The American Scene (Penguin Classics)

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9780140434163: The American Scene (Penguin Classics)

After living abroad for 20 years, Henry James returned to his native America and travelled down the East Coast from Boston to Florida. This a journal describing his feelings on the rediscovery of the New York of his childhood, and the growth of modern commercial America. He muses on Thoreau, Hawthorne and Emerson; in Washington, he finds a cityscape devoid of spiritual symbols; in Richmond, thoughts of the civil war haunt him. Published in 1907, this journal also served as a farewell address to the country James would never live in again.

For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.

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Review:

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

About the Author:

Henry James (1843-1916), born in New York City, was the son of noted religious philosopher Henry James, Sr., and brother of eminent psychologist and philosopher William James. He spent his early life in America and studied in Geneva, London and Paris during his adolescence to gain the worldly experience so prized by his father. He lived in Newport, went briefly to Harvard Law School, and in 1864 began to contribute both criticism and tales to magazines.

In 1869, and then in 1872-74, he paid visits to Europe and began his first novel, Roderick Hudson. Late in 1875 he settled in Paris, where he met Turgenev, Flaubert, and Zola, and wrote The American (1877). In December 1876 he moved to London, where two years later he achieved international fame with Daisy Miller. Other famous works include Washington Square (1880), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Princess Casamassima (1886), The Aspern Papers (1888), The Turn of the Screw (1898), and three large novels of the new century, The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903) and The Golden Bowl (1904). In 1905 he revisited the United States and wrote The American Scene (1907).

During his career he also wrote many works of criticism and travel. Although old and ailing, he threw himself into war work in 1914, and in 1915, a few months before his death, he became a British subject. In 1916 King George V conferred the Order of Merit on him. He died in London in February 1916.

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