The Henry James Review 27.1 (2006) 100-102
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"Who and what is an alien, when it comes to that, in a country peopled from the first under the jealous eye of history?" James asks in The American Scene (95). His question is an appealingly modern acknowledgment of the unfairness of the term. But what do we make of his less palatable answers and avowals, such as his feeling of dispossession after visiting Ellis Island? Or his description of New York's Yiddish quarter as a "sallow aquarium" swarming with fish "of overdeveloped proboscis" (100)? Or his nostalgia for the Southern tradition of "young darkies" scrambling "for the honour of fetching and carrying" luggage (312)?
Buelens's project is to consider James's complex reactions to the American scene, to ask how James judges the "alien" and how we in turn evaluate James's appraisal. Although these questions have been explored by Ross Posnock, William Boelhower, Beverly Haviland, and others, Buelens proposes to reassess James's relations by paying attention to the sites and spaces they involve, as well as their syntax and vocabulary. So doing, he seeks to "steer a middle course between embracing what apologists regard as his [James's] multiculturalist modernity and rejecting what critics see as his nativism and elitism" (15). Buelens's contribution is a welcome one, and it is, on the whole, an admirable effort to sort through the tangle of divergent socio-economic, philosophic, and aesthetic perspectives on the subject.
Contrary to what the above-mentioned examples might lead one to conclude about James's reactions to "aliens," Buelens argues that James's sense of identity is based on an identification with "ethnic others" who, at other times, strike him as utterly alien. By submitting key terms (such as "civilization" and "vulgarity") [End Page 100] to close scrutiny, Buelens concludes that James does not systematically associate vulgarity with a class-based or ethnic other. In fact, Buelens contends that James's interactions are attended by a sense of enjoyment and by a relaxation of the barriers of the self. His title is an allusion to this and to the notion that James himself is "possessed" by the aliens but finds this somehow pleasurable.
When encountering groups, James is subsumed and surrenders; in his encounters with individuals, he is probing and "vies with his antagonist for the power to be in possession of the American scene" (17). James's experience with a handsome white "son of the new South" (AS 285) is thus read as an instance of such a "flirtation" (Buelens 32). James teases the man until he proudly relates how his father smashed the skull of a Union soldier but in a manner that is, according to Buelens, outside the realm of "violent confrontation." From this, he concludes that James "can be genuinely interested in the other, while keeping to himself the heavily ironic basis of his interest" (42). In other words, James is publicly tolerant of differences he privately finds distasteful. In some circles, this might be considered good manners, but Buelens goes too far by trying to turn James's condescending detachment into a virtue. And while he does recognize that James's agency is "largely unintended" (43), he does not tackle the pusillanimity at the core of James's reaction to the Southerner.
When overwhelmed by the masses and the vast spaces he encounters, James renounces his critical connection and surrenders to the scene, luxuriating in its immensity and otherness and, so doing, becoming a consumer of it, forsaking his own personal ethos (68). According to Buelens, the overwhelming mass of data James encounters pushes him beyond the realm of criticism and into that of enjoyment. As a result, The American Scene "shares in the integrative and disintegrative models of selfhood" (62). This subtle and sophisticated interpretation offers a means of reassessing some of The American Scene's disagreeable passages. It is in this context, Buelens...