The American Scene

The American Scene

Infobox Book |
name = The American Scene

image_caption = Cover of 1968 Indiana University Press edition of "The American Scene"
author = Henry James
country = United Kingdom, United States
language = English
genre = Travel writing
publisher = Chapman and Hall, London
Harper & Brothers, Boston
release_date = Chapman: 30-Jan-1907
Harper: 7-Feb-1907
media_type = Print
pages = Chapman: 465
Harper: 443

"The American Scene" is a book of travel writing by Henry James about his trip through the United States in 1904-1905. Ten of the fourteen chapters of the book were published in the "North American Review", "Harper's" and "The Fortnightly Review" in 1905 and 1906. The first book publication was in 1907, and there were significant differences between the American and the English versions of the book.

Without question the most controversial and critically discussed of James' travel books, "The American Scene" sharply attacked what James saw as the rampant materialism and frayed social structure of turn-of-the-century America. The book has generated controversy for its treatment of various ethnic groups and political issues. The book still has relevance to such current topics as immigration policy, environmental protection, economic growth, and racial tensions.

Summary and themes

James spent nearly a year on his American tour from August, 1904 to July, 1905. He travelled the entire country and even made decent money from public lectures, usually to ladies' organizations that he made "pay me through the nose." "The American Scene" covers his trips up and down the Eastern seaboard, concentrating on New York City and New England. A second volume, which was to recount his experiences in the Midwest and West, never got written.

The book as it stands has been praised and damned, respected and dismissed. The extreme reactions may result from the contradictions inherent in the book itself. To take perhaps the most notorious example, James indulged in racist bashing of black people as incapable of alertness and attention, then praised the "most accomplished" W.E.B DuBois' "The Souls of Black Folk" as "the only Southern book of any distinction for many a year."

Similarly, James was full of misgivings about unrestricted immigration and its effect on America's already thinly stretched social fabric. (Of course, many Americans share similar doubts about immigration to this day.) But he conceded that the strong assimilative forces of American life would work on the children of the immigrants, "the younger generation who will fully profit, rise to the occasion, and enter into the privilege" of full citizenship.

James also constantly criticized the materialism and greed he saw all around him in American business. But he again admitted that the result was a huge increase in material well-being for the average person: "this immense, vivid "general" lift of poverty and general appreciation of the living unit's paying property in himself." It was in this widespread prosperity "that the picture seems most to clear and the way to jubilation most to open."

Yet it must be admitted that James' account was finally a grim one. In the last section of the book he denounced America's spoliation of "the great lonely land," its frantic economic development, and its festering social tensions. The consequence was a "devil's dance" which made the future look uncertain and threatening. It's no wonder that this final section was omitted from the American edition of the book, much to James' indignation.

Table of contents

Critical evaluation

As might be expected, critics have are divided on this book, possibly due to difference in political opinions.Who|date=January 2008 Those who agree with James' critique of the United States find much to praise, stating the book includes witty and insightful descriptions.Who|date=January 2008 Others may criticize James, some by calling him snobbish and unfair due to his distaste for some aspects of American life.Who|date=January 2008


*"Thinking in Henry James" by Sharon Cameron (Chicago: U Chicago P 1989)
*"Henry James Collected Travel Writings - Great Britain and America - English Hours, The American Scene, Other Travels" edited by Richard Howard (New York: Library of America 1993) ISBN 0-940450-76-3
* "A Henry James Encyclopedia" by Robert L. Gale (New York: Greenwood Press 1989) ISBN 0-313-25846-5

External links

* [ "The American Scene", 1907 London edition]
* [ Note on the texts of "The American Scene"] at the Library of America web site

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