U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Very Brief Reader’s Guide for Henry James’ American Scene

I recently read a section of Henry James’ travelogue The American Scene (1907) with students in a course I teach called “International Vistas: the U.S. Viewed from Abroad.” The book is under-appreciated among historians. James’ thoughts on white Southern Americans and the memory of the Civil War is remarkably sophisticated, for example. His take American architecture in New York is wonderful (no surprise there). My students found the James who appears in the text baffling for his elaborate prose, so we had fun translating it. It rewards careful, slow reading. He takes everything in.

Here are some translations of parts of his section on New York, “New York Revisited.” I should mention that this goes against the spirit of the text in certain ways, robbing the reader of some of its pleasure. A great part of the fun comes from following James as he leads up to these sections, seeing how he transitions to them. So, with apologies for having done violence to the book, here goes:

Exhibit A: Setting Out in Style

I had arrived at one of the transpontine stations of the Pennsylvania Railroad; the question was of proceeding to Boston, for the occasion, without pushing through the terrible town—why “terrible” to my sense, in many ways, I shall presently explain—and the easy and agreeable attainment of this great advantage was to embark on one of the mightiest (as it appeared to me) of train-bearing barges and, descending the western waters, pass round the bottom of the city and remount the other current to Harlem; all without “losing touch” of the Pullman that had brought me to Washington. This absence of the need of losing touch, this breadth of effect as to the whole process, involved in the prompt floating of the huge concatenated cars not only without arrest or confusion, but as for positive prodigal beguilement of the artless traveler, had doubtless much to say to the ensuing state of mind, the happily-excited and amused view of the great face of New York (72).

Translation One: “Transpontine?” You gotta be kiddin’ me, man. Pullman Car? Sounds nice. I’m glad it was so convenient for you, that you didn’t have to get out of your car, fancy-britches.

Translation Two: Some of James’ usages are positively Germanic. By “The absence of the need of losing touch,” he means a phenomenological condition or feeling, “the absence-of-the-need-of-losing-touch.” We learn here that the Master wasn’t inconvenienced, that not being inconvenienced made him feel good to be back at first, even if the reader knows his “beguilement” will prove tricky in the end. By encapsulating that feeling, transforming it into a noun with a definite article—“the absence-of-the-need-of-losing-touch”—James puns. By not having to get off the Pullman, he never loses touch with his memories of the place, nor entirely with the self he was before he had left, and so he can register the changes, feeling a certain “positive prodigal beguilement.”

Exhibit B: Tall Buildings

The “tall buildings,” which have so promptly usurped a glory that affects you as rather surprised, as yet, at itself, the multitudinous sky-scrapers standing up to the view from the water, like extravagant pins in a cushion…You see the pin-cushion in profile, so to speak, on passing between New Jersey and Twenty-third Street, but you get it broadside on, this loose nosegay of architectural flowers, if you skirt the Battery, well out, and embrace the whole plantation. Then the “American Beauty,” the rose of interminable stem, becomes the token of the cluster at large—to the degree that, positively, this all that is wanted for emphasis of your final impression. Such growths, you feel, have confessedly arisen but to be “picked,” in time, with a shears; nipped short off, by waiting fate, as soon as “science,” applied to gain, has put upon the table, from far up its sleeve, some more winning card. 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 are simply the most piercing notes in that concert of the expensively provisional into which your supreme sense of New York resolves itself.

Translation One: Just herd those metaphors, Hank, rope ‘em on out until the cows come home.

Translation Two: The reader can follow James’ impressions in so many different ways. Sometimes he fills in with too many details and sensations, which we feel sure could not possibly have been registered at the time, but only in retrospect, as an ex post facto set of additions. Yet, don’t these thoughts after the fact better communicate how it felt at the time? When that happens, time stretches out in the American Scene. We lose track of where and when James is. It’s disorienting because he travels back and forth in time while traveling around in this or that destination. Other times he demands lots of us, that we fill in the gaps between images, especially when he piles his metaphors high, thick with allusions. Here, the reader connects the conceptual dots from sewing metaphors to pins, to florists with shears (who use pins for cards on floral arrangements) to gambling cards, from gambling tables to notes heard in “expensively provisional” concerts resembling momentary gambits or hands in games of chance over high stakes.

Exhibit C: Unwashed Masses

Let not the unwary…visit Ellis Island… Is not our instinct in this matter, in general, essentially the safe one—that of keeping the idea simple and strong and continuous, so that it shall be perfectly sound? To touch it overmuch, to pull it about, is to put it in peril of weakening; yet on this free assault upon it, this readjustment of it in their monstrous, presumptuous interest, the aliens, in New York, seem perpetually to insist. The combination there of their quantity and their quality—that loud primary stage of alienism which New York most offers to sight—operates, for the native, as their note of settled possession, something they have nobody to thank for; so that unsettled possession is what we, on our side, seem reduced to—the implication of which, in its turn, is that, to recover confidence and regain lost ground, we, not they, must make the surrender and accept the orientation. We must go, in other words, more than half-way to meet them; which is all the difference, for us, between possession and dispossession. This is sense of dispossession, to be brief about it, haunted me so, I was to feel, in the New York streets and in the packed trajectiles to which one clingingly appeals from the streets, just as one tumbles back into the streets in appalled reaction from them, that the art of beguiling or duping it became an art to be cultivated—though the fond alternative vision was never long to be obscured, the imagination, exasperated to envy, of the ideal, in the order in question; of the luxury of some such close and sweet and whole national consciousness as that of the Switzer and the Scot.

Translation One: Say what, motherf**cker?!

Translation Two: Being so attuned to manners and the slightest slight or push of social pressure, James feels he must cultivate the “art of beguiling or duping” his distaste at my smelly, ill-mannered alien ancestors, while at same time entertaining fond, rather nostalgic wishes for some older WASP America. This is civility as public discretion, manners without genuine acceptance or the possibility of love. It works so long as a certain democratic decorum prevails. James becomes an “American” here suddenly, even using the first-person plural. This could be slippery, in that this “we” could be read as an odd distancing move, a royal or universalizing “we,” speaking for America rather than necessarily with it. Because James switches voices and point of view so much, using different pronouns and ventriloquizing inanimate objects in places, (here a building, there the “air”) it can be difficult to know with, for whom he speaks at times. James the traveler can put it on and take it off, depending upon how things strike him. I’ve tried to be charitable after reading this passage many times, but I’m left thinking that James puts it on here (“we”) while truly wishing things hadn’t changed so much. Judging from what comes before, the machinery of Ellis Island, its processing of overflowing humanity, which matches the other horrible tendencies in the “tall buildings,” all of this speaks to the relentless, heedless expansion of the machinery of business. The immigrants are so much raw material in the gigantic industrial-capitalist hopper, feeding the monster. The human misery bothers him less, it seems, than the bad taste, the polyglot humanity and careless expansion of the population sprawling out in much the same way as the buildings. All of it is haphazard and offensive to aesthetic unity or careful purpose.

Exhibit D: Kinky Civic Spaces

The simplest, in fact the only way was, obviously, to pass under the charming portico [of New York City Hall] and brave the consequences: this impunity of such audacities being, in America, one of the last of the lessons the repatriated absentee finds himself learning. The crushed spirit he brings back from European discipline never quite rises to the height of the native argument, the brave sense that the public, the civic building is his very own, for any honest use, so that he may tread even its most expensive pavements and staircases (and very expensive, for the American citizen, these have lately become) without a question asked. This further and further unchallenged penetration begets in the perverted person I speak of a really romantic thrill: it is like some assault of the dim seraglio, with the guards bribed, the eunuchs drugged and one’s life carried in one’s hand. The only drawback to such freedom is that penetralia it is so easy to penetrate fail a little of due impressiveness, and that if stationed sentinels are bad for the temper of the freeman they are good for the “prestige” of the building.

Translation One: Damn Hank, you’re a kinky dude. Wait a minute, did you just call a government building a brothel? I feel aggrieved, as if my democratic honor has been besmirched. Them’s fightin’ words.

Translation Two: James’ observation is incredibly astute and wonderfully racy at the same time. I’m sure most of us have felt this sensation now and again when walking through a civic space in the U.S. It feels illicit, and part of the thrill comes from knowing you can be there despite somehow feeling a little overwhelmed by the grandeur in the first place. To use a Southernism, you feel “nervous like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers.” Of course, the innuendo is just delicious, the idea of sneaking around in a civic space like one would late at night in a harem, with the proper precautions having been taken care of. The odd specificity of James’ “one’s life carried in one’s hand,” is interesting. That saying, in my experience, is usually more general, “your life is in your hands”—hands plural, featuring the verb to-be. Only James’ “perverted person” might be carrying his life in his hand (singular) amidst the eunuchs on his way to the ladies in the seraglio. The phallic allusions are really too much. From there the “unchallenged penetration” proves a little disappointing for being so easy, implying that democracy in some way compromises public spaces by making them “easy” like some sort of legal brothel.

Exhibit D: Naughty Hotels Explain Everything

The electric cars, with their double track, are everywhere almost as tight a fit in the narrow channel of the roadway as the projectile in the bore of a gun; so that the Waldorf-Astoria, sitting by this absent margin for life with her open lap and arms, is reduced to confessing, with her strained smile, across the traffic and the danger, how little, outside her mere swing door, she can do for you. She seems to admit that the attempt to get at her may cost you your safety, but reminds you at the same time that any good American, and even any good inquiring stranger, is supposed willing to risk that boon for her. “Un bon movement, therefore: you must make a dash for it, but you’ll see I’m worth it”…the survivor scrambling out of the current and up the bank finds in the amplitude of the entertainment awaiting him an instant sense of applied restoratives. The amazing hotel-world quickly closes round him; with the process of transition reduced to its minimum he is transported to conditions of extraordinary complexity and brilliancy, operating—and with proportionate perfection—by laws of their own and expressing after their fashion a complete scheme of life…

The moral in question, the high interest of the tale, is that you are in presence of a revelation of the possibilities of the hotel—for which the American spirit has found so unprecedented a use and a value; leading it on to express so a social, indeed positively an aesthetic ideal, and making it so, at this supreme pitch, a synonym for civilization, for the capture of conceived manners themselves, that one is verily tempted to ask if the hotel spirit may not just be the American spirit most seeking and most finding itself.

Translation One: Gee whiz. He just can’t let these sex metaphors go, can he? At some point you just have to wonder about this guy. (Open lap…I’m worth it. Really?)

Translation Two: I wish, in good nineteenth century fashion, I could just quote four pages right here. There’s no good way to excerpt James on hotels. James loves the hotel, partly because it expresses an aesthetic unity he had found missing while on his car viewing things from the Bay. The hotel section in “New York Revisited” also links up with the broader metaphor James works up, starting with City Hall, between prostitution and Americans’ gilded democracy, the shamelessness of it, the way that America begs for the traveler to explain it. He can’t be too “hard” on America, he realizes at the very end of the chapter, because America tries so hard to express itself while failing to make a coherent statement.

The image of Henry James rushing across a New York street to the door of the Waldorf is almost riotous. At first, the traveler can’t be sure if the risk is worth it. Because the hotel sits in a jammed sequence of street and building, the front doesn’t look so impressive, but the interior is absolutely sumptuous and brilliant as the “hotel-world closes round him.” Without space or thought for large gardens or the like outdoors, the action happens inside. Sans the racy allusions, I’ve felt this way at any number of large history conferences I’ve attended. (As in my greenhorn, shabby academic wonder: “Wow, look at this fancy hotel-world!” And then, “It looks like the Gilded Age threw up in here!”) As James notes later, if you appear respectable and can pay the price of admission, there are no restrictions on who can go in (he ignores Jim Crow entirely). In the “promiscuity” of its respectable façade, the hotel’s unbelievable, gilded space allows for the free play of American desire on the condition that such desire not be expressed too openly. James’ hotel and his prostitution metaphors play up the paradoxical interplay between the orgy of wealth everywhere on display and democratic decorum, the steadfast denial of wealth’s origins in misplaced sexual desire and theft.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. You could do the world a great service if you published The Annotated James in the style of your first translations. Having just moved through the Gilded Age and into the Progressive Era in my survey course I enjoyed this trip to James’ New York and his language is every bit as ornate as the age requires.

    • Thanks Bryn. The snarky annotated Henry James. There’s a future for me yet.

    • I’m with Bryn. Begin your book proposal on “The American Scene: The Snarky, Sexy Annotated Teachers’ Edition.”

  2. This was truly wonderful, Peter. I would second Bryn’s call for an annotated edition, though I would prefer the second translations! I’m very impressed you work through this text with undergraduates. I’ve always been too afraid to foist these vertiginous passages of prose upon unsuspecting youth but you point the way forwards here. Bravo! More please!

  3. A passage like that on the tall buildings, taken out of context, can be appreciated as a literary performance; I don’t know whether he is also trying to suggest/assert something about the impermanence of (most) skyscrapers or whether that is reading it too literally.

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