Monday, August 16, 2010

Aimless Reading: The J's, Part 2.4 (Henry James)

The American Scene
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
James, Henry
The American Scene

Purchased at Talking Leaves...Books for a course in graduate school with Susan Howe. I remember we discussed a passage in which James declares his belief that the country club is that American invention in which can be seen the truest flowering of democracy. When I suggested aloud that this was an elitist position, Susan reacted as if I had insulted her uncle. I was never sure if she liked me after that.

Today I'll leave you with a few final images of the house in Vienna before we move on tomorrow. In addition to those parts of the house previously presented, there were also: a crawlspace attic, a garage, a back yard and front yard, a backyard patio and screened-in porch, and a creek.

The attic had one of those small, square, pop-up entries. Once up there, you could stand up straight, but you could only step on crossbeams, as no floor boards had been laid. My parents used it mainly as a place to hide Christmas presents.

We never used the garage for cars. It only held one. We used it to store bikes, a lawnmower, gardening tools, garbage cans, etc.

The front yard sloped down from the house toward the street. We had several oak trees, a dogwood, and a few hedges in beds in front of the house. I hated mowing the front yard because of the slope, because of all the trees I had to mow around, and because of the several stumps of trees my parents had cut down, which inevitably caught in the mower blades when I passed the mower over them, making a horrible cutting sound that sometimes cut off the motor completely.

Our back yard seemed huge because no fence separated it from our neighbors. The two combined created a long, flat open field, perfect for back yard football, soccer, etc. Our yard had two parellel oaks about twenty feet apart which often served as convenient end-zone markers. Behind the twin oaks, there was also a sort of small wooded area where we kept the hated wood-pile for winter stove burning. Later, my parents put in a pool and fenced off the yard.

Sliding doors in the family room opened onto a small concrete patio. Sliding doors in the dining room opened onto a wooden porch about eight feet off the ground. Later, this was replaced by a screened-in porch. We ate dinner out there often in summer.

Our back yard was separated from the large farm behind us by a small creek that fed into a drainage pipe. When we first moved there, I recall playing in the creekbed with my friend, K. K's father was the CIA guy who built out our basment. Before moving to Vienna, K. too had lived in California. We used to make up fake histories of our friendship that began with our having known each other out west. A few times it rained so hard that the creek looked like a roaring muddy river.

from The American Scene

The Country Club, for instance, as I have already had occasion to note, is everywhere a clear American felicity; a complete product of the social soil and air which alone have made it possible, and wearing whenever met that assured face of the full-blown flower and the proved proposition. These institutions speak so of American life as a success that they affected me at moments as crying aloud to be commemorated--since it is on American life only that they are founded, and since they render it, to my mind, the good office of making it keep all its graces and of having caused it to shed, by the same stroke, the elements that are contrary to these. Nothing is more suggestive than to recognize, each time, on the premises, the thing that "wouldn't do in Europe"--for a judgment of the reasons of its doing so well in the one hemisphere and so ill in the other promptly becomes illuminating. The illumination is one at which, had I space, I should have liked to light here a candle or two--partaking indeed by that character of a like baffled virtue in many another group of social phenomena. The Country Club testifies, in short, and gives its evidence, from the box, with the inimitable, invaluable accent of American authority. It becomes, for the restless analyst, one of the great garden-lamps in which the flame of Democracy burns whitest and steadiest and most floods the subject; taking its place thus on the positive side of a line which has its other side overscored with negatives. I may seem too much to brood upon it, but the interest of the American scene being, beyond any other, the show, on so immense a scale, of what Democracy, pushing and breaking the ice like an Arctic explorer, is making of things, any scrap that contributes to it wears a part of its dignity. To have been beforehand with the experiments, with several rather risky ones at least, and to have got on with these so beautifully while other rueful nations prowl, in the dusk, inquisitive but apprehensive, round the red windows of the laboratory, peeping, for the last news, between each other's shoulders--all this is, for the democratic force, to have stolen a march over no little of the ground, and to have gained time on such a scale as perhaps to make the belated of the earth, the critical group at the windows, still live to think of themselves as having too much wasted it.

There had been one--I mean a blest Country Club--in the neighbourhood of Boston (where indeed I believe (324) there were a dozen, at least as exemplary, out of my range); there had been another, quite marvellous, on the Hudson--one of a numerous array, probably, within an hour's run of New York; there had been a supreme specimen, supreme for a documentary worth, even at Charleston (I reserve to myself to explain in due course, and ah, in such an exquisite sense, my "even"). This had made for me, if you will, a short list, but it had made a long admonition, to which the embowered institution near Baltimore was to add a wonderful emphasis. An admonition of what? it will meanwhile be asked: to which the answer may perhaps, for the moment, not be more precipitate than by one's saying that with any feeling for American life you soon enough see. You see its most complete attestation of its believing in itself unlimitedly, and also of its being right about itself at more points than it is wrong. You see it apply its general theory of its nature and strength--much of this doubtless quite an unconscious one--with a completeness and a consistency that will strike you also (or that ought to) as constituting an unconscious heroism. You will see it accept in detail, with a sublime serenity, certain large social consequences--the consequences of the straight application, in the most delicate conditions, of the prime democratic idea. As this idea is that of an universal eligibility, so you see it, under the application, beautifully resist the strain. So you see, in a word, everything staked on the conception of the young Family as a clear social unit--which, when all is said and done, remains, roundabout you, the ubiquitous fact. The conception of the Family is, goodness knows, "European" enough; but the difference resides in its working on one side of the world in the vertical and on the other in the horizontal sense. If its identity in "Europe," that is, resides more especially in its perpendicular, its backward and forward extension, its ascent and descent of the long ladder of time, so it develops in the United States mainly by its lateral spread, as one may say; expressing itself thus rather by number than by name, and yet taking itself for granted, when one comes to compare, with an intensity to which mere virtue of name elsewhere scarce helps it. American manners, as they stand, register therefore the apotheosis of the Family--a truth for which they have by no means received due credit; and it is in the light of Country Clubs that all this becomes vivid. These organizations accept the Family as the social unit--accept its extension, its whole extension, through social space, and accept it as many times over as the question comes up: which is what one means by their sublime and successful consistency. No, if I may still insist, nothing anywhere accepts anything as the American Country Club accepts these whole extensions.

That is why I speak of it as accepting the universal eligibility. With no palpable result does the democratic idea, in the States, more bristle than with the view that the younger are "as good" as the elder; family life is in fact, as from child to parent, from sister to brother, from wife to husband, from employed to employer, the eminent field of the democratic demonstration. This then is the unit that, with its latent multiplications, the Country Club takes over--and it is easy to see how such units must multiply. This is the material to which it addresses, with such effect, the secret of its power. I may of course be asked what I mean by an eligibility that is "universal"; but it seems needless to remark that even the most inclusive social scheme must in a large community always stop somewhere.

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