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The American scene by Henry James

The American scene (1907)

by Henry James

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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This book is one of Henry James' least well known, which isn't surprising, considering how critical a description of America is to be found in it. James' returned to America in his old age and saw in it a throwaway architecture and a locust-like materialism. He layers thousands of details of observation one at a time, seeing the nation of his birth through the eyes of a writer who left in his youth so he could devote himself to his art, and who came back to the places he knew in his childhood, to register how much they had changed, even within his lifetime. This collection of perceptions is priceless, because we Americans can no longer see the things James' observed. To read a book like this is one of the only ways we can know what has been lost in the hurried development of our culture, how things might have been different, and how weird our society is. ( )
2 vote SquirrelTao | Jul 11, 2006 |
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» Add other authors (5 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Henry Jamesprimary authorall editionscalculated
Auden, W. H.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sears, John F.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Conscious that the impressions of the very first hours have always the value of their intensity, I shrink from wasting those that attended my arrival, my return after long years, even though they be out of order with the others that were promptly to follow and that I here gather in, as best I may, under a single head.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 014043416X, Paperback)

To be an American is, as Henry James famously observed, a "complex fate." But complexity was that rococo master's stock-in-trade, which may explain why he returned to his native country in 1904 after an absence of more than 20 years. To be sure, he was interested in a Jamesian walk down memory lane, with its full quota of meditative hairsplitting. Yet he also meant to take advantage of his hybrid status as a Europeanized American. "I made no scruple," James explains in his introduction, "of my conviction that I should understand and should care better and more than the most earnest of visitors, and yet that I should vibrate with more curiosity ... than the pilgrim with the longest list of questions." Vibrate he did, in the ornate and extraordinary periods of his late phase, and the result was a one-of-a-kind travel book, The American Scene.

James opens his book with an impressionistic overture, which can be slightly off-putting: he seems too intent on leaping beyond the dry donnée of American life into pure abstraction. But readers shouldn't be discouraged. Even in the opening pages the author manages some brilliant snapshots, like this description of New Hampshire's Saco River: "The rich, full lapse of the river, the perfect brownness, clear and deep, as of liquid agate, in its wide swirl, the large indifferent ease in its pace and motion, as of some great benevolent institution smoothly working; all this, with the sense of the deepening autumn about, gave I scarce know what pastoral nobleness to the scene, something raising it out of the reach of even the most restless of analysts." And once James begins his journey proper up and down the Eastern seaboard, he delivers one amazing page after another. He doesn't, of course, care for everything he sees--the skyscrapers of Manhattan strike him as vertical monstrosities, and he lets loose with more than one politically incorrect shaft at the minority population.

What appalls him the most, though, is the Almighty Dollar, which he perceives as "the preliminary American postulate," the very bedrock of New World life: "This basis is that of active pecuniary gain and of active pecuniary gain only--that of one's making the conditions so triumphantly pay that the prices, the manners, the other inconveniences, take their place as a friction it is comparatively easy to salve, wounds directly treatable with the wash of gold." Some will argue that the fussbudget author had spent too much time in England, where money remained a dirty word until after the Second World War. Others may find his diagnosis eerily prescient. In any case, The American Scene remains required reading for anybody interested in U.S. history, Henry James, or the incredible evolution of the compound sentence. --James Marcus

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:03 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Though best known as a novelist, James also wrote non-fiction, including this controversial 1907 account of his 1905-06 American tour. By 1905 he had lived in England for twenty-five years, and it is as a returning expatriate that James views the country of his birth and finds much to criticize in its embrace of crass materialism.… (more)

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