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III The United States

The “great adventure of a society”

America as Series
Adam Lowenstein


Chronique du voyage entrepris à travers l’Amérique par James lors de son retour après vingt et un ans d’absence, The American Scene consistait initialement en une série de seize essais parus au fil de ce périple de dix mois. Le mode de déplacement de l’auteur et le compte-rendu qu’en fournit sa syntaxe fluctuante correspondent à ce que l’on pourrait nommer une “esthétique du feuilleton,” technique de narration que l’auteur tirait de son expérience de la publication en feuilleton et qui influença l’ensemble de ses innovations dans le champ romanesque.

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“For the restless analyst, there is no such thing as an unrelated fact, no such thing as a break in the chain of relations.”
Henry James, The American Scene (1907)

The Serial Aesthetic

  • 1 Unpublished letter to James B. Pinker, March 2, 1905, Beinecke Za James I, vol. 1.

1Although The Ambassadors (1903) was Henry James’s last serial novel, the author’s official valediction to prolonged installment publication came in the form of a travel memoir. Chronicling the tour of “the restless analyst” on his return to America after a twenty-one-year absence, The American Scene originally measured and recorded this ten-month progress over the course of sixteen serial installments, spread across the pages of three periodicals in two countries from April 1905 to November 1906, leaving only four of fourteen chapters to debut in the 1907 volume (James, 1993 376). This staggered schedule of publication privileged no particular sequence of space or time. “New York Revisited III,” for instance, although part of chapter II in the book, was published in Harper’s Magazine thirteen months after the North American Review began serializing chapter I, “New England: An Autumn Impression.” James’s peregrinations up and down both coasts and across the country’s vast middle followed a similarly peripatetic logic. After several weeks spent exploring an oddly same-different New England, James headed south for the cold months of late 1904, reluctantly returned to the Boston frost early in the new year (for a “ravaging, ruinous, all but fatal” dental emergency that would plague him for much of the trip), ventured west then northwest for the early spring months, and rushed back across the Midwest for an extended re-perusal of his transmogrified hometown, New York City.1

  • 2 For the best description of the larger movement in modern literature, running from Flaubert to Joy (...)

2James’s pattern of movement and its reflection in the volatile sentences that describe it befit what I call the author’s “serial aesthetic,” a prose technique deeply indebted to James’s lifelong efforts to elevate the novel from within the restrictive confines of serial publication. The now infamous style that resulted from these experiments both rejects conventional notions of narrative unfolding and animates a hermeneutic process rooted in what Paul Giles has recognized in The American Scene as a mode of textual collage, a spatialized order of meaning “where events are framed within an idiom of epistemological and stylistic incongruity rather than through more traditional lines of causal sequence” (119). Most notably in The Ambassadors (1903), but arguably beginning in the 1880s with his first formulations of the elevation of the novel in “The Art of Fiction” (1884), James’s serial aesthetic is increasingly marked by a spatialization of serial temporality, a stretching, multiplying, and counterpointing of temporal periodicities and velocities that take place in the limned space of what James’s repeatedly calls the author’s literary “canvas” (James, 1984 46).2

3Both The American Scene and the prefaces to the New York Edition enact something akin to the “backward picture” that constitutes the narrative logic of The Ambassadors, a forward-directed act of reversal that is registered, first, in James’s physical return to the land of his youth and young adulthood after twenty years abroad, and later, in the institutionalizing revision of the aging author’s career codified in the prefaces (58). My reading of The American Scene emphasizes the intensification of James’s fascination and struggle with the dialectical forces of openness and closure, not only on an aesthetic but also on a social and geographical level. The text again and again draws attention to the links between its autopoetic formal logic—expanding outward in seemingly endless digressions that appear nevertheless to feed back into some evolving, centripetal center—and the perpetually provisional nature of the American nation and its rapidly transforming populace. The prefaces, written concurrently with the last sections of James’s travelogue, will be shown to tame, however deceptively, the social and elemental wilderness of potentiality, threatening everywhere to subsume the creative imagination, opened to James’s view on his American tour. In respectively experiential and theoretical modes, these two late works encode James’s efforts to cordon the representable world—social, elemental, historical—in serial-spatial coordinates while also offering something like a socio-aesthetic interrogation of the politics of national identity.

4Whether literary representation is adequate to the task of managing and containing the shocking scale of rising and falling and accelerating objects that blur the contours of the American scene is a question perpetually raised and suspended in this complex, often contradictory series of non-fiction essays. I will be arguing, on the one hand, that James’s methods of containment in The American Scene were informed by what I call the serial aesthetic, a development of his early and prolonged experiments regarding the artistic value of serial form in the direction of social and political theorizations of nation formation and social collectivities. By concentrating on the aftermath of James’s major phase—the period of retrospection and revision beginning with his return to the United States in 1904 and culminating in the serial release of the New York Edition of his novels and stories from 1907-09—my reading of The American Scene and the prefaces will highlight James’s position at the head of an intellectual tradition running through Jean-Paul Sartre, Iris Marion Young, and Benedict Anderson regarding the ongoing development and adaptation of a theory of serial group formation. On the other hand, this essay will contend that James’s re-conceptualization of seriality in social and political terms reveals both the illusory nature of fiction’s capacity fully to represent the provisionality of social relations and identities and the extent to which this representational illusion is nevertheless integral to the coherence of both nations and narratives.

5In one of the odder passages in The American Scene, James suggests the degree to which the serial aesthetic that shaped the later novels in particular also gave formal expression both to the author’s perceptions of the variegated fabric of his estranged homeland and to the techniques for recording these impressions. Shortly after arriving in Charleston, South Carolina, James makes his way to his hotel, whose Civil War “scorches and scars” “charm” him with their evocation of the mythic southern past (James, 1993 686, 687, 685). James is struck again, as he was struck in New York City and in Richmond, by the fact of the American hotel, and its extension in the “hotel-like chain of Pullman cars,” as the clearest “testimony” of American manners (687, 688). Apostrophizing “every one and everything” on the “social, the readable page” of his Charleston inn, James declares, “You are not final, complacently as you appear so much of the time to assume it”:

Distinct as you are, you are not even definite, and it would be terrible not to be able to suppose that you are yet but an installment, a current number, like that of the morning paper, a specimen of the type in course of serialization—like the hero of the magazine novel, by the highly-successful author, the climax of which is still far off. Thus, as you are perpetually provisional, the hotels and Pullmans—the Pullmans that are like rushing hotels and the hotels that are like stationary Pullmans—represent the stages and forms of your evolution, and are not a bit, in themselves, more final than you are. (689-90)

6Searching for terms with which to trace the contortions of the “perpetually provisional,” mobile American self, James discovers a kinship between serial form—whose material constraints established, in the author’s words, an everlasting “provocation for ingenuity”—and the social infrastructure of the American scene (James, 1984 1313). As both Rachel Ihara and I have detailed elsewhere, the metrical, temporal, and social conventions of the installment both positively and negatively conditioned James’s mature literary techniques. This productive adaptation of serial form to the aesthetic elevation of the novel culminated in the semantic ambiguity, syntactic flux, spatialized temporality, and narrative perspectivalism of the late fiction in general and the textual variance of The Ambassadors in particular. Serialization evolves, upon James’s arrival in America, from the raw material of aesthetic ingenuity to a metaphorical configuration of the inconclusiveness of both American identity and the country’s social and institutional development. James adapts the artistic rewards of a career-long struggle with and elevation of serial form to the representational challenge of America’s refractory social spectacle. The once-reluctant magazine author, perhaps not as “highly-successful” as his symbolic stand-in, constructs a spatial metaphorics of seriality not only to match but also to formalize the deferred narrative “climax” of the “great adventure of a society” (James, 1993 689, 366).

7The “hero” of this unfinished “magazine novel” is, of course, America (689). “Distinct” but not “definite,” the nation and its citizens are necessarily observed in medias res, the “climax” consigned to some future, unwritten “installment,” the conclusion eternally postponed (689). In this image of suspended nationhood, James anticipates more recent transnational interrogations of both national identity and, more specifically, the discursive process that underwrites the delineations of the nation-space. Homi Bhabha, for one, has recognized the extent to which nation formation is inherently processual, “where meanings may be partial because they are in medias res; and history may be half-made because it is in the process of being made; and the image of cultural authority may be ambivalent because it is caught, uncertainly, in the act of ‘composing’ its powerful image” (3). The “performativity of language,” in other words, conditions the “narratives of the nation.” The nation, in this sense, is always serial, its stability hinging on a collective suspension of disbelief that embraces the illusion of the nation-fiction.

8James’s recognition of seriality as an apt metaphor for describing the “distinct” but not “definite,” “perpetually provisional” operations of identity politics anticipates later cultural theorists’ similar application and extension of the concept of series. Discussions of identity politics, and those of national identity in particular, have frequently mobilized one or another conception of seriality to describe the resistance of pluralistic subjectivities to the false crystallizations of any one particular context, category, or construct. In examining these discussions, one notices the term “serial” taking on multiple, sometimes contradictory meanings, its several connotations emerging in discrete cultural and political domains. Iris Marion Young, for instance, bases her influential analysis of the construct of womanhood on Jean-Paul Sartre’s theory of serial group formation, elaborated in volume one of The Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960), which “allows us to see women as a collective without identifying common attributes that all women have or implying that all women have a common identity” (714). This is a model of seriality that not only permits but also embraces the provisionality and volatility of selfhood, a social, spatial seriality that valorizes the subject’s situational, multiple selves.

9In the context of the nation as a collective, by contrast, Wai Chee Dimock has asserted that the serial logic of numbers—the linearity of numerical sequence—underwrites a false sense of time as a “kind of measuring tape” (124). The temporal designations “one year, one month, one minute” make for “objectively measurable” historical units, “already stamped, already serialized,” which deceptively imply vast cultural, ideological, and ethical distances between, say, the year 19 and the year 2019 (124). Yet “[l]ived memories and lived subjectivities,” argues Dimock, “do not always yield the same measure, sequenced by the same directional metric” (129). This is a model of seriality that not only ignores but also represses the provisionality and volatility of both selfhood and nationhood. This is also, of course, the formulaic, chronological seriality of “bad” serial novels.

10Critiquing the artificial constraints imposed by constructs such as genre and nation, Dimock affirms the ontology of “experiential time” against the “homogenous, empty time” of clock and calendar posited by Benedict Anderson, in Imagined Communities (1983), as the temporal ground of nation-building (Dimock 129; Anderson, 1991 24). For Anderson, the sense of “simultaneity” evoked by the novel (especially the serial novel) and the newspaper, in which geographically scattered individuals imagine themselves synchronically linked in the “mass ceremony” of reading, underwrites the generation of an “impersonal collective will”—identified as the national will—rooted in the “diurnal regularities of the imaging life” (1991 24, 35). Experiential time, on the contrary, “works against the putative unity of any construct, not least the construct called nation” (Dimock 129).

11Anderson explicitly adopts the language of seriality in his later study of nationalism, The Spectre of Comparisons (1998), which largely agrees with Dimock’s more recent assertions about the illusory coherence of the nation-space. Where Dimock invokes the word “serial” to signify the falsely fixed, linear logic of chronological and numerical sequence, which standardizes what is essentially mercurial and provisional, Anderson adopts and expands Sartre’s concept of seriality as the fluctuating ground of all group formations, dividing it into two classes: “bound” and “unbound.” “Bound seriality” conforms to Dimock’s observations about the fixity of serial numbers (Anderson, 1998 29). By contrast, “unbound seriality” reflects the “complex fractionality” of real populations evoked most strikingly in “the effervescent boundlessness” of the “serial imaginings” inspired by both newspapers and novels, the liberating instruments of print-capitalism (Anderson, 1998 29, 36, 37). Unbound series—the “modeling” of one’s cultural or personal experience upon the mediated experience of another—thus “afford the opportunity,” explains Partha Chaterjee, “for individuals to imagine themselves as members of larger than face-to-face solidarities, of choosing to act on behalf of those solidarities, of transcending by an act of political imagination the limits imposed by traditional practices” (Anderson, 1998 32; Chaterjee 128). Anderson appends the name “serial thinking” to this print-mediated trans-national and -historical modeling of national identity: “parallel series” arising in different times and places can map a “singular world,” both “diachronically up and down homogenous, empty time” and “synchronically, on the newspaper page” (Anderson, 1998 34). Paradoxically, as Anderson has elsewhere suggested, the concept of nationhood only becomes possible at the moment that national (and historical) delimitations reveal themselves to be artificial: such invisible boundaries simply give the illusion of a planet divided into territorial, politicized units (See Anderson, 1994 315-17). The nation can only be considered whole, in other words, if it forgets or represses, by way of the census or electoral system, the seriality of its citizen-individuals.

12Anderson’s reflections on the seriality of identity formation, as well as those of more recent scholars including Trish Loughran and Ed White, can be traced back to Jean-Paul Sartre’s remarks, in The Critique of Dialectical Reason, on the construction of groups out of serial aggregations of individuals. Sartre defines seriality as a “plurality of isolations,” a provisional gathering of individuals that arises in relation to what he calls “practico-inert” structures: the objects, institutions, and routine practices around which individuals gather and which together constitute the backdrop, or “milieu,” of all actions and events (256). The series is a social collective, in Iris Marion Young’s words, “whose members are unified passively by the objects around which their actions are oriented or by the objectified results of the material effects of the actions of the others” (724). The series “commuters,” for example, is defined as a collective by virtue of the fact that each individual passively shares in the experience of waiting for the bus. Sartre uses the term “series” to evoke this rudimentary, existential alienation among individuals lying at the heart of all collectivities: they board the bus in a series, one by one, in isolation from one another.

13In seriality, moreover, an individual not only perceives others but also himself as Other, an anonymous numeral in a serial sequence of interchangeable numerals: “Everyone is the same as the other insofar as he is Other than himself” (Sartre 260). In this respect, James’s recognition at Ellis Island of “the degree in which it is his American fate to share the sanctity of his American consciousness […] with the inconceivable alien” reflects his awareness, to use Sartre’s terms, of the seriality of American national identity in relation to the practico-inert object called “America” (1993 426). Grammatically inflected in his use of the third person, James becomes the alien and the alien James by virtue of the “fluid homogeneity”—the paradoxical unity in mutual isolation—animated by their serial relation to the shared material realities of American society (262).

14Yet this definition of seriality also suggests the fallibility of contemporary critics’ claims regarding James’s liberal “openness,” as Sara Blair has called it, to the heterogeneous ethnic landscape of turn-of-the-century America (170). James may perceive “his own immigrancy,” in Ross Posnock’s words, in relation to the immigrants flooding through funnel of Ellis Island, but this signals his awareness of his alienation from the Other as much as it is registers their human solidarity (276). On a more general level, the necessary vagrancy of the unity of serial collectives complicates projects such as Benedict Anderson’s and Patricia Okker’s, which respectively deploy seriality as a means of imaging the power of the practico-inert materiality of print culture to unite the nation. Clearly, if serial collectives are both provisional and isolating, then the nation as serial collective is always already not only fractured but also disintegrating. The unity of the nation is thus, indeed, strictly imaginary, both the object and the product of representation.

15Sartre not only provides several other examples of increasingly complex serial collectives (radio listeners, the free market) but also differentiates these passive assemblages from what he calls the “fused group,” a self-conscious uniting of individuals in response to the constraints imposed by the practico-inert world of objects, routines, and institutions. Yet the very cohesion of the activist group-in-fusion hinges upon the passive, anonymous unity of the serial collective: “through its serial unity […] the gathering furnishes the elementary conditions of the possibility that its members should constitute a group” (Sartre 345). The bus is late: those formerly gathered in serial anonymity begin to fidget with their tickets and mumble to each other about how this is the third time this week. Besides, the bus frequently breaks down and the seats are in a perpetual state of disrepair. The serial collective, “by tightening its bonds against an enemy and becoming aware of itself as a unity of individuals in solidarity,” becomes the fused group: they decide to boycott the bus company and organize protests in a unified effort to alter the practico-inert reality of an inadequate transportation system (346).

16Yet there remains the ever-present danger that the fused group will sink back into anonymous, passive seriality. Perhaps the bus company promises reforms, or the despised leader of a nation whose citizens have risen up in protest of the regime’s repressive policies pledges more freedoms, a more democratic state. How can the group-in-fusion become something structurally other, in Fredric Jameson’s words, “than a mere punctual interruption of seriality,” a mere temporary reprieve? (Jameson xxx). Only pledging one’s life to the group and its cause, says Sartre, can guarantee its survival. One’s very existence must be anted up in the name of revolution (the apogee of group formation) if it is to resist the impotence of seriality.

Blanks, Margins, and Labyrinths

17Such politically inflected declarations as Sartre’s insistence upon the life-pledge in maintaining the efficacy of the group are difficult, if not impossible, to ascribe even to James’s most socially resonant observations about the American scene. Indeed, the author repeatedly reminds us of his indulgence both in the “blest general drop of the immediate need for conclusions” and “in that blest general feeling for the impossibility of them” (James, 1993 456). Yet this disavowal of conclusions looks a lot like Sartre’s conclusions about the inconclusiveness and ongoingness of all group formations. One detects in the restless analyst’s incongruous and impressionistic utterances an anticipatory awareness of the double-edged nature of seriality that Sartre codifies later—it is the ground of both alienation and unity, of both part and whole—in regard to the representability of such provisional relations among Americans and the objects that make up their milieu. James articulates this challenge not only in terms of scale—“the immeasurable muchness,” both geographical and social, “that shall constitute the deep sea into which the seeker for conclusions must cast his nets”—but also the unceasing movement along this scale, “the perpetual increase of everything, the growth of the immeasurable muchness” evoked by the crowded hotels, the rattling Pullmans, the razing and rebuilding of the American cityscape, and the “serialized” American himself (684). In structural terms, the problem for James lies in the representational challenge posed by the simultaneous necessity, undesirability, and impossibility of totality.

18The opening lines of the first installment are a case in point: “Conscious that the impressions of the very first hours have always the value of their intensity,” begins James,

I shrink from wasting those that attended my arrival, my return after long years, even though they be out of order with the others that were promptly to follow and that I here gather in, as best I can, under a single head. They referred partly, these instant vibrations, to a past recalled from very far back; fell into a train of association that receded, from its beginning, to the dimness of extreme youth. (357)

19On disembarking from the Kaiser Wilhelm II at Hoboken, N.J., on 30 August 1904, James immediately embraces the “chaos of confusion and change” of a world so familiar and yet so dissonant beside the memory images of his boyhood (357). Yielding to the “train of association” that erupts “at every turn,” the “repentant absentee” cultivates a “fluidity of appreciation,” the “succession of aspects and objects” arranged “according to some odd inward rhythm” that, for the duration of the journey, would also dictate the structure and sense of the narrative that begins here “out of order” (358, 357). Throughout The American Scene, James repeatedly activates this synchronic process of “appreciation,” yet in each instance, as in this one, the diachronic fact of historical change disrupts the seeming harmony of the image and asserts an “obstinate […] residuum,” leaving James, and the reader, to “the spelling-out of foreign sentences of which one knows but half the words” (357, 458, 357).

20Where Paul Giles seeks to draw James’s late work into close kinship with the surrealist movement that emerged near the end of his life, my aim is to show that James’s “spatialized ideas about aesthetic form” suggest a closer affiliation with his own prolonged experiments in serial publishing (Hsu, 2003 233). What Hsuan Hsu describes as James’s “aesthetic of circumscription”—the deployment of real or imagined spatial limits to contain the “endless stretching” and “boundless spreading” of scale that James everywhere witnesses in the U.S.—arises first out of the author’s long history of often agonized bouts with the rigid temporal, spatial, and moral parameters of magazine publication (2003 736; 2010 76). The “overwhelming Muchness of space” that threatens to engulf the “restored absentee” is the geographical twin of James’s imagination, which conditions his method of composition: “the way I seem condemned to; which is to overtreat my subject by developments and amplifications that have, in large part, eventually to be greatly compressed” (1993 453; 1974-84 4:355; 1999 400; emphasis original). Ironically, James’s animation of this infinitely expansive world of relations seemed to intensify the longer he worked within the ineluctable limits—what he repeatedly referred to as the “pressure”—of the installment (1974-84 2:189-90).

21By the time he arrived in America, the countervailing forces of this dialectic of material and imaginative scale had become idiomatic for James. Yet the artistically compelling axiom that “there is no such thing as an unrelated fact, no such thing as a break in the chain of relations” rubs against the brute, physical fact of the “quantity of absence,” the “outward blankness,” and the “thinness” that characterize the country of his birth, a representational void “foredoom[ing]” James perpetually to “‘put in’” what is not there (1993 611, 392, 618). The American Scene both alerts us to the extent to which James’s technical development had been dictated by a dialectical exchange between expansive creative energy and the contractive, contractual limitations of publishing serially—how far, that is, the material realities of publishing helped to shape this artistic principle of scalar tension—and reveals in both content and style the degree of its failure adequately to impose representational terms and limits on the technological, demographic, and elemental enormity of the United States. If the American scene is a “blank,” it is a blank that is paradoxically full to “overflowing,” like Adam’s garden before the act of naming (658, 424).

  • 3 James’s freedom with the use of racial epithets in his correspondence, which he repeats elsewhere (...)

22James’s two-week southern sojourn in the first half of February 1905 provides a convenient opportunity for examining the braiding of aesthetic, social, and epistemological relations that enfold and implicate the representational structure of The American Scene. On January 31, after spending several pleasant days in Philadelphia and Washington D.C. (where he dined at the White House with that “wonderful little machine” Theodore Roosevelt), James traveled to Richmond, Virginia, where he endured “two drearissime days” exploring the Confederate museum and attempting to extract the Civil War’s “romantic” legacy from the “blank,” “pale page” of the “vague, senseless” southern capital (1993 655, 658, 669; 1974-84 4:341, 346). Continuing south, he noted from the “detached” vantage of his Pullman car’s “supreme seat of ease” the mild shock of North Carolina’s “vast niggery wilderness,” alighting at George Vanderbilt’s “bloated” hilltop mansion, the Biltmore, where he was immediately hobbled by an inflammation of gout in his left foot (1993 681; 1974-84 4:346; 2004 141).3 After convalescing for several snow-bound days in this “strange, colossal heartbreaking house,” the travel-weary author made his way to Charleston, South Carolina, closing out his vexed southern adventure a few days later in the milder climates of Jacksonville, Palm Beach, and Saint Augustine, Florida (James, 1974-84 4:346).

23James would append the headline “The Formidable Process” to the page in the English edition of The American Scene that describes this troubled southerly progress (1993 683). Among the physical ailments (he also lost a tooth), geographical remoteness, and social isolation that James endured in the South, there also rose to the restless analyst’s lips the first taste of the “immense fluidity” and formidable territorial scale of the country he was only beginning to explore (684). Arguably, James may have never had more than a “detached” and abstract “sense of the size of the Margin,” as he calls it, “the Margin by which the total of American life, huge as it already appears, is still so surrounded” had he not been forced, in the middle of the night, to suffer an “unpremeditated transfer” of trains in a remote station north of Charleston, left to hover in a “dark and friendless void” awaiting “the February dawn” (682).

24“Stranded in the small hours of morning by the vast vague wayside,” James begins to understand and articulate the terms of his “adventure” (683). “What had happened” was simply that the author was compelled to “wander” outside of the “cushioned and kitchened” Pullman, to immerse himself in the “scale of space,” both geographical and social, that his car window had formerly flattened and screened off (683, 681, 680). The “further one wandered the more the suggestion” of the country’s elemental immensity, racial inequality, and material potential “spoke”: “the total of American life, huge as it already appears,” represents from this vantage “but a scant central flotilla huddled as for very fear of the fathomless depths of water, the too formidable future, on the so much vaster lake of the materially possible” (684). James can draw no distinctions or conclusions from this “immeasurable” vastness and contingency, in which all “differences are submerged” (684).

25At the heart of this meditation on the representational and epistemological challenge posed by the “looming mass of the more,” lurking in the darkness just beyond the circle of light cast by the midnight observer’s interrogative “torch,” lies a suspicion of the inadequacy of the aesthetic or political value of synecdoche (684). Combined with the fact that every “particular” is “on the way to become quite other, and possibly altogether different” particulars, the “perpetual increase of everything” upsets any notion of a whole to which these particulars may be analogically related (684). With every imagined expansion of scale, James encounters the suggestion of yet greater, “immeasurable” magnitudes. James’s “habit of finding a little of all” his “impressions reflected in any one of them” breaks down, in other words, in the face of the “sense of landscape in mere quantity” (452, 680; emphasis original).

Fig. 1. “The Future of Trinity Church.”

Fig. 1. “The Future of Trinity Church.”

Puck, March 6, 1907, page 7. Illustration by Albert Levering.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

26In New York City, James is confronted by something evidently quite different from this layering of irreconcilable scales, the nesting of vastness within vastness revealed to him on a railroad platform in the South Carolina dawn. To be sure, the author’s bedazzled absorption in the “endless labyrinth of the Waldorf-Astoria,” whose “genius for organization” and “master-spirits of management” speak to the “dire facts of absence of margin, of meagerness of site,” suggests an opposition to the “immense fluidity” of “Margin” that subsumes his representational energies in the South (438, 443, 444, 684). Such total spatial exhaustion, both inside and outside, not only leaves “the builder in quest of distinction” with only “one alternative”—building “in the sky”—but also makes “detachment and independence” for observation and reflection “an insoluble problem” (439). Even “wonder-working Emile Zola,” with his “huge reflector” hung in the Parisian sky “awaiting the scene that was to play over it,” lacks the representational wherewithal to record the “monstrous phenomena” of New York City, where the “immense momentum” of the city’s growth exceeds “any possibility of poetic, of dramatic capture” (424, 425). James is led to this “conviction” by his vision of the “extinction” of Trinity Church, lamented by many New Yorkers at the time, whose once-commanding presence in the Manhattan skyline has been erased by an “overhang[ing]” skyscraper (425; see fig. 1).

27James’s aesthetic response to the inexpressibility of both the expansion of the city and the expanse of the country is thus to seek out or create finite spatial borders for the objects of his perception, thereby cordoning off, as behind the plate-glass window of a Pullman car, the threat of the “immense fluidity” of the American scene while also sustaining its vital creative potential (684). The self-awareness, for instance, with which he opens the first installment—his first word, indeed, is “conscious”—draws a ring, in this sense, around the ensuing acausal, associative observations, a kind of elastic limn that stretches at will to confine and arrange the narrative’s contents coherently (357). This mode of second-order observation runs through the remaining pages like a discrete character, and it is frequently radicalized in the form of an external voice projected onto buildings, landscapes, and other objects from which the beguiled and bewildered author struggles to wrest some sense of concrete “value” or legibility (618). As in the late novels in general, self-awareness in The American Scene both serves an aesthetic function and is the object of aesthetic appreciation itself. It gives the impression, on the one side, that the “chaos of confusion and change” that greets James immediately and everywhere is not only spatially held in check but also transformed into the stuff of art. On the other side, it conjures a magic circle that appears to contain the welter of nesting and branching impressions within the capacious geometry of a three-dimensional case.

28In a sense, The American Scene is just such a collection of impression-artifacts, albeit literary rather than object-oriented. Susan Stewart’s theoretical musings on the logics of order that generate a collection’s meanings and effects are instructive in coming to grips with James’s “odd inward rhythm,” the mechanism that both governs the “succession of aspects and objects” and arranges them in space—first the space of the mind, then the space of the canvas-like page—in order that their relations suggestively feed into one another and imply yet others outside the frame (358). Giles calls this James’s “collage” method, but Stewart, in using the term “serial” to evoke the infinite possibilities of relations that exist among objects arranged in an enclosure, registers a theoretical affiliation between her aesthetic speculations and James’s social-representational descriptions (Giles 119; Stewart 153). This spatialization of seriality alerts us to the degree to which James’s experiments in serial form were always already conducted in terms of the spatialization of temporality, particularly the implied linearity and parochial chronology of the turn-of-the-century mass-market serial novel. “To play with series,” remarks Stewart, “is to play with the fire of infinity. In the collection the threat of infinity is always met with the articulation of boundary” (159). But this threat is also productively and pleasurably invoked by the boundary. Highlighting the dialectical tension between finite containment and the chaos of infinity, the language Stewart utilizes to describe the serial logic of the collection echoes James’s own terms for describing the dialectical force at work in the theory of relations. The “seriality” of the collection is defined by the provisionality of “relations” (Stewart’s word) among the objects in a collection, a permutation of countless possible arrangements generated by the physical boundary of the case: “a finite number of elements create, by virtue of their combination,” their “seriality,” “an infinite reverie” (153, 152).

29In the prefaces to the New York Edition, the first of which James wrote concurrently with the last chapters of The American Scene, he would refer to this curbing circumference as the artist’s personal “geometry,” the “circle within which” the “boundless number” of “perforations” at the literary embroiderer’s disposal are to be made to “appear” finite, patterned, and whole (1984 1041). The “prime effect of so sustained a system, so prepared a surface,” however, “is to lead on and on,” and it is in this “cruel crisis,” this threat of the infinity extending beyond the frame of the canvas, that the “restored absentee” finds himself immersed and frequently floundering on his ten-month tour of the United States (1993 453; 1984 1041). Equipped with the representational tools hard won over three decades as a writer of magazine fiction, James finds that he nevertheless has no “sustained […] system” with which to treat the “phantasmagoria” of the American scene as a coherent object (1993 466). It is a “monstrous organism,” like the “overhang[ing] skyscraper” literally consuming the once-majestic Trinity Church, that “grows and grows” in “merciless multiplication” before the gape of the observer (418). This language of monstrosity and immensity punctuates The American Scene as a leitmotif that gives renewed and urgent purpose to the containing force of his “gathered impressions,” the observations that he would collect, arrange, and serialize first in a travelogue and then in the prefaces to a subscription-only “Collective Edition” of his fiction (1993 353; 1974-84 4:323).

30It is precisely urban modernity’s refusal of “any element of court or garden” in which the “starved story seeker” can find adequate margin for observation, however, that most irritates James’s synthesizing efforts (1993 439, 555). New York’s “prime topographical curse” consists in the obliteration of any such mitigating “court of approach” by its blanketing grid of “longitudinal avenues”: “the city is, of all great cities, the least endowed with any blest item of stately square or goodly garden, with any happy accident or surprise, any fortunate nook or happy corner” (439). In a sense, the city is too enclosed, its architectural and civil engineers the ministers of the bad kind of totality: panoptic, homogenized, and enumerated for statistical control. There is no outside to the city’s “perfect organization” (526). Throughout The American Scene, James tries to strike a balance between, on the one hand, the social and aesthetic benefits of enclosure—privacy, freedom, coherence—and the obvious artistic need, on the other hand, for publicity and disclosure. “James’s preference for private spaces and closed doors,” Hsuan Hsu reminds us, “is by no means absolute” (2011 241). Indeed, James comes to regret the “immovably-closed doors” of New York’s skyscrapers that barricade him from an “immense” cache of imaginative “‘material,’” “material for the artist, for the painter of life,” at which, in the moment, he can only gape in “magnanimous wonder” (422). Given too much latitude, however, the representationally salutary forces of publicity begin to edge toward a too-visible exposure that engulfs the restless analyst’s search for “conclusions” in an “immeasurable” (public) margin that paradoxically leaves no (private) space for reflection (684).

Nation as Serial Narrative

31At Ellis Island, James’s desire to strike an aesthetic balance between the suffocating enclosure of the New York City grid and the vertiginous exposure of America’s “overwhelming muchness of space” shifts from the representational to the social register (1993 684). “Before this door” James imagines an “aggregation” of “a million or so of immigrants,” “appealing and waiting, marshaled, herded, divided, subdivided, sorted, searched, fumigated, for longer or shorter periods” (425-426, 424). The scene enacts a “drama poignant and unforgettable,” a “drama that goes on, without a pause, day by day and year by year,” the “visible act of ingurgitation on the part of our body politic and social” (426). Momentarily recalling James’s conversion in the “dark and friendless void” of the South Carolina wilderness, feeling his complicity in “the misery of subject populations” whom he had formerly subjugated from the analytical detachment of his Pullman “seat of ease,” the “freshly repatriated” visitor to Ellis Island awakens at this moment to what Ross Posnock has called “his own immigrancy” (1993 682, 681; Posnock 276). James and the “aliens” are, in the author’s words, “fellow-soakers in the terrible tank” (1993 462). The “patient inquirer” has “eaten of the tree of knowledge,” accepting “the degree in which it is his American fate to share the sanctity of his American consciousness, the intimacy of his American patriotism, with the inconceivable alien” (462, 426).

32This “intertwining of self and other” represents a radical socialization of the dialectic I have been tracing in The American Scene with regard to public and private, interior and exterior, local and global (Posnock 277). “Which is the American,” James asks, “which is not the alien […] and where does one put a finger on the dividing line?” (1993 459). At Ellis Island, the pervasive dialectic of margin and center, of exposure and enclosure, converts to a “dialectic of identity and otherness” that defines, for James, the entanglement of questions of race, nation, and art that he repeatedly raises (Posnock 277). Yet if James’s stance toward the alien in The American Scene signals a “complex openness to the claims of otherness on the evolving American character,” as Sara Blair maintains, it is precisely its status as “evolving” that prevents Blair and others, as it prevented James himself, from offering any firm conclusions about both American national identity and James’s attitude about it (Blair 170).

  • 4 For other contemporary accounts of this “shedding” of immigrants’ ethnic difference, see Wells’s T (...)

33To be sure, critics such as Posnock, Blair, Kenneth Warren, and others are correct in identifying James’s interface with racial otherness—black, Jew, Armenian, Italian—as the site of the author’s most socially provocative and politically sophisticated engagement with the question of the “meaning” of “the ‘American’ character” (1993 456). For Posnock in particular, James’s unwillingness to dissolve the incongruous, diverse “matters of the foreground” in the “great stew” of “ultimate syntheses” registers the author’s esteem for “the dynamic reality of American heterogeneity” in contradistinction to the ideological “pseudounity” sanctioned by the “identity logic of progressivism,” one rooted in the “bound seriality” of statistical persons (1993 463; Posnock 153; Anderson, 1998 29). Stridently advocated by prominent figures such as Theodore Roosevelt, Hugo Munsterberg, and Frederick Taylor, the standardizing principles of this progressivist position were also adopted, somewhat ironically, by many immigrants, among them the Danish-American anti-slum crusader, Jacob Riis. In The Making of an American (1901), Riis’s aptly-titled memoir, the staunchly American idealist not only retails the harrowing story of a young émigré’s struggle to make his way in America but also highlights the degree to which many immigrants “shed,” in James’s words, their native “color” with “conscientious completeness,” leaving only the “neutral and colorless image” of an “American” (1993 462, 461).4

34Yet James’s pragmatist critique of the “assimilative machinery” of progressivism’s “identity principle,” which relies on both the public school and consumer culture as its “motor[s] of social control,” is neither limited to his engagement with race nor, I would argue, so affirmative as many readers of The American Scene maintain (Posnock 164). While scholars such as Lisi Schoenbach contend that James’s pragmatism, rooted in what Posnock calls his “politics of nonidentity,” “demonstrates a nuanced and dialectical understanding of institutional forms and, through them, of the possibility of a successfully functioning democratic state,” it remains difficult to distill such overt political judgments from a document whose first and last concern, as James declares at the outset, is “the question of literary representation” (Posnock 16; Schoenbach 166; James, 1993 354). Unlike H.G. Wells’s socialistic, statistically rich American travelogue, The Future in America (1906), James’s loosely “gathered impressions” of American incongruity reflexively dodge the reductiveness of “information” metrics (1993 354; Wells 213). James favors, rather, a mimetic approach to the irregularities of the “features of the human scene,” a syntactic imitation of the “miscellaneous,” “too numerous” elements of the American spectacle that “led [him] on and on” (1993 354, 397). If James’s observations are affirmative, then the affirmation lies in the promise of representation not only to enfold but also to convert even the most incongruous, provisional subject matter into both an opportunity and a model for the artistic process.

35The model that James devises, as I have been arguing, is rooted in a serial aesthetic. While his sentences formally mime the volatility of the scenes they describe, they also explicitly register, on the level of content, the paradoxical technique by which they reflexively and uncertainly contain this volatility. “Distinct” but not “definite,” the elements of the American scene and the narrative that records them find their clearest expression in terms of serial form: America as “an installment, a current number, like that of the morning paper, a specimen of the type in course of serialization” (689). Its definitions and delimitations, in other words, are “perpetually provisional” (689). The serial aesthetic, thus understood, surpasses the utility of synecdoche in describing the provisional, mobile aspect of the American scene, a volatility reflected in the “suspensive,” unpredictable unfolding of James’s hypotactic sentences (Cross 35). If static totality is impossible, then the artist must devise strategies of representation that both suggest an awareness of this impossibility and simultaneously conjure the illusion of totality attained.

36James approaches the issue of totality in both The American Scene and the prefaces to the New York Edition aesthetically, reflexively mapping it onto the “exquisite problem of the artist” in the early prefaces in particular (1984 1041). Cultural critics like Dimock, Bhabha, and Palumbo-Liu also raise the issue in the context of narrative but are primarily concerned with the problem of figuring a global citizen out of the irregularities and differences that make up the individual involved in making and being made by such narratives. In discrete yet related ways, such projects endeavor “to discover or imagine the mediation of individual subjects across the troubled terrains of modern life and onto the planetary scale” (Palumbo-Liu 198). Both James and these critics suggest in various ways the extent to which any discussion of universals risks erecting a falsely static image of a whole in which individual, heterogeneous parts finally resolve.

37The point to be taken away from these insights is that the same rhetorical techniques that allow these critical models to absorb James, and find in the Master a reflection of their own principles of inquiry, at the same time call our attention to the pitfalls of such models, and of models per se. James’s emphasis, in other words, on the representational problem of scale—on the fact that relations do not, in reality, stop at any point along the continuum of experience—immediately relativizes any effort to arrest those proliferating relations within the limn of a critical school or political project. If one begins to expand the scale of inquiry, as James and these critics do, one necessarily raises questions about when and where to stop expanding. The continuum extends infinitely in every direction: any line drawn across it artificially segments it, whether that line is the nation, the planet, or the human. The difference between James and those critics that would recuperate him for their political projects is that James is forthright about the illusion of coherence out of which all intellectual and artistic systems arise.

38This question of the line that frames one’s inquiry is thus not only a rhetorical issue but also a fundamentally aesthetic one. Indeed, this question alerts us to the extent to which Homi Bhabha is correct when he insists that political formations such as the nation-space, among other social constructs, are essentially narratives, no less fictional than the serial novel running in the current issue of a widely circulating magazine (see Bhabha). In this respect, politics is a category of representation and subsequently abides by the same laws and limitations as any other representational form. The correspondences between James’s aesthetic project, codified in the prefaces, with the social and political agendas espoused by recent cultural theorists are thus rooted in their shared desire for a model of lived experience that both implies the “innumerable acts” that constitute life and delimits this “infinity of situations” in the coherent finitude of narrative circumferences (1984 1340, 1104). In The American Scene, America’s immeasurable “scale of things,” repeatedly invoked by the author, finds containment in the meandering, rhetorically virtuosic sentences of the author’s mimetic narrative, “whose abundant appositions stretch the very limits of English syntax” without quite breaching its banks (James, 1993 457; Hsu, 2003 239).

39In the prefaces, the recollecting author reframes this challenge not only in terms of the “vast expanse” and “countless perforations” of the “canvas” of the literary “embroiderer” but also within the specific context of the vagaries of serial form (1984 1041). The “danger” inhering in the months-long “serial voyage” to which the author was so frequently “condemned” arises in the case of The American (1877), for example, from the fact that “[i]t started on its course while much was still unwritten” (1054). The provisionality of serial progress “haunt[s]” the young author with both the spectral potential for “grave interruption” due to “accident” or “illness” and the fear that a “loose end,” missed in the rush to meet magazine deadlines, might “dangle over into alien air,” fixing “upon the whole […] the dishonor of a piecemeal composition” (1053, 1059). James meets the dangers imposed by the temporal and spatial complications of serial form—which reflect the messiness of real life—with the “dissimulation,” as he puts in the preface to The Tragic Muse, of rhetorical “unity” centripetally gathered around a narrative “center” (1109, 1068). Both the serial author’s “terminational terror” and his “fear” of the representable world’s “admirable immensity” are thus offset by the geometrical illusion of the narrative’s “deep-breathing economy and […] organic form” (1108, 1039). The “desperations of ingenuity” compelled by the difficulties of serialization remain, even in their “success,” “specious and spurious,” artful machinations meant to evoke both life’s “infinity of situations” and art’s capacity to contain them (1109, 1104).

40The American Scene rehearses in experiential and empirical terms the fundamental aesthetic problems that James theoretically models and rhetorically subdues in the prefaces to the New York Edition. Written concurrently with the last installments of his travelogue, the preface to Roderick Hudson in particular encapsulates the aims of the overall project. This landmark work of literary theory sets the tone of the project in a key that will resonate across the ensuing essays: “Really, universally, relations stop nowhere” (1041). The “exquisite problem of the artist,” adds James, “is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so” (1041; emphasis in original). Roughly rephrased, James is underscoring, on the one side, the limitless possibilities of narrative and epistemological permutation, and on the other, the “way in which the formal enclosure of objects at all interesting,” as he puts it in The American Scene, “immediately refines upon their interest, immediately establishes values” (1993 364). The artist must create the perception that the relations he has chosen to trace and to circumscribe do in fact “stop” somewhere, and that these relations, in their unbroken “continuity,” have an irreducible “value” defined by the frame (1984 1041).

  • 5 For some representative accounts of the performative, self-creating nature of the artistic project (...)

41Considered from a slightly different position, this accent on the illusory nature of the “value” and “coherence” conjured by the artist out of what James describes in the preface to The Golden Bowl as the “general mixture” of one’s sensorium reveals a reflexive layer of meaning that has long preoccupied James scholars (1984 1340). Namely, James makes us aware of the fact that such provisionality of value and conclusiveness is not limited to fiction but also applies to the very self-critique that he is undertaking in the prefaces.5 These pioneering literary-critical documents should be seen, according to David McWhirter, “neither as an attempt to adhere to ‘original intentions’ nor as an effort to force the differences of the past to conform to James’s present imperial will, but as a new relation to his earlier texts,” part of an “always provisional quest for new circuits of connection and continuity with the past” (16-17). Even James’s own critical model falls victim, in this sense, to its own principle of provisionality, or what might more accurately be called revisionality.

42National and authorial identity, aesthetic theory, the realms of imagination and experience—each takes place on a continuum characterized by flux and contingency requiring selection and arrangement, always provisional. Yet James underscores the degree to which it is the “marked advantage” of “literary deeds” over “many of our acts”—life writ large—“that, though they go forth into the world and stray even in the desert, they don’t to the same extent lose themselves” (1984 1340). In this respect, James’s serial aesthetic awakens us to the fact that even cultural and political theories that honor the narrativity of social relations to which James repeatedly returned in his writings nevertheless fall victim to their own insistence on their embeddedness in modes of representation. One might say that James’s serial aesthetic has this “marked advantage” over the projects of contemporary cultural theorists: that his “literary deeds” more adequately articulate the operations of social formations because they resist, on the one hand, the bugaboo of theoretical conclusiveness, and secure, on the other, the paradoxical coherence of his artistic project in the candid unveiling of its mechanics of illusion. The serial art of Henry James is defined, in the end, by its capacity both to render “life as something beyond authorial control”—life as analogous to the “joy” and “anxieties” of the suspenseful “serial voyage”—and to give the illusion, in the gesture into this immeasurable, “universal” “desert,” of flux and wilderness aesthetically contained and transformed (Horne 66; James, 1984 1041, 1053).

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1 Unpublished letter to James B. Pinker, March 2, 1905, Beinecke Za James I, vol. 1.

2 For the best description of the larger movement in modern literature, running from Flaubert to Joyce, toward the spatialization of time in the novel, see Frank, The Idea of Spatial Form (1945).

3 James’s freedom with the use of racial epithets in his correspondence, which he repeats elsewhere in reference to the same episode, should give us pause before making declarations regarding his liberalism such as have become increasingly common in contemporary criticism. Combined with his off-color descriptions of the “ingurgitation” of the “alien” witnessed at “terrible” Ellis Island, such comments raise obvious questions about the solvency of attempts to recuperate James for contemporary political agendas (1993 426). See, for instance, Posnock; Blair; and Warren.

4 For other contemporary accounts of this “shedding” of immigrants’ ethnic difference, see Wells’s The Future in America (1906) and Russian-Jewish immigration rights activist Mary Antin’s best-selling autobiography, The Promised Land (1928).

5 For some representative accounts of the performative, self-creating nature of the artistic project encapsulated in the prefaces, see Seltzer (14); Horne (95-99); Rowe (xxv); and Armstrong (125-37).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1. “The Future of Trinity Church.”
Légende Puck, March 6, 1907, page 7. Illustration by Albert Levering.
Crédits Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
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