Friday, September 03, 2010

`To the Right Place'

“…the way the colour begins in those days to be dabbed, the way, here and there, for a start, a solitary maple on a woodside flames in single scarlet, recalls nothing so much as the daughter of a noble house dressed for a fancy-ball, with the whole family gathered round to admire her before she goes.”

No one thinks of Henry James as a nature writer. Most of his world was urban and indoors, with little room for birds and trees. Even in the passage above, from “New England: An Autumn Impression,” the first chapter in The American Scene, the metaphor is recognizably Jamesian – social and familial. If it weren’t so witty and right, we might suspect parody. It's never prudent to underestimate James' sense of the comic.

His interest in the outdoors is not scientific but painterly. One senses in his scattered accounts of the natural world an opportunity to transpose Turner to the New World, to out-Ruskin Ruskin on his native landscape. James characterizes himself throughout The American Scene as “the restless analyst,” and he imbues even his prettiest purple set-pieces with a twist, a hint of piquancy, elegy or satire. Later in the same paragraph he writes:

“The apple-tree, in New England, plays the part of the olive in Italy, charges itself with the effect of detail, for the most part otherwise too scantly produced, and, engaged in this charming care, becomes infinitely decorative and delicate.”

In an act of covert patriotism, the native returns, Johnny Olive-Seed, to recolonize the former colony while celebrating the home-grown produce. For almost twenty years I lived in and around Albany, N.Y., where James’ grandfather, an Irish immigrant, made his fortune, and where James and his siblings spent their childhood summers. Geologically and ecologically – in all senses but the governmental – this portion of upstate New York is New England, renowned for its bounty of excellent apples. James continues:

“What [the apple] must do for the too under-dressed land in May and June is easily supposable; but its office in the early autumn is to scatter coral and gold. The apples are everywhere and every interval, every old clearing, an orchard; they have `run down’ from neglect and shrunken from cheapness--you pick them up from under your feet but to bite into them, for fellowship, and throw them away; but as you catch their young brightness in the blue air, where they suggest strings of strange-coloured pearls tangled in the knotted boughs, as you note their manner of swarming for a brief and wasted gaiety, they seem to ask to be praised only by the cheerful shepherd and the oaten pipe.”

James subverts the pastoral while indulging in it. He’s a painter of the American landscape with a “strange-coloured” palate. The forested granite of New England becomes an “analogy, in short, with every typical triumph of the American landscape `school,’ now as rococo as so many squares of ingenious wool-work, but the remembered delight of our childhood. On terra firma, in New England, too often dusty or scrubby, the guarantee is small that some object at variance, cruelly at variance, with the glamour of the landscape school may not `put out.’ But that boat across the water is safe, is sustaining as far as it goes; it puts out from the cove of romance, from the inlet of poetry, and glides straight over, with muffled oar, to the--well, to the right place.”

Troubled by the changes exacted on the United States during his twenty-year absence, James paints his homeland with fondness, nostalgia and, occasionally, incomprehension.

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