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In August, 1904, a portly American with large, piercing eyes and a wide, sensitive mouth set sail from Southampton, England, for his first visit to the United States since 1883. Not the least of his baggage was his reputation as an esteemed novelist, short-story writer, literary critic, travel essayist, and playwright whose works were not selling well. He was Henry James, and his intention, aside from seeing friends and relatives, was to observe and record changes in his native land. The result were travel essays published serially in 1905 and 1906, then revised, added to, and published as a 465-page book, titled The American Scene, in 1907.

Although he was sixty-one years of age when he stepped ashore in New Jersey, James possessed undiminished energy. In the next six months, he traveled through several New England states (including New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island) and New York, stayed in New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Richmond, stopped in North Carolina and Charleston, South Carolina, and went on to Florida. Then, after resting up back north, James took a seven-week tour of the Midwest and Far West—St. Louis, Chicago, then California, Oregon, Washington, and Chicago again. Late in April of 1905, he began revisiting old and sampling new areas in the Northeast, from Baltimore to Maine. Early in July he sailed for Liverpool.

Everywhere James went in the United States, sights were new to him, regardless of whether he had seen the areas before. He had never been south of Washington, D.C., or west of New York State in his earlier years. Friends and relatives with whom he stayed along the way included his philosopher-brother William James, the novelist Edith Wharton, the historian Henry Adams, the novelist Owen Wister and his socialite mother, Sarah Butler Wister, the critic-novelist William Dean Howells, and the art professor Charles Eliot Norton. At many stopping points, James delivered lectures for high fees; his topics were American speech patterns or the works of the French novelist Honore de Balzac, however, never his travel impressions.

Upon returning to his house in Rye, southeast of London, James threw himself into several literary projects. They included writing more short stories, revising much of his fiction for the famous New York edition, composing prefaces for its successive volumes (1907-1909), and preparing The American Scene for book publication. (He originally planned a second volume, to cover his Western excursion.) When The American Scene appeared, James was outraged that his American publishers had excluded the last five long paragraphs of his book, in which he muses both on the ruin of his native land by noisy greed and on the uncivilized complacency which has followed. (The British edition, and subsequent American ones—1946, 1967, 1968—include those last paragraphs.)

The form of The American Scene only partially reflects James’s week-by-week itinerary. The book is in fourteen chapters, with the greater Northeast dominating the first eight and Philadelphia and areas to its south the last six. The record begins with New England, then examines New York City, the Hudson River valley, New York City again, then New England in more detail—Newport, Boston, and, finally, Concord and Salem. Next come Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Richmond, Charleston, and Florida. Each chapter is an artistic unit, composed of loosely related, impressionistic sketches, and coalescing mainly because James is the unitary, observant narrator.

James uses many terms to characterize himself in The American Scene. The most common by far is “the restless analyst,” but perhaps the most accurate is “the brooding visitor.” He moves about restlessly and analyzes everything he sees; he stops at one place after another, to brood about the past (his own as well as his country’s) and to compare his recollections to present-day thoughts and sights. He implies that his long sojourn in Europe has made him feel like a civilized visitor in his too-raw native land. The resulting book is an almost musical, certainly a rhythmic, combination of notes on cities and backwashes, varied visual impressions, upsurging memories, and relentless condemnation of contemporary blight. The work is contrapuntal, since James alternately rushes to visit scenes old and new, only to be frightened by present-day changes and horrors. He even juggles the subjectively anecdotal and the objectively sociological. The American Scene begins in hope, as James goes to the place in New York City where he was born: “The good easy [Washington] Square, known in childhood, . . . bristled with reminders as vague as they were sweet.” Yet the book ends in bitter condemnation of selfish Americans: “You touch the great lonely land . . . only to plant upon it some ugliness about which, never dreaming of the grace of apology or contrition, you then proceed to brag with a cynicism all your own.”


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 96

Auden, W. H. Introduction to The American Scene, 1946.

Buitenhuis, Peter. The Grasping Imagination: The American Writings of Henry James, 1970.

Edel, Leon. Introduction to The American Scene, 1968.

Furth, David L. The Visionary Betrayed: Aesthetic Discontinuity in Henry James’s “The American Scene,” 1979.

Geismar, Maxwell. Henry James and the Jacobites, 1963.

Howe, Irving. Introduction to The American Scene, 1967.

Morris, Wright. The Territory Ahead, 1957.

Przybylowicz, Donna. Desire and Repression: The Dialectic of Self and Other in the Late Works of Henry James, 1986.

Seltzer, Mark. Henry James and the Art of Power, 1984.

Zabel, Morton Dauwen. Introduction to The Art of Travel, 1958.


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