James in America

August 30: Sixty-one-year-old Henry James returned to the U.S. after almost a quarter-century absence on this day in 1904. Although undertaken in “a passion of nostalgia,” the ten-month trip aimed to take the pulse of the bustling nation and its “poetry of motion.” Accordingly, James ventured well beyond his familiar New York-New England, heading down the Eastern seaboard to Florida, and across the Midwest to California. While touring, he spoke often to the book groups and cultural societies, attempting to satisfy the “Appetite of the Ladies for Words of Wisdom from H.J.” If providing only “a very modest harvest to the artful, the very artful gleaner,” the talks pleased well enough to “pay me through the nose.”

Money was a recurring theme in James’s travel observations, these first published as magazine articles and later as The American Scene (1907). In his customary high style, James decries American materialism and bad manners—the “big ogre of business,” the Cult of Candy, the “slobber of noises,” the city streets and buildings “to which the rich taste of history is forbidden.” Such comments provoked his homeland to antagonistic newspaper headlines, cartoons, and jokes—about the lady who knew several languages, including Henry James, or the lady who boasted that she could read Henry James in the original. The following is excerpted from Chapter 1, James bringing his stately, carriage-ride sentences to a stop before an outbreak of New York’s nouveau-riche homes:

Here was the expensive as a power by itself, a power unguided, undirected, practically unapplied, really exerting itself in a void that could make it no response, that had nothing—poor gentle, patient, rueful, but altogether helpless, void!—to offer in return. …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. …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.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.