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Henry James's Europe

Dennis Tredy
Annick Duperray
Adrian Harding

VI. Authorship and Self-Representation

20. Narrative Heterogeneity as an Adjustable Fictional Lens in The American Scene

Eleftheria Arapoglou

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1Henry James returned from England to the United States in late August 1904, after nearly a quarter of a century’s absence from his native land. As Leon Edel records in the last volume of James’s biography The Master: 1901-1916, James’s reasons for returning to the U.S. and for writing about his homeland were not uniform. His motives included personal nostalgia and artistic interest, as well as practical and financial considerations. In the period between 1902 and 1904, while James still resided in England, he contacted several people—among them his brother William, as well as his friends Grace Norton and William Dean Howells—to inform them of his return plans. He revealed to them his powerful urge to revisit America and the necessity of expediting his business interests in view of the forthcoming collected edition of his works.

2When James first left the United States in 1875, he was turning away from a country he judged too unsophisticated to sustain a novelist of manners. His criticism of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work as undernourished in Hawthorne (1879) justifies James’s turn to the ”denser, richer, warmer, European spectacle” on the grounds of his disdain for the ”cold, and light and thin something belonging to the imagination alone” which America evoked in authors at the time (Hawthorne [New York, 1967] 55). James then felt that Europe’s structures of life and literature, validated by the long process of history, could grant his material the solidity of specification. Contrary to his claims in Hawthorne in which he minimises America’s artistic effect, James’s Notebooks for November 1881 stress that, even though at the time the American writer had to ”deal, more or less, even if only by implication, with Europe,” otherwise he would be considered ”incomplete,” ”a hundred years hence—fifty years hence perhaps he [would] doubtless be accounted [incomplete] for neglecting America” (Matthiessen 214). In other words, even at a time when Europe monopolised James’s creative interest, America did not cease to constitute a pole of attraction, which would soon reclaim the author

3Not fifty, but merely twenty-five years later, James felt the urge to shift his focus from the European to the American scene. In a 1902 letter to Grace Norton, James qualified ”the idea of seeing America again and tasting the American air” as ”a vision, a possibility, an impossibility positively romantic” (Edel Henry James V, quoted by Fargnoli 312). Three years later, and following his tour of America, James’s Notebooks dated 29 March 1905 from Coronado Beach, California, testify to his ”inward accumulation of material” and express a wish:

I shall be able to [plunge] my hand, my arm, in, deep and far, and up to the shoulder—into the heavy bag of remembrance—of suggestion—of imagination—of art—and fish out every little figure and felicity, every little fact and fancy that can be to my purpose
(Matthiessen 237).

4James’s ”arm” fished into ”the bag of remembrance” during his journey across America, which began in September and ended in December 1904. However, his ultimate ”purpose,” a book recording his experience of revisiting America, was realised at Lamb House in Sussex, where James returned in July 1905.

5The author composed The American Scene out of the sixteen travel impressions that appeared in various magazines up to 1906. ”New England” was the only section that was composed while James was still in the United States. The pieces that had appeared as magazine instalments formed the basis of the book along with four previously unserialised chapters. The American Scene follows James’s visit to New England and New York— chronologically spanning from September to December 1904—as well as his journey to Florida, and concludes with the author heading north of Florida on the Pullman train. James’s tour of the Midwest—including Mississippi, St. Louis, Chicago, and Indianapolis—and of California and the Pacific Coast—Coronado Beach, Monterey, San Francisco, and the journey up to Oregon and Seattle—do not form part of the narrative. These impressions were initially scheduled to appear separately as a second volume, but were never published.

6Throughout The American Scene, references to America as the center of James’s creative orientation abound. The chapter on Richmond opens with a comment on the autobiographical narrator’s renewed fascination with his homeland: ”Europe had been romantic years before, because she was different from America; wherefore America would now be romantic because she was different from Europe” (American Scene [1993] 655). ”The restless analyst” of the Richmond chapter admits to the freshness and romance of Europe in the past as conducive to the making of impressions more varied and ”of a higher intensity” than those gathered on the American scene (654). However, at present, a long absence from America and stay in Europe have dulled James’s fascination with the Old World and rekindled his attraction to his homeland as a new locus of interest.

7In my view, the two central themes around which the narrative of The American Scene centers—repatriation and the challenge to identity posed by a belated view of American culture—highlight the significance of the cultural geographical context of the Jamesian text. More specifically, in this paper I am going to focus on the ways in which James’s re-territorialisation of the physical and socio-cultural American landscape determines his identity (re)configuration within a modern frame. Usually, the spatial grounding of a narrative has a specific referent. Nevertheless, in the case of The American Scene, this spatial referent is not a static place but an itinerary. If we take into consideration the fact that James the author collects his impressions as he is crossing the country, we can see why James the narrator subsequently presents his readers with kinetic, constantly shifting, travel impressions. Furthermore, James’s own positioning within the narrative, which lacks fixity because of the multiple narrative personas he adopts, grants the text a dynamic, kaleidoscopic outlook. Consequently, narrative structure and stance defy the aspect of stasis and fixity in James’s construction of geographical as well as social space.

8As I will argue in this paper, James’s social, political, economic, cultural, and aesthetic sense of modernity testifies to the spatial and temporal divides in his approach to America. James as both the author and narrator of The American Scene speaks from a liminal space. This space is delineated and necessitated by his topographical and temporal in-betweenness. On the one hand, his aesthetic and literary attachment to the Victorian European scene clashes with his emotional and social proximity as a native of the pre-industrial American scene. On the other hand, his long absence from his homeland stirs in him a nostalgic inclination to the rural, agrarian past of his memory, which conflicts with the urban, industrial reality confronting him. As a result of this ambivalent positioning, James’s record of his travel impressions revels in ambiguity. More specifically, at the same time that his native consciousness urges him to ground himself in the physical landscape of his homeland, his extended absence and subsequent detachment from America de-familiarise the country’s socio-cultural landscape. As a result of this oscillation between instinctive familiarity and affected estrangement, the narrative of The American Scene does not simply record traveling as a leisure activity. Rather, it establishes traveling as a modern social gesture of cultural significance and a moral statement on modern American reality.

9The most obvious illustration of James’s ambivalent narrative stance in the face of modern America is the text’s narrative heterogeneity, identified in the constantly shifting perspectives. The narrator’s vacillating positioning has stirred much discussion. The fact that, soon after the first few pages of the book, the straightforward first-person narrator of the opening sentence suddenly turns to third-person (with the narrator assuming multiple guises such as ”the returning visitor,” ”the cold-blooded critic,” ”the spectator,” ”the incurable eccentric,” ”the victim,” ”the starved story-seeker,” ”the perverted person,” ”the palpitating pilgrim,” ”the ancient contemplative person,” ”the restless analyst”— the last one outnumbering the rest) along with the fact that narration is placed in the past, establish a clear distinction between author and narrator: James writing in Lamb House versus James traveling and collecting impressions in the United States. Stuart Hutchinson sees these ”titles” as veils that, in James as in Hawthorne, shield the ”inmost Me” in ”an unknowable world” where identification becomes impossible (Hutchinson 134). Nevertheless, I see the poise and ’shielding’ of the detached analyst continuously threatened by the autobiographical context of the narrative, which is constantly reinforced. James’s narrative grounding on locations that hold a personal interest to him—because they are associated with his youth—and his focus on intimate moments of his journey—as, for example, the detailed, profoundly emotional, accounts of his visits to past family residences—deeply implicate him, too, as part of the American scene and as object of literary representation. In fact, I believe that James exults in the ambiguity and ambivalence of his positioning within the narrative as a means of constantly adjusting his fictional lens to the contradictions, modalities, and oscillations of his personal and socio-cultural geography.

10My view on the book’s narrative structure is reinforced by a prefatory claim James himself makes that anticipates and justifies the narrative shifts to follow. In the Preface to The American Scene, James admits to the textual dialogue between his remembered or re-imagined past as a native of America and the experienced present of his encounter with the country as a visitor. He actually presents this dialogue as a narrative merit when he confesses: ”I felt no doubt [...] of my great advantage on that score” (The American Scene [1993] 353). For this reason, on the one hand, he admits to the long years of ”continuous absence” that allowed him the ”time” to become ”almost as fresh as an inquiring stranger,” ”the most earnest of visitors,” while on the other, he tones down the impression of distance and estrangement by identifying himself as a ”native” (353). Subsequently, he defines his advantage as the co-existence of ”the freshness of eye, outward and inward” that his years of absence have affected with the acuteness of vision that he possesses as an ”initiated native” (353). By asserting a double positioning, as simultaneously the ”initiated native” and ”the inquiring stranger,” James implicitly claims an enlarged perspective. To justify this perspective, he mentions ”the longest list of questions, the sharpest appetite for explanations and the largest exposure to mistakes” that he announces will help him ”take his stand” (353). This amalgamation of detachment and intimacy that James endeavors to achieve subsequently affects narrative tone, fusing documentation with imagination, history with autobiography, report with fiction.

11Stuart Johnson views James’s narrative fusion positively, as the ”key to the interest and pathos” of James’s characterisation in general. Indeed, the discourse of outsider and insider that Johnson applies to the discussion of such Jamesian characters as Lambert Strether and Chad Newsome can also be applied to James’s position as the author and narrator of The American Scene. James is geographically both an outsider and an insider to the American scene. He is an outsider by the fact of his extended absence in Europe and his penetration into the heart of European life that resulted in some of his most brilliant novels set in the European scene. Nevertheless, he is also an insider because of his ”initiated native” status, which allows him an intuitive proximity to his subject. Edna Kenton, in her 1943 essay ”Henry James in the World,” coins the term ”dispatriation” to refer to James’s oxymoronic combination of nearness and remoteness, as she feels that the term ”expatriate” cannot express the particularities of James’s absence from his homeland and does not accurately describe the author’s status with respect to his home country. Kenton draws on the definition James himself gives in ”The Story-teller at Large: Mr. Henry Harland” of the dispatriate as the citizen of the world whose detachment in viewpoint of, rather than severance or lack of interest in, his birth land grants his artistic creation what Kenton judges the right point of view.

12Among the contemporary critics who have discussed James’s identification in The American Scene, Posnock’s argument on James’s self-representation—embedded as it is in cultural criticism, historical context, and social thought—also probes into James’s positioning ”between cultures” (The Trial of Curiosity 8). Similarly to Kenton, Posnock highlights the fact that James, as an expatriate, is ”neither wholly European nor wholly American” (7). More specifically, the critic reveals that James refused to identify himself as a New Englander, and considered himself a New Yorker, removed from Boston’s ”cultural idealism” and from ”class loyalties” of any kind (9). Furthermore, in his essay ”The Politics of Nonidentity: A Genealogy,” Posnock contends that ” [t]hroughout The American Scene, James’s effort is to exemplify, in his own marginal, oscillating status as returning native and stranger, an alternative mode of being” (40). There, the critic places James’s idiosyncratic identitarian thinking in the context of his discussion of the political responsibility of intellectuals, and claims that Henry James shares with Randolph Bourne, John Dewey, Theodor Adorno, and Michèl Foucault ”a paradoxical effort that engages in public life and upholds intellectual responsibility while resisting conventional modes of engagement and responsibility” (”The Politics of Nonidentity” 42). Whereas I agree with Posnock that James’s self-representation in The American Scene challenges static notions of fixed identity, I view James’s oxymoronic identification as a correlative of his spatial awareness. James’s floating selfhood, lacking ”impermeability and fixity,” signifies his liminal positioning within a modern world where dividing lines are blurred, distinctions have collapsed, and forms are lacking (”Breaking the Aura” 36).

13The multiplicity and fluidity of the personas James adopts in the narrative course is a correlative of the American scene’s overall transience. Paradoxically, the ever-changing, and thus ephemeral, nature of the landscape is the only constant value in modern America. Thus, James engages in spatio-temporal flânerie, seeking to approach the country and establish spatial as well as temporal divides. However, the modern character of his experience of American landscape and society destabilises these divides. As Marshall Berman has argued, ” [m]odern environments and experiences cut across all boundaries of geography” (Berman 15, emphasis mine) and modernity pours humans into ”a maelstrom [...] of perpetual disintegration and renewal, trouble and anguish, ambiguity and contradiction” (345, emphasis mine). In the light of Berman’s claim, the spatial transformation and impermanence to which James becomes a witness during his tour of his homeland testify to America’s modernisation—social, economic, political, cultural. Everywhere he goes the ”restless analyst” is confronted with the predicament of the modern, mobile man who is unable to establish geographical roots in an evanescent cosmos. As Anthony Giddens has written, the effect of the great dynamic forces of modernity is that places are no longer the clear supports of identity (92). In The American Scene, modernisation progressively erodes spatio-temporal frontiers and borders: home becomes an impossibility in a world of dissolving boundaries and expanding horizons, the present is disengaged from the past, and the distinction between private and public spaces breaks down. Consequently, fixed and unitary identity concepts are undermined as the native James returns to America as an alien. James’s dispatriate status urges him to strengthen his sense of self by revisiting what he thinks will be an accessible past. His urge is not unjustifiable if we interpret it as an essentially modern need to establish an expressive relationship to the past by identifying territorial locations that function as nodes of association and continuity. Indeed, James’s experience of the social aspect of modernity cuts through his drifting from present to past and projection into the future—temporal as well as spatial.

14As Homi Bhabha has argued, modern humans experience ambiguity of identification because they are faced with ”the moment of transit where space and time cross to produce complex figures of difference and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion” (Bhabha 158). Thus, this crossing of the spatial and the temporal in the American scene’s modern context produces the liminal space that James is called to inhabit. The in-betweenness and ambivalence of James’s positionality display, but also displace, designations of identity founded on what Bhabha terms ”the binary logic through which identities of difference are often constructed,” because they defy the dualism of fixity versus flexibility (Bhabha 159). Ultimately, James’s experience of the American scene, as well as his role in the narrative process, reveals his simultaneous status as the observer and the self-observed. James’s double status as subject and object of observation and critique, along with his defiance of fixed and unitary concepts of identification, foregrounds the intentional, invented, multiple, relational and often oxymoronic qualities of James’s identity as both the text’s narrator and author. This is why I conclude that The American Scene can best be read as a musical composition, with the multiplicity of voices playing together at the same time, as a polyphonic symphony charged with intentional contrapuntal variations. In this fictional ”capriccio,” the many individual voices shaping the narrative are neither dissonant nor cacophonous. Rather, they form and inform each other as they take radically different shapes and still maintain harmonies.


Eleftheria Arapoglou received her B.A. in English from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, in 1995. She completed her M.A. as a Fulbright grantee at the University of Texas at San Antonio, U.S., in 1998 and her PhD in 2005 at Aristotle University. Currently, she is an adjunct member of faculty in the Department of American Literature and Culture of Aristotle University. She has co-edited two volumes—Transcultural Localisms (2006); [City in (Culture] in City) (2005)—and a special issue of the journal Gramma entitled Comparative Literature and Global Studies: Histories and Trajectories (2005). She recently completed her book A Bridge Over the Balkans: Demetra Vaka Brown and the Tradition of Women’s Orients, which is forthcoming from Gorgias Press. Her research interests include the cultural production of space in the modernist tradition, literary sociology, and cultural studies.