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The Return Of The Native

June 2024
1min read

Henry James: Collected Travel Writings

Library of America, two volumes: “ Great Britain and America ,” 846 pages; “The Continent,” 845 pages

Henry James spent much of his childhood, before the Civil War, shuttling between America and Europe with his father and siblings. He sought to regain that peripatetic feeling in his later life, as he wrote the pieces and books collected here, from the 1870s to just before his death. With his typical meandering grace, James recalls his first childhood impression of London on “a wet black Sunday” in March, when “no doubt I had a mystic prescience of how fond of the murky modern Babylon I was one day to become.” In 1907 he revisited his native America after twenty years as a pseudoEnglishman. The result was The American Scene . Taking a turn past the “impudent” commercial skyline that has grown up in lower Manhattan, James observes the “multitudinous skyscrapers standing up to the view, from the water, like extravagant pins in a cushion already overplanted.” The town seems dirtier, taller, more commercially heated up than he remembered, and he remarks on its tremendous “infusion” of immigrants.

The companion volume gathers James’s travels to the Continent, including a short, unexpected piece he wrote in 1914 about the Volunteer Motor-Ambulance Corps in France. Three months into the war that would end much of his world, James could write, “We Americans are as little neutrals as possible where any aptitude for any action … that affirms life and freshly and inventively exemplifies it, instead of overwhelming and undermining it, is concerned.” He died two years later, leaving behind a lifetime of far-flung observation to complement his novels.

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