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Henry James on the Streetcar

March 22, 1987|JACK MILES | Times Book Editor

Kevin Crossley-Holland's "Oxford Book of Travel Verse" (Oxford University Press: $21.95; 423 pp.) is a rewarding anthology, the more rewarding for its editor's wise decision to confine his volume to British travelers: Englishmen mostly, with a sprinkling of such Scots, Welsh and Irish as would not mind being called British.

The wisdom of this choice is that it permits the collected poetry to provide access to something otherwise nearly impenetrable; namely, to the sense the English have of their own Englishness. Margaret Drabble's 1979 "A Writer's Britain: Landscape in Literature"--reprinted in paperback this month by Thames and Hudson with fine photographs by Jorge Lewinski--may provide another kind of access. For American readers who know they will never live in Britain (most of us, surely), Drabble and Lewinski provide a literate and beautiful substitute. Still, Wordsworth was right: "I travelled among unknown Men/In Lands beyond the Sea;/Nor, England! did I know till then/What love I bore to thee." It is abroad rather than at home that the Englishman discovers England.

The parallel process among American writers is less easily documented. With a much larger home to explore, Americans have gone abroad much less. It was abroad rather than at home, however, and at that mostly in England, that the American writer Henry James discovered America. The best of what James learned went into his fiction, but there is much to ponder as well in his meditative American travelogue, "The American Scene," to be reissued next month by St. Martin's Press ($16.95; 343 pp.).

In that book, James travels the Eastern Seaboard from New England to Florida as an American with English eyes. And often, as in the passage below, he ponders an American paradox; namely, that if identity is the unspoken statement, "I know who I am," and if in society that statement comes to mean "I am where I belong," then the American identity is the very negation of identity. It is such because the American, as James sees him, prides himself on not knowing, finally, who he is or accepting that he is where he belongs. After all, what he is today, he may surpass tomorrow, and where he was yesterday (as he may confide) was not nearly so impressive as where he is today. True as all this is for natives, it is doubly true for immigrants.

To their admirers, the Americans have energy, the English dignity. To their detractors, the Americans are coarse hustlers, the English smug bores. Who is right?

Like innumerable later visitors, James found that New York's public transportation system offered a unique deck from which to observe this among many other Anglo-American social conundrums. He writes:

"New York offers to such a study a well-nigh unlimited field, but I seem to recall winter days, harsh, dusky, sloshy winter afternoons, in the densely-packed East-side street-cars, as an especially intimate surrender to it . . . . There are many different ways, certainly, in which obscure fighters of the battle of life may look, under new high lights, queer and crude and unwrought; but the striking thing, precisely, in the crepuscular, tunnel-like avenues that the 'Elevated' overarches--yet without quenching, either, that constant power of any American exhibition rather luridly to light itself--the striking thing, and the beguiling, was always the manner in which figure after figure and face after face already betrayed the common consequence and action of their whereabouts. Face after face, unmistakably, was 'low'--particularly in the men, squared all solidly in their new security and portability, their vague but growing sense of many unprecedented things; and as signs of the reinforcing of a large local conception of manners and relations it was difficult to say if they most affected one as promising or as portentous.

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