’s noble statue in Richmond presides indifferently over desolation. James passes a few days with his millionaire friend George Vanderbilt at his Biltmore House, outside Asheville, North Carolina. Then James goes on to Charleston, and with his host there (Owen Wister), sees the Battery, a few antebellum homes, some Civil War forts, a fine church, and the marshy cemetery. At this juncture, he theorizes that the South must “be tragic, as it were, in order to beguile.” The last stop is Florida. The region strikes James as a combination of lavish hotels (in St. Augustine and Palm Beach), flaming flowers and golden fruits, spectacular shops, nubile girls exhibited like goldfish in a bowl, rich people who lack taste but pathetically desire it, and jungles all about.
The aging novelist returned to America expecting to find his native land a pictorial delight, a scene for nostalgia, a challenge to his Europeanized sensibilities. Hoping for too much, James was progressively disillusioned. He found his homeland no longer safely pastoral or quaintly regional. Instead, the United States was mired in the difficulties of the Gilded Age—greedy, expansionistic, and cocky—and James soon became impatient to escape back to England.
To get at James’s message, readers must first cut through his admittedly difficult style. They are well-advised to read The American Scene aloud over a rather long period of time. Otherwise, its ornate metaphors, its involved syntax, and its serpentine, periodic sentences can be overwhelming.
The orientation of many of James’s comparisons, whether rococo or stark, is transatlantic. For example, the towered and moated state penitentiary in Philadelphia reminds James of “some more or less blighted minor city of Italy or France, black Angers or dead Ferrara.” He is comforted by the absence of change in Salem, whose “famous houses, almost without exception ample and charming, seemed to me to show a grace even beyond my recollection.” Ultimately, what James remembers with most fondness is America’s solitude, and he lashes out at the exploiters because it is “solitude you have ravaged.” He adds, “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.”
James’s disgust at robber barons’ razing of Eastern historical landmarks for plush hotels and apartment buildings, and their plowing of the West for quick profit, is more understandable than his comments on certain ethnic groups. It is not farfetched to call this grandson of a get-rich-quick Irish immigrant not only condescending but also inconsistent. Peter Buitenhuis laments an “aristocratic disdain in James’s race-consciousness that makes [certain] pages of The American Scene unpleasant reading. He seemed to take the flood of immigrants almost as a personal affront.” What James the writer especially deplores is the mangling of his precious English language by foreigners in America. Thus, certain cafes in East Side Manhattan are for him “torture-rooms of the living idiom.” Worse, he follows an expression of relief regarding the absence of “the grosser aliens” in Philadelphia with an off-key note of sympathy toward representatives of another minority, “a trio of Indian braves, braves dispossessed of forest and prairie, . . . arrayed in neat pot-hats, shoddy suits and light overcoats.” Saddest is James’s incongruous mixture of democratic idealism and elitist snobbishness, his love of his native land and his horrified awareness of how much it has changed.
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