The American Scene
by Henry James, 1907
Concord and Salem
[pages 565-78 of Henry James: Collected Travel Writings in Library of America, 1993]
I FELT myself, on the spot, cast about a little for the right expression of it, and then lost any hesitation to say that, putting the three or four biggest cities aside, Concord, Massachusetts, had an identity more palpable to the mind, had nestled in other words more successfully beneath her narrow fold of the mantle of history, than any other American town. "Compare me with places of my size, you know," one seemed to hear her plead, with the modesty that, under the mild autumn sun, so well became her russet beauty; and this exactly it was that prompted the emphasis of one's reply, or, as it may even be called, of one's declaration.
"Ah, my dear, it isn't a question of places of your 'size,' since among places of your size you're too obviously and easily first: it's a question of places, so many of them, of fifty times your size, and which yet don't begin to have a fraction of your weight, or your character, or your intensity of presence and sweetness of tone, or your moral charm, or your pleasant appreciability, or, in short, of anything that is yours. Your 'size'? Why, you're the biggest little place in America--with only New York and Boston and Chicago, by what I make out, to surpass you; and the country is lucky indeed to have you, in your sole and single felicity, for if it hadn't, where in the world should we go, inane and unappeased, for the particular communication of which you have the secret? The country is colossal, and you but a microscopic speck on the hem of its garment, yet there's nothing else like you, take you all round, for we see you complacently, with the naked eye, whereas there are vast sprawling, bristling areas, great grey 'centres of population' that spread, on the map, like irremediable grease-spots, which fail utterly of any appeal to our vision or any control of it, leaving it to pass them by as if they were not. It you are so thoroughly the opposite of one of
these I don't say it's all your superlative merit; it's rather, as I have put it, your felicity, your good fortune, the result of the half-dozen happy turns of the wheel in your favour. Half-a-dozen such turns, you see, are, for any mortal career, a handsome allowance; and your merit is that, recognizing this, you have not fallen below your estate. But it's your fortune, above all, that's your charm. One doesn't want to be patronizing, but you didn't, thank goodness, make yours. That's what the other places, the big ones that are as nothing to you, are trying to do, the country over--to make theirs; and, from the point of view of these remarks, all in vain. Your luck is that you didn't have to; yours had been, just as it shows in you to-day, made for you, and you at the most but gratefully submitted to it. It must be said for you, however, that you keep it; and it isn't every place that would have been capable--! You keep the look, you keep the feeling, you keep the air. Your great trees arch over these possessions more protectingly, covering them in as a cherished presence; and you have settled to your tone and your type as to treasures that can now never be taken. Show me the other places in America (of the few that have had anything) from which the best hasn't mainly been taken, or isn't in imminent danger of being. There is old Salem, there is old Newport, which I am on my way to see again, and which, if you will, are, by what I hear, still comparatively intact; but their having was never a having like yours, and they adorn, precisely, my little tale of your supremacy. No, I don't want to be patronizing, but your only fault is your tendency to improve--I mean just by your duration as you are; which indeed is the only sort of improvement that is not questionable."
Such was the drift of the warm flood of appreciation, of reflection, that Concord revisited could set rolling over the field of a prepared sensibility; and I feel as if I had quite made my point, such as it is, in asking what other American village could have done anything of the sort. I should have been at fault perhaps only in speaking of the interest in question as visible, on that large scale, to the "naked eye"; the truth being perhaps that one wouldn't have been so met half way by one's impression unless one had rather particularly known, and that knowledge, in such a case, amounts to a pair of magnifying
spectacles. I remember indeed putting it to myself on the November Sunday morning, tepid and bright and perfect for its use, through which I walked from the station under the constant archway of the elms, as yet but indulgently thinned: would one know, for one's self, what had formerly been the matter here, if one hadn't happened to be able to get round behind, in the past, as it were, and more or less understand? Would the operative elements of the past--little old Concord Fight, essentially, and Emerson and Hawthorne and Thoreau, with the rest of the historic animation and the rest of the figured and shifting "transcendental" company, to its last and loosest ramifications--would even these handsome quantities have so lingered to one's intelligent after-sense, if one had not brought with one some sign by which they too would know; dim, shy spectralities as, for themselves, they must, at the best, have become? Idle, however, such questions when, by the chance of the admirable day, everything, in its own way and order, unmistakably came out--every string sounded as if, for all the world, the loose New England town (and I apply the expression but to the relations of objects and places), were a lyre swept by the hand of Apollo. Apollo was the spirit of antique piety, looking about, pausing, remembering, as he moved to his music; and there were glimpses and reminders that of course kept him much longer than others.
Seated there at its ease, as if placidly familiar with pilgrims and quite taking their homage for granted, the place had the very aspect of some grave, refined New England matron of the "old school," the widow of a high celebrity, living on and on in possession of all his relics and properties, and, though not personally addicted to gossip or to journalism, having become, where the great company kept by her in the past is concerned, quite cheerful and modern and responsive. From her position, her high-backed chair by the window that commands most of the coming and going, she looks up intelligently, over her knitting, with no vision of any limit on her part as yet, to this attitude, and with nothing indeed to suggest the possibility of a limit save a hint of that loss of temporal perspective in which we recognize the mental effect of a great weight of years. I had formerly the acquaintance of a very interesting lady, of extreme age, whose early friends, in
"literary circles," are now regarded as classics, and who, toward the end of her life, always said, "You know Charles Lamb has produced a play at Drury Lane," or "You know William Hazlitt has fallen in love with such a very odd woman." Her facts were perfectly correct; only death had beautifully passed out of her world--since I don't remember her mentioning to me the demise, which she might have made so contemporary, either of Byron or of Scott. When people were ill she admirably forebore to ask about them--she disapproved wholly of such conditions; and there were interesting invalids round about her, near to her, whose existence she for long years consummately ignored. It is some such quiet backward stride as those of my friend that I seem to hear the voice of old Concord take in reference to her annals, and it is not too much to say that where her soil is most sacred, I fairly caught, on the breeze, the mitigated perfect tense. "You know there has been a fight between our men and the King's"--one wouldn't have been surprised, that crystalline Sunday noon, where so little had changed, where the stream and the bridge, and all nature, and the feeling, above all, still so directly testify, at any fresh-sounding form of such an announcement.
I had forgotten, in all the years, with what thrilling clearness that supreme site speaks--though anciently, while so much of the course of the century was still to run, the distinctness might have seemed even greater. But to stand there again was to take home this foreshortened view, the gained nearness, to one's sensibility; to look straight over the heads of the "American Weimar" company at the inestimable hour that had so handsomely set up for them their background. The Fight had been the hinge--so one saw it--on which the large revolving future was to turn; or it had been better, perhaps, the large firm nail, ringingly driven in, from which the beautiful portrait-group, as we see it to-day, was to hang. Beautiful exceedingly the local Emerson and Thoreau and Hawthorne and (in a fainter way) tutti quanti; but beautiful largely because the fine old incident down in the valley had so seriously prepared their effect. That seriousness gave once for all the pitch, and it was verily as if, under such a value, even with the seed of a "literary circle" so freely scattered by an
intervening hand, the vulgar note would in that air never be possible. As I had inevitably, in long absence, let the value, for immediate perception, rather waste itself, so, on the spot, it came back most instantly with the extraordinary sweetness of the river, which, under the autumn sun, like all the American rivers one had seen or was to see, straightway took the whole case straightway into its hands. "Oh, you shall tell me of your impression when you have felt what I can do for it: so hang over me well!"--that's what they all seem to say.
I hung over Concord River then as long as I could, and recalled how Thoreau, Hawthome, Emerson himself, have expressed with due sympathy the sense of this full, slow, sleepy, meadowy flood, which sets its pace and takes its twists like some large obese benevolent person, scarce so frankly unsociable as to pass you at all. It had watched the Fight, it even now confesses, without a quickening of its current, and it draws along the woods and the orchards and the fields with the purr of a mild domesticated cat who rubs against the family and the furniture. Not to be recorded, at best, however, I think, never to emerge from the state of the inexpressible, in respect to the spot, by the bridge, where one most lingers, is the sharpest suggestion of the whole scene--the power diffused in it which makes it, after all these years, or perhaps indeed by reason of their number, so irresistibly touching. All the commemorative objects, the stone marking the burial-place of the three English soldiers, the animated image of the young belted American yeoman by Mr. Daniel French, the intimately associated element in the presence, not far off, of the old manse, interesting theme of Hawthorne's pen, speak to the spirit, no doubt, in one of the subtlest tones of which official history is capable, and yet somehow leave the exquisite melancholy of everything unuttered. It lies too deep, as it always so lies where the ground has borne the weight of the short, simple act, intense and unconscious, that was to determine the event, determine the future in the way we call immortally. For we read into the scene too little of what we may, unless this muffled touch in it somehow reaches us so that we feel the pity and the irony of the precluded relation on the part of the fallen defenders. The sense that was theirs and that moved them we know, but we seem to know better still
the sense that wasn't and that couldn't, and that forms our luxurious heritage as our eyes, across the gulf, seek to meet their eyes; so that we are almost ashamed of taking so much, such colossal quantity and value, as the equivalent of their dimly-seeing offer. The huge bargain they made for us, in a word, made by the gift of the little all they had--to the modesty of which amount the homely rural facts grouped there together have appeared to go on testifying--this brilliant advantage strikes the imagination that yearns over them as unfairly enjoyed at their cost. Was it delicate, was it decent--that is would it have been--to ask the embattled farmers, simple-minded, unwitting folk, to make us so inordinate a present with so little of the conscious credit of it? Which all comes indeed, perhaps, simply to the most poignant of all those effects of disinterested sacrifice that the toil and trouble of our forefathers produce for us. The minute-men at the bridge were of course interested intensely, as they believed--but such, too, was the artful manner in which we see our latent, lurking, waiting interest like, a Jew in a dusky back-shop, providentially bait the trap.
Beyond even such broodings as these, and to another purpose, moreover, the communicated spell falls, in its degree, into that pathetic oddity of the small aspect, and the rude and the lowly, the reduced and humiliated above all, that sits on so many nooks and corners, objects and appurtenances, old contemporary things--contemporary with the doings of our race; simplifying our antecedents, our annals, to within an inch of their life, making us ask, in presence of the rude relics even of greatness, mean retreats and receptacles, constructionally so poor, from what barbarians or from what pigmies we have sprung. There are certain rough black mementos of the early monarchy, in England and Scotland, there are glimpses of the original humble homes of other greatness as well, that strike in perfection this grim little note, which has the interest of our being free to take it, for curiosity, for luxury ot thought, as that of the real or that of the romantic, and with which, again, the deep Concord rusticity, momentary medium of our national drama, essentially consorts. We remember the small hard facts of the Shakespeare house at Stratford; we remember the rude closet, in Edinburgh Castle, in which
James VI of Scotland was born, or the other little black hole, at Holyrood, in which Mary Stuart "sat" and in which Rizzio was murdered. These, I confess, are odd memories at Concord; although the manse, near the spot where we last paused, and against the edge of whose acre or two the loitering river seeks friction in the manner I have mentioned, would now seem to have shaken itself a trifle disconcertingly free of the ornamental mosses scattered by Hawthorne's light hand; it stands there, beyond its gate, with every due similitude to the shrunken historic site in general. To which I must hasten to add, however, that I was much more struck with the way these particular places of visitation resist their pressure of reference than with their affecting us as below their fortune. Intrinsically they are as naught--deeply depressing, in fact, to any impulse to reconstitute, the house in which Hawthorne spent what remained to him of life after his return from the Italy of his Donatello and his Miriam. Yet, in common with everything else, this mild monument benefits by that something in the air which makes us tender, keeps us respectful; meets, in the general interest, waving it vaguely away, any closer assault of criticism.
It is odd, and it is also exquisite, that these witnessing ways should be the last ground on which we feel moved to ponderation of the "Concord school"--to use, I admit, a futile expression; or rather, I should doubtless say, it would be odd if there were not inevitably something absolute in the fact of Emerson's all but lifelong connection with them. We may smile a little as we "drag in" Weimar, but I confess myself, for my part, much more satisfied than not by our happy equivalent, "in American money," for Goethe and Schiller. The money is a potful in the second case as in the first, and if Goethe, in the one, represents the gold and Schiller the silver, I find (and quite putting aside any bimetallic prejudice) the same good relation in the other between Emerson and Thoreau. I open Emerson for the same benefit for which I open Goethe, the sense of moving in large intellectual space, and that of the gush, here and there, out of the rock, of the crystalline cupful, in wisdom and poetry, in Wahrheit and Dichtung; and whatever I open Thoreau for (I needn't take space here for the good reasons) I open him oftener than I open
Schiller. Which comes back to our feeling that the rarity of Emerson's genius, which has made him so, for the attentive peoples, the first, and the one really rare, American spirit in letters, couldn't have spent his career in a charming woody, watery place, for so long socially and typically and, above ail, interestingly homogeneous, without an effect as of the communication to it of something ineffaceable. It was during his long span his immediate concrete, sufficient world; it gave him his nearest vision of life, and he drew half his images, we recognize, from the revolution of its seasons and the play of its manners. I don't speak of the other half; which he drew from elsewhere. It is admirably, to-day, as if we were still seeing these things in those images, which stir the air like birds, dim in the eventide, coming home to nest. If one had reached a "time of life" one had thereby at least heard him lecture; and not a russet leaf fell for me, while I was there, but fell with an Emersonian drop.
It never failed that if in moving about I made, under stress, an inquiry, I should prove to have made it of a flagrant foreigner. It never happened that, addressing a fellow-citizen, in the street, on one of those hazards of possible communion with the indigenous spirit, I should not draw a blank. So, inevitably, at Salem, when, wandering perhaps astray, I asked my way to the House of the Seven Gables, the young man I had overtaken was true to his nature; he stared at me as a remorseless Italian--as remorseless, at least, as six months of Salem could Ieave him. On that spot, in that air, I confess, it was a particular shock to me to be once more, with my so good general intention, so "put off"; though, if my young man but glared frank ignorance of the monument I named, he left me at least with the interest of wondering how the native estimate of it as a romantic ruin might strike a taste formed for such features by the landscape of Italy. I will not profess that by the vibration of this note the edifice of my fond fancy--I mean Hawthorne's Salem, and the witches', and that of other eminent historic figures--was not rather essentially shaken; since what had the intention of my pilgrimage
been, in all good faith, in artless sympathy and piety, but a search again, precisely, for the New England homogeneous--for the renewal of that impression of it which had lingered with me from a vision snatched too briefly, in a midsummer gloaming, long years ago. I had been staying near, at that far-away time, and, the railroad helping, had got myself dropped there for an hour at just the right moment of the waning day. This memory had been, from far back, a kept felicity altogether; a picture of goodly Colonial habitations, quite the high-water mark of that type of state and ancientry seen in the clear dusk, and of almost nothing else but a pleasant harbour-side vacancy, the sense of dead marine industries, that finally looked out at me, for a climax, over a grass-grown interval, from the blank windows of the old Customs House of the Introduction to The Scarlet Letter.
I could on that occasion have seen, with my eye on my return-train, nothing else; but the image of these things I had not lost, wrapped up as it even was, for the fancy, in some figment of the very patch of old embroidered cloth that Hawthorne's charming prefatory pages unfold for us--pages in which the words are as finely "taken" as the silk and gold stitches of poor Hester Prynne's compunctious needle. It had hung, all the years, closely together, and had served--oh, so conveniently!--as the term of comparison, the rather rich frame, for any suggested vision of New England life unalloyed. The case now was the more marked that, already, on emerging from the station and not knowing quite where to look again for my goodly Georgian and neo-Georgian houses, I had had to permit myself to be directed to them by a civil Englishman, accosted by the way, who, all kindness and sympathy, immediately mentioned that they formed the Grosvenor Square, as might be said, of Salem. We conversed for the moment, and settled, as he told me, in the town, he was most sustaining; but when, a little later on, I stood there in admiration of the noble quarter, I could only feel, even while doing it every justice, that the place was not quite what my imagination had counted on. It was possibly even better, for the famous houses, almost without exception ample and charming, seemed to me to show a grace even beyond my recollection; the only thing was that I had never bargained for
looking at them through a polyglot air. Look at them none the less, and at the fine old liberal scale, and felt symmetry, and simple dignity, and solid sincerity of them, I gratefully did, with due speculation as to their actual chances and changes, as to what they represent to-day as social "values," and with a lively impression, above all, of their preserved and unsophisticated state. That was a social value-which I found myself comparing, for instance, with similar aspects, frequent and excellent, in old English towns.
The Salem houses, the best, were all of the old English family, and, from picture to picture, all the parts would have matched; but the moral, the social, the political climate, even more than the breath of nature, had had in each case a different action, had begotten on either side a different consciousness. Or was it nearer even to say that these things had on one side begotten a consciousness, and had on the other begotten comparatively none? The approximation would have been the more interesting as each arrayed group might pass for a supreme expression of respectability. It would be the tone and weight, the quantity and quality, of the respectability that make the difference; massive and square-shouldered, yet rather battered and mottled, chipped and traved, at last rather sceptical and cynical, in fine, in the English figure--thin and clear, consistently sharp, boldly unspotted, blankly serene, in the American. It was more amusing at any rate to spin such fancies, in reaction from the alien snub, than simply to see one's antitheses reduced to a mere question of the effect of climate. There would be yet more to say for the Salem picture, many of the "bits" of which remain, as Ruskin might have put it, entirely delightful; but their desperate clean freshness was what was more to abide with me after the polyglot air had cleared a little. The spacious, courteous doorways of the houses, expansively columned, fluted, framed; their large honest windows, in ample tiers, only here and there dishonoured by the modern pane; their high bland foreheads, in short, with no musty secrets in the caves--yes, not one, in spite of the "speciality," in this respect, of the Seven Gables, to which I am coming--clarity too much perhaps the expressive mask, the look of experience, depress the balance toward
the type of the expensive toy, shown on its shelf; but too good to be humanly used. It's as if the old witches had been suffered to live again, penally, as public housemaids, using nocturnally, for purposes of almost viciously-thorough purification, the famous broomsticks they used wantonly to ride.
Was it a sacred terror, after this, that stayed me from crossing the threshold of the Witch House?--in spite of the quite definite sturdy stamp of this attraction. I think it was an almost sacred tenderness rather, the instinct of not pressing too hard on my privilege and of not draining the offered cup to the lees. It is always interesting, in America, to see any object, some builded thing in particular, look as old as it possibly can; for the sight of which effort we sometimes hold our breath as if to watch, over the course of the backward years, the straight "track" of the past, the course of some hero of the foot-race on whom we have staked our hopes. How long will he hold out, how far back will he run, and where, heroically blown, will he have to drop? Our suspense is great in proportion to our hope, and if we are nervously constituted we may very well, at the last, turn away for anxiety. It was really in some such manner I was affected, I think, before the Salem Witch House, in presence of the mystery of antiquity. It is a modest wooden structure, consciously primitive, standing, if I remember rightly, in some effective relation to a street-corner and putting no little purpose into its archaism. The pity is, however, that unrelieved wooden houses never very curiously testify--I was presently to learn, to my cost, from the dreadful anti-climax of the Seven Gables. They look brief and provisional at the best--look, above all, incorrigibly and witlessly innocent. The quite sufficiently sturdy little timbered mass by the Salem street, none the less, with a sidelong crook or twist that we may take as symbolizing ancient perversity, runs the backward race as long-windedly as we may anywhere, over the land, see it run. Had I gone in, as a frank placard invited me, I might have better measured the exploit; yet, on the other hand, fearing frank placards, in general, in these cases, fearing nothing so much as reconstituted antiquity, I might have lost a part of my good little impression--which otherwise, as a small pale flower plucked from a
withered tree, I could fold away, intact, between the leaves of my romantic herbarium.
I wanted, moreover, to be honest, not to fail, within the hour, of two other urgent matters, my train away (my sense of Salem was too destined to be train-haunted) and a due visitation of the Seven Gables and of the birth-house of their chronicler. It was in the course of this errand that I was made to feel myself, as I have mentioned, living, rather witlessly, in a world unknown to the active Salemite of to-day--a world embodied, I seemed to make out, in the large untidy industrial quarter that had sprung up since my early visit. Did I quite escape from this impression before alighting at last happily upon the small stale structure that had sheltered the romancer's entrance into life and that now appears, according to the preference of fancy, either a strange recipient of the romantic germ or the very spot to cause it, in protest and desperation, to develop? I took the neighbourhood, at all events, for the small original Hawthornesque world, keeping the other, the smoky modernism, at a distance, keeping everything, in fact, at a distance--on so spare and bare and lean and mean a face did the bright hard sky strike me as looking down. The way to think of it evidently was in some frank rural light of the past, that of all the ancient New England simplicities, with the lap of wide waters and the stillness of rocky pastures never far off (they seem still indeed close at hand), and with any number of our present worryings and pamperings of the "literary temperament" too little in question to be missed. It kept at a distance, in fact, so far as mv perception was concerned, everything but a little boy, a dear little harsh, intelligent, sympathetic American boy, who dropped straight from the hard sky for my benefit (I hadn't seen him emerge from elsewhere) and turned up at my side with absolute confidence and with the most knowing tips. He might have been a Weimar tout or a Stratford amateur--only he so beautifully wasn't. That is what I mean by my having alighted happily; the little boy was so completely master of his subject, and we formed, on the spot, so close an alliance. He made up to me for my crude Italian--the way they become crude over here!--he made up to me a little even for my civil Englishman; he was exactly what I wanted--a presence (and
he was the only thing far or near) old enough, native and intimate enough, to reach back and to understand.
He showed me the window of the room in which Hawthorne had been born; wild horses, as the phrase is, wouldn't have dragged me into it, but he might have done so if he hadn't, as I say, understood. But he understood everything, and knew when to insist and when not to; knew, for instance, exactly why I said "Dear, dear, are you very sure?" after he had brought me to sight of an object at the end of a lane, by a vague waterside, I think, and looking across to Marblehead, that he invited me to take, if I could, for the Seven Gables. I couldn't take it in the least, as happens, and though he was perfectly sure, our reasons, on either side, were equally clear to him--so that in short I think of him as the very genius of the place, feeding his small shrillness on the cold scraps of Hawthorne's leaving and with the making of his acquaintance alone worth the journey. Yet the fact that, the Seven Gables being in question, the shapeless object by the waterside wouldn't do at all, not the least little bit, troubled us only till we had thrown off together, with a quick, competent gesture and at the breaking of light, the poor illusion of a necessity of relation between the accomplished thing, for poetry, for art, and those other quite equivocal things that we inflate our ignorance with seeing it suggested by. The weak, vague domiciliary presence at the end of the lane may have "been" (in our poor parlance) the idea of the admirable book--though even here we take a leap into dense darkness; but the idea that is the inner force of the admirable book so vividly forgets, before our eyes, any such origin or reference, "cutting" it dead as a low acquaintance and outsoaring the shadow of its night, that the connection has turned a somersault into space, repudiated like a ladder kicked back from the top of a wall. Hawthorne's ladder at Salem, in fine, has now quite gone, and we but tread the air if we attempt to set our critical feet on its steps and its rounds, learning thus as we do, and with infinite interest as I think, how merely "subjective" in us are our discoveries about genius. Endless are its ways of besetting and eluding, of meeting and mocking us. When there are appearances that might have nourished it we see it as swallowing them all; yet we see it as equally gorged when there are no
appearances at all--then most of all, sometimes, quite insolently bloated; and we recognize ruefully that we are forever condemned to know it only after the fact.