The American Scene

by Henry James

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Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 423

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 observers. Other such works include Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), Alexis de Tocqueville’s De la democratie en Amerique (1835-1840; Democracy in America, 1835-1840), James Fenimore Cooper’s The American Democrat (1838), Charles Dickens’ American Notes (1842), Mark Twain’s Roughing It (1872), and James Bryce’s The American Commonwealth (1888-1891).

The American Scene is the most sociological and judgmental of James’s travel writing, but it was not his only such venture. Among others, James wrote A Little Tour in France (1884), English Hours (1905), and Italian Hours (1909).

James is preeminent as a fiction writer; thus, The American Scene offers the reader a glimpse of its author’s keen powers of observation and analysis and further evidence of his uncanny ability to describe settings with painterly effect and to place social types in dramatic opposition.

James was a citizen of Western civilization more than an American. When he returned to his native land, he brought with him a cosmopolitan perspective. As Wright Morris succinctly concludes, in The American Scene James “is the first to inform us that to be an American is not enough. There is more to be said, and he said it, for human consciousness.”

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