The American Scene

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The American Scene is a book (1907) by Henry James describing his travels throughout the United States in 1904–1905.


(Indiana University Press, 1968, Library of Congress catalogue card number 68-14605)

  • The huge new houses, up and down, looked over their smart, short lawns as with a certain familiar prominence in their profiles, which was borne out by the accent, loud, assertive, yet benevolent withal, with which they confessed to their extreme expensiveness. "Oh, yes; we were awfully dear, for what we are and for what we do" — it was proud, but it was rather rueful; with the odd appearance everywhere as of florid creations waiting, a little bewilderingly, for their justification, waiting for the next clause in the sequence, waiting in short for life, for time, for interest, for character, for identity itself to come to them, quite as large spread tables or superfluous shops may wait for guests and customers.
    • Ch. I: New England - An Autumn Impression, pt. I (p. 8)
  • The ample villas, in their full dress, planted each on its little square of brightly-green carpet, and as with their stiff skirts pulled well down, eyed each other, at short range, from head to foot; while the open road, the chariots, the buggies, the motors, the pedestrians — which last number, indeed, was remarkably small — regarded at their ease both this reciprocity and the parties to it. It was in fact all one participation, with an effect deterrent to those ingenuities, or perhaps indeed rather to those commonplaces, of conjecture produced in general by the outward show of the fortunate life. That, precisely, appeared the answer to the question of manners: the fact that in such conditions there couldn't be any manners to speak of; that the basis of privacy was somehow wanting for them; and that nothing, accordingly, no image, no presumption of constituted relations, possibilities, amenities, in the social, the domestic order, was inwardly projected. It was as if the projection had been so completely outward that one could but find one's self almost uneasy about the mere perspective required for the common acts of the personal life, that minimum of vagueness as to what takes place in it for which the complete "home" aspires to provide.
    • Ch. I: New England, pt. I (p. 10)
  • That, at any rate, would seem in each instance the most direct message of the life displayed to the observer, on the fresher evenings, in the halls and parlours, the large, clean, bare spaces (almost penally clean and bare), where plain, respectable families seemed to sit and study in silence, with a kind of awe indeed, as from a sense of inevitable doom, their reflected resemblances, from group to group, their baffling identities of type and tone, their inability to escape from participations and communities.
    • Ch. I: New England, pt. III (p. 31)
  • What was taking place was a perpetual repudiation of the past, so far as there had been a past to repudiate, so far as the past was a positive rather than a negative quantity. There had been plenty in it, assuredly, of the negative, and that was but a shabbiness to disown or a deception to expose; yet there had been an old conscious commemorated life too, and it was this that had become the victim of supersession. The pathos, so to call it, of the impression was somehow that it didn't, the earlier, simpler condition, still resist or protest, or at all expressively flush through; it was consenting to become a past with all the fine candour with which it had tried to affirm itself, in its day, as a present — and very much, for that matter, as with a due ironic forecast of the fate in store for the hungry, triumphant actual.
    • Ch. I: New England, pt. VI (p. 53)
  • Crowned not only with no history, but with no credible possibility of time for history, and consecrated by no uses save the commercial at any cost, they [sky-scrapers] are simply the most piercing notes in that concert of the expensively provisional into which your supreme sense of New York resolves itself
    • Ch. 2: New York Revisited, pt. I (p. 77)
  • The reflecting surfaces, of the ironic, of the epic order, suspended in the New York atmosphere, have yet to show symptoms of shining out, and the monstrous phenomena themselves, meanwhile, strike me as having, with their immense momentum, got the start, got ahead of, in proper parlance, any possibility of poetic, of dramatic capture.
    • Ch. 2: New York Revisited, pt. I (p. 83)
  • The newness of New York — unlike even that of Boston, I seemed to discern — had this mark of its very own, that it affects one, in every case, as having treated itself as still more provisional, if possible, than any poor dear little interest of antiquity it may have annihilated. The very sign of its energy is that it doesn't believe in itself; it fails to succeed, even at a cost of millions, in persuading you that it does. Its mission would appear to be, exactly, to gild the temporary, with its gold, as many inches thick as may be, and then, with a fresh shrug, a shrug of its splendid cynicism for its freshly detected inability to convince, give up its actual work, however exorbitant, as the merest of stop-gaps.
    • Ch. 2: New York Revisited, pt. III (p. 110)
  • The social question quite fills the air, in New York, for any spectator whose impressions at all follow themselves up; it wears, at any rate, in what I have called the upper reaches, the perpetual strange appearance as of Property perched high aloft and yet itself looking about, all ruefully, in the wonder of what it is exactly doing there. We see it perched, assuredly, in other and older cities, other and older social orders; but it strikes us in those situations as knowing a little more where it is. It strikes us as knowing how it has got up and why it must, infallibly, stay up; it has not the frightened look, measuring the spaces around, of a small child set on a mantelshelf and about to cry out. If old societies are interesting, however, I am far from thinking that young ones may not be more so — with their collective countenance so much more presented, precisely, to observation, as by their artless need to get themselves explained. The American world produces almost everywhere the impression of appealing to any attested interest for the word, the fin mot, of what it may mean; but I somehow see those parts of it most at a loss that are already explained not a little by the ample possession of money. This is the amiable side there of the large developments of private ease in general — the amiable side of those numerous groups that are rich enough and, in the happy vulgar phrase, bloated enough, to be candidates for the classic imputation of haughtiness. The amiability proceeds from an essential vagueness; whereas real haughtiness is never vague about itself — it is only vague about others. That is the human note in the huge American rattle of gold — so far as the "social" field is the scene of the rattle.
    • Ch. 2: New York Revisited, pt. III (pp. 114-115)
  • These adventures of the critical spirit were such mere mild walks and talks as I almost blush to offer, on this reduced scale, as matter of history; but I draw courage from the remembrance that history is never, in any rich sense, the immediate crudity of what "happens," but the much finer complexity of what we read into it and think of in connection with it.
    • Ch. 4: New York - Social Notes, pt. IV (p. 182)
  • It had been intimated to me that one of these scenes of our climax had entered the sophisticated phase, that of sacrificing to a self-consciousness that was to be regretted — that of making eyes, so to speak, at the larger, the up-town public; that pestilent favour of "society" which is fatal to everything it touches and which so quickly leaves the places of its passage unfit for its own use and uninteresting for any other.
    • Ch. 5: The Bowery and Thereabouts, pt. III (pp. 205-206)
  • He is confronted too often, to his sense, with the question of what may be "borne"; but what does he see about him if not a vast social order in which the parties to certain relations are all the while marvellously, inscrutably, desperately "bearing" each other? He may wonder, at his hours, how, under the strain, social cohesion does not altogether give way; but that is another question, which belongs to a different plane of speculation. For he asks himself quite as much as anything else how the shopman or the shoplady can bear to be barked at in the manner he constantly hears used to them by customers — he recognizes that no agreeable form of intercourse could survive a day in such air: so that what is the only relation finding ground there but a necessary vicious circle of gross mutual endurance?
    • Ch. 7: Boston, pt. I (p. 236)
  • What prevails, what sets the tune, is the American scale of gain, more magnificent than any other, and the fact that the whole assumption, the whole theory of life, is that of the individual's participation in it, that of his being more or less punctually and more or less effectually "squared." To make so much money that you won't, that you don't "mind," don't mind anything — that is absolutely, I think, the main American formula.
    • Ch. 7: Boston, pt. I (p. 237)
  • Perversely adorable always — and I scarce know why — the late afternoon light in deserted haunts of study; with the secret of supreme dignity lurking, above all, in high, dusky, wainscoted chambers where the sound of one's footfall lingers, to one's pleasure, like a caress, and where portraits of the appurtenant worthies, the heroes and patrons, grow vague in the twilight. It is a tribute to the forces of idealism lurking again and again, over the country, in the amenity of the general Collegiate appearance, that the last thing these conditions overtly suggest, or seem to accept as their imputed virtue, is this precipitation of the young intelligence into the mere vociferous market.
    • Ch. 10: Baltimore, pt. III (pp. 317-318)
  • He has seen again and again how the most expensive effort often fails to lead up to interest, and he has seen how it may bloom in soil of no more worth than so many layers of dust and ashes. He has learnt in fact — he learns greatly in America — to mistrust any plea for it directly made by money, which operates too often as the great puffing motor-car framed for whirling him, in his dismay, quite away from it.
    • Ch. 11: Washington, pt. IV (p. 358)
  • The social scene, shabby and sordid, and lost in the scale of space as the quotable line is lost in a dull epic or the needed name in an ageing memory, would have been as interesting, probably, as a "short story" in one of the slangy dialects promoted by the illustrated monthly magazines; but it affected me above all, and almost each time, I seem to remember, as speaking of the number of things not cared for. There were some presumably, though not at all discernibly, that were — enough to beget the loose human cohesion, the scant consistency of parts and pieces, to which the array by the railway platform testified; but questions came up, plentifully, in respect to the whole picture, and if the mass of interests that were absent was so remarkably large, this would be certainly because such interests were ruled out. The grimness with which, as by a hard inexorable fate, so many things were ruled out, fixed itself most perhaps as the impression of the spectator enjoying from his supreme seat of ease his extraordinary, his awful modern privilege of this detached yet concentrated stare at the misery of subject populations. (Subject, I mean, to this superiority of his bought convenience — subject even as never, of old, to the sway of satraps or proconsuls.)
    • Ch. 13: Charleston, pt. I (pp. 397-398)
  • It is of the nature of many American impressions, accepted at the time as a whole of the particular story, simply to cease to be, as soon as your back is turned — to fade, to pass away, to leave not a wreck behind. This happens not least when the image, whatever it may have been, has exacted the tribute of wonder or pleasure: it has displayed every virtue but the virtue of being able to remain with you. Its pressure and power have failed of some weight, some element of density or intensity, some property or quality in short that makes for the authority of a figure, for the complexity of a scene.
    • Ch. 14: Florida, pt. V (p. 454)
  • I had the foretaste of what I was presently to feel in California — when the general aspect of that wondrous realm kept suggesting to me a sort of prepared but unconscious and inexperienced Italy, the primitive plate, in perfect condition, but with the impression of History all yet to be made.
    • Ch. 14: Florida, pt. VII (462)

About The American Scene[edit]

  • Indeed, perhaps, the best way to approach this book is as a prose poem of the first order, i.e., to suspend, for the time being, one's own conclusions about America and Americans, and to read on slowly, relishing it sentence by sentence, for it is no more a guidebook than the "Ode to a Nightingale" is an ornithological essay.
  • Great artists are always far-seeing. They easily avoid the big stumbling blocks of fact. They rely on their own simplicity and vision. It is fact-fetichism that has given us those scores and scores of American books on America, the works of sociologists, anthropologists, topical "problem" hunters, working-parties and statisticians, which in the end leave us empty. Henry James succeeds because he rejects information. He was himself the only information he required.
    • V. S. Pritchett, "Henry James: Birth of a Hermaphrodite," The Tale Bearers: English and American Writers (1980) [Random House, 1981, ISBN 0-394-74683-X], pp. 131-132

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