American Literature, American Culture

By Gordon Hutner | Go to book overview

important historical place as the forerunner of the minstrel poets, and this consideration outweighs whatever of intrinsic poetical value his poems possess.

Philip Rahv


The Cult of Experience in American Writing

Every attentive reader of Henry James remembers that highly dramatic scene in The Ambassadors--a scene singled out by its author as giving away the "whole case" of his novel-- in which Lambert Strether, the elderly New England gentleman who had come to Paris on a mission of business and duty, proclaims his conversion to the doctrine of experience. Caught in the spell of Paris, the discovery of whose grace and form is marked for him by a kind of meaning and intensity that can be likened only to the raptures of a mystic vision, Strether feels moved to renounce publicly the morality of abstention he had brought with him from Woollett, Massachusetts. And that mellow Sunday afternoon, as he mingles with the charming guests assembled in the garden of the sculptor Gloriani, the spell of the world capital of civilization is so strong upon the sensitive old man that he trembles with happiness and zeal. It is then that he communicates to little Bilham his newly acquired piety toward life and the fruits thereof. The worst mistake one can make, he admonishes his youthful interlocutor, is not to live all one can--"Do what you like so long as you don't make my mistake . . . Live! . . . It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven't had that, what have you had? . . . This place and these impressions . . . have had their abundant message for me, I have just dropped that into my mind. I see it now . . . and more than you'd believe or I can express . . . The right time is now yours. The right time is any time that one is still so lucky as to have . . . Live, Live!"

To an imaginative European, unfamiliar with the prohibitive American past and the long-standing national habit of playing hide-and-seek with experience, Strether's pronouncements in favor of sheer life may well seem so commonplace as scarcely to be worth the loving concentration of a major novelist. While the idea that one should "live" one's life came to James as a revelation, to the contemporary European writers this idea had long been a thoroughly assimilated and natural assumption. Experience served them as the concrete medium for the testing and creation of values, whereas in James's work it stands for something distilled or selected from the total process of living; it stands for romance, reality, civilization--a self-propelling autonomous "presence" inexhaustibly alluring in its own right. That is the "presence" which in the imagination of Hyacinth Robinson, the hero of The Princesr Casamassina, takes on a form at once "vast, vague, and dazzling--an irradiation of light from objects undefined, mixed with the atmosphere of Paris and Venice."

____________________
"The Cult of Experience in American Writing" by Philip Rahv first appeared in Partisan Review, vol. 7, No. 6, 1940.

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