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The Swiftian Journey of Henry James: Genre and Epistemology in The American Scene by Helen Killoran, Alabama State University What happens when the "student of manners" makes a pilgrimage to his native land presumably hoping to gather material for another novel, then discovers himself in a "world otherwise arranged," where manners are indecipherable, traditional boundaries disappear, identity explodes, and epistemology itself is in question? What happens is Henry James's The American Scene, ostensibly a travelogue . But is it? Though W. H. Auden claims it is a prose poem, ' 'no more a travel guide than 'Ode to a Nightingale' is an ornithological essay" (81), most critics have not addressed The American Scene as ' 'literature' ' but rather as an objective report of James's travels and affective reactions, social commentary full of "tortured judgments" at best. Yet entries in James's notebooks make it clear that he was selecting, arranging, creating—Art: ' Ί shall be able to [plunge] my hand, my arm, in, deep and far, and up to the shoulder—into the heavy bag of remembrance—of suggestion—of imagination—of art—and fish out every little figure and felicity, every little fact and fancy that can be to my purpose' ' (NB 131). Consistent with boundaries everywhere broken in The American Scene, this literary art is neither fiction nor nonfiction, or rather it is both. Through his choice of words and difficult rhetoric, James asks the reader to suspend logic and "know" America in a new way, through a sixth sense formed of impressions, sensations, associations, and nuances, a form of philosophical induction from auras and hints rather than cases. In the spirit of new perceptions, then, let us read The American Scene as if it were not a "travelogue" but fiction, specifically a novel of manners, James's initial genre. The resulting epistemological sixth sense allows strange surrealistic impressions to emerge in addition to suggested answers to important questions about the possibility of a novel of manners in the United States, about the genre of The Henry James Review 13 (1992): 306-14 © 1992 by The Johns Hopkins University Press Genre and Epistemology in The American Scene 307 The American Scene, and about Henry James's customarily assigned position as the aristocratic Victorian expatriate. Of course, in most of James's novels of manners, the expectations of the protagonist form the limiting viewpoint from which errors of interpretation are made. From what he had heard and read, Henry James must have formed expectations of the American community as he prepared his 1904-05 pilgrimage. In his mind, in addition, was his memory of the America of his youth, now undoubtedly interlocked with his experience of Europe. In spite of constant work with American ideas, none of his expectations, singly or in combination, prepare him epistemologically to understand the America he encounters in The American Scene, even though new ideas are welcome. As he says in The Art of the Novel, he entertains hope "of profiting by all the civilization ... yet condemned to see these things only from outside" (AN 3). James's novels of manners function on a framework of communally shared information unavailable to an outsider but detectable through the process of careful observation by a single temperament. But if an author is that single temperament , and if he encounters an alien language in an undecipherable environment , how is he to penetrate its meaning? How is he to gather material for his ' 'novel of manners' ' ? His ability to penetrate meaning is further complicated by a paralyzing sense of shock because James does not expect an alien language about "familiar' ' American objects and themes: 'Ί was to return with much freshness of eye, outward and inward which, with the further contribution of a state of desire is commonly held a precious agent of perception.... I made no scruple of my conviction that I should understand ... I might aspire to intimate intelligence.... I felt myself then, all serenely, not exposed to grave mistakes" (AS xxv). But is it a language? As it develops, he cannot even be certain about that. To his dismay the "story-seeker" discovers that all of the familiar perceptions have lost their meaning , and if they have acquired...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 306-314
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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