In the last month we have watched the annual progression of autumn in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Virginia and here in Texas. Viewed across the weeks and latitudes, the effect has been of a jumbled time-lapse film of the season. In New England we saw the gaudier reds and oranges. In Houston, most of the leaves are still green, shading to a duller green, and still on the trees. Every autumn, this native Northerner recalls a sentence from The American Scene by Henry James:
“. . . 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.”
James speaks throughout the book as “the restless analyst,” the persona he adopts when visiting his native land for the first time in twenty years. The passage is recognizably Jamesian. “Dabbed” signals his painterly touch. No nature enthusiast, even in the tree-covered mountains of New Hampshire, he deploys a social and familial metaphor.
If the set-up – context, rhythm, word choice -- weren’t so witty and right, we might suspect parody, though it’s never a good idea to underestimate James’ sense of the comic. Even his prettiest purple set-pieces he imbues with a twist, a hint of piquancy, elegy or satire. The American Scene (1905), closer to autobiography than documentary, is the country’s essential guide book, along with Moby-Dick.
The unjustly neglected novelist Wright Morris (1910-1998) judged James’ volume “one of the gifts of life.” He discovered The American Scene in the nineteen-forties when it was still out of print and hard to find. He was no admirer of James’ fiction: “the refinement of his style was a contradiction of what was vital and unique in the American vernacular,” he writes in the third volume of his memoirs, A Cloak of Light: Writing My Life (1985). Morris captures the seductive and utterly uncontemporary charm of James and Jamesian prose:
“There is no question in my mind that the mind of Henry James is matchless in the many forms in which it is revealed. His effortless power of association, in which one apercu leads to another, then another, then another—an open-ended series of parenthetical relations—makes it both annoying and exhausting to follow the darts and flashes of his mind, but this experience is simply not to be found elsewhere.”
Reading James, Morris says, is “a challenge and an aggravation.” True, but one’s efforts are rewarded. One can’t skim or speed-read. When reading late-period James, my mind splits in half. I’m attending, word by word, and phrase by phrase, to the road in front of me, while simultaneously plotting my route on the map, wary of detours and cul-de-sacs. Some readers find the endless qualifications, the miles of dependent clauses, too much to bear, but James isn’t stuttering. He’s revising, clarifying and footnoting the contents of his consciousness on the page. Part of the pleasure of reading James is watching him work. Where’s he going with this? Did I miss something? When we can align ourselves with his rhythms, we can start dancing. Morris is fond of James’ set-piece devoted to the hotel in the final chapter, “Florida.” Here is James on the hotel lobby, which Morris describes as “that stakeout of mine” (the ellipses are Morris’):
“. . . It lies there waiting, pleading from all its pores, to be occupied—the lonely waste, the boundless, gaping void of `society’; which is but a name for all the other so numerous relations with the world he lives in that are imputable to the civilized human being.
“. . . one is verily tempted to ask if the hotel spirit may not just be the American spirit most seeking and finding itself. . . . .
“. . . One was in the presence, as never before, of a realized ideal of that childish rush and surrender to it and clutch at it which one was so repeatedly to recognize, in America, as the note of the supremely gregarious state. It made the whole vision unforgettable, and I am now carried back to it, I confess, in musing hours, as to one of my few glimpses of perfect human felicity.”