“Train-haunted” Trains of Thoughts on the American Scene

Michel IMBERT

Résumé : Cet article a trait aux observations faites par Henry James à bord d’un wagon Pullman dans The American Scene qu’il dépeint comme une juxtaposition de segments compartimentés, seulement unifiés par la continuité de sa propre conscience à l’œuvre. Toutefois, lorsque ce paysage mental se métamorphose en une gigantesque salle des machines, il laisse peut-être transparaître une autre image de la subjectivité où des mécanismes mentaux impersonnels jouent un rôle prépondérant.

Abstract: This article deals with the observations on The American Scene made by Henry James from a Pullman train. It is described as a juxtaposition of odd sections or segments that are solely unified by the continuity of James’s rambling consciousness. But when the mindscape before his eyes is changed into a huge hall of machines, it evinces another view of subjectivity. The prospect comes to look like the objectification of impersonal mental mechanisms at work.



1Enjoying the sight of the Hudson river from the car-window of a train, Henry James is dimly aware of being “in a false position” somehow (106). The railroad runs parallel to the river bank, thus affording an incomparable prospect on the surrounding scenery; this is “the American railway-journey at its best” (106). For the sightseer he is, the landscape before his eyes seems to match ideally the reverie and speculations it gives rise to, as if it mirrored back his own mind writ large. But while he can see with delight the river shine “as a great romantic stream,” he is also conscious of the heavy material toll taken to obtain such a magnificent vista, “the cost of the obtrusion of track and stations to the Riverside view” (106). The tracks in themselves are an eyesore that spoil the glamorous panorama and the train, unlike “American river-steamers” that convey “their peculiar note of romance,” is devoid of any similar associations (106). And yet, it is only by using this modern means of transportation that he can enjoy the benefits of the outlook and of the speculations it generates. In his own words, “one must choose between dispensing with the ugly presence and enjoying the scenery by the aid of the same” (106). James admits being entangled in a dilemma, lured by the beauty of the scene he can contemplate, even as he contributes to defile it as a public transport user. Yet, it can be argued that he is not fully aware of the encroachment of what he would later discern as the detestable modern technology not only on the natural setting but on his own reflecting mind; true, he is conscious of being inside the train; but it might be suggested that he has not fully realized yet that the mind engrossed in the contemplation of the landscape out there involves complex mechanisms like those of a train engine that was considered as state-of-the art technology. The aim of this article is to suggest that more than a means of transportation, the train could be seen as the objective counterpart of the workings of consciousness throughout The American Scene. But at this stage of his journey, the writer who takes a seat at the car-window may not be fully aware yet that the train is also inside his own brain and he still asserts the right to the artistic expression of a subjectivity of his own in the age of machines.

The Other Scene Within

2When he returned to the U.S. after a twenty-year absence, James was highly critical of so-called technological progress that was already the hallmark of the American Way of Life (even before the phrase was coined or commonly used). He was not particularly impressed by the skyscrapers which he regarded as “monsters of the mere market” (57); nor did he appreciate the modern taste of New Yorkers for “the Elevated and […] the Elevator” (13). If the common assumption was that “railway travel within the confines of the Republic” had revolutionized transportation, making it “a matter of majestic simplicity and facility,” by contrast, James sought to present in his travelogue “another and perhaps a too highly subjective view,” an alternative journey not so much inland or across the continent as within his own subjectivity (287). The spotlight in The American Scene is on his personal response to the surrounding scenery, the trains of thoughts it sets in motion while he is travelling by train. As a consequence, the journey takes on a definitely introspective turn.

3Even riding the Elevated in New York is felt by James as an uncanny experience. “I electrically travelled through a strange, a sinister, over-roofed clangorous darkness” (139). He has the sense of being trapped inside an “uncannily-animated sepulchre […] moving the length of an interminable cage” whose destination was a ghost-like kind of afterlife or death-in-life (139). To “the returning absentee” (39), this looks ominously like some final journey in the dark, heading for some spectral land of spirits. In those cars that are densely packed with newly arrived immigrants, the expatriate writer has the feeling of being faced with the spectacle of “alienism unmistakable, alienism undisguised” (89). Punning on words, James seems to conflate the masses of “aliens” before his eyes with a state of mental alienation he may have felt within. As if he admitted that “when the electric cars offer you nothing to think of” (89), his own lofty mind is suddenly compelled to recognize its own gaping void or its unacknowledged ties with those outsiders who, in his eyes, seem to be deprived of a personality of their own.

4Understandably enough, there is little room left for the expansion of consciousness in such cramped places as “the densely packed East Side street-cars” (90). How could your subjectivity thrive when you feel not only confined but enclosed in a coffin, as it were, within the “packed trajectiles” (62) or “trolley-cars stuffed to suffocation” (63)? But, conversely, thoroughly open public spaces like the halls of railway stations give James the impression of being overexposed to the full glare of “publicity” (310), with no right to privacy, and consequently, no hidden recess congenial to the development of a subjective life of one’s own. Repeatedly, he deplores the “absence of margin” (72) which, according to him, is the chief characteristic of places “as open as a hotel or a railway-station to any coming and going.” (104)

5In this respect, James senses that the Pullman cars are but displaced and condensed kinds of “rushing hotels” (293) just as, conversely, the hotels are “like stationary Pullmans” (293), so that, all in all, both showcase the same pervasive “hotel-spirit” (72) he could observe in New York and Florida (316) and which, in his eyes, is characterized by the tacit subjection of one’s private life to common standards and to public surveillance, with one’s unwitting or willing consent, as was shown by Mark Seltzer (111). Pullman cars and, more largely, hotels, thus become a synecdoche for the blurring of the boundary line between the private and the public spheres which, according to James, is the chief characteristic of American society.

I remember how often, in moving about, the observation that most remained with me was this note of the hotel, and of the hotel-like chain of Pullman cars, as the supreme social expression. For the Pullmans too, in their way, were eloquent; they affected me ever, by the end of twenty-four hours, as carrying if not Caesar and his fortune, at least all the facts of American life. (292)

6But, as he takes his seat on board the train, he sets out to move centre-stage and to put to the fore his inner response to the external spectacle. Comparing the Pullman to a “great moving proscenium,” that is to say, to a stage embedded within the wider American Scene, he claims a central place for “the stall” in which he is sitting (312). Seen from the car-window, the inconspicuous landscape in Florida and “the untoward drama […] at the back of the stage” (312) are anything but remarkable, yet, blank and bleak as they are, their virtue is to set in bold relief his own subjective reactions: “there was nothing of it, nothing to speak of, to remember, nothing that succeeded in getting over the footlights, as the phrase goes, of the great moving proscenium of the Pullman” (312). What comes to be foregrounded by contrast is the other scene, the scene of the observer’s mind, that of a passive spectator about to turn into a creative writer who, as the author of The American Scene, attempts to orchestrate the performance like a conductor. The recording of felt impressions, their transcription and their transformation into an idiosyncratic testimony to artistic representation is the underlying scheme of this piece of travel-writing. Even if the snow-covered scenery from the car-window is as nondescript as a blank page, it has the merit of setting in motion original trains of thoughts and to give rise gradually to imaginative similes. For instance, revealingly enough, the monotonous whiteness is compared to the sweeping success of a dime novel across the States, likened to the spread of “a blazing prairie fire” (219). James’s highly stylized travelogue is pitted against such specimens of debased romance. Personally, he refrains from “reading heaven knows what instalment of romance into a mere railroad matter” (309). Sharon Cameron aptly remarks that “James empties the landscape, marginalizes the people, so that consciousness, a pure subject, becomes empowered” (6-7) and Sheila Teahan points out that “the blank American space affords scope for James’s own speculative inscription.” (54)

Voicing Double-Consciousness like a Ventriloquist

7On the way, Henry James, who was often called “the Master” (a double-edged term of praise), claims the privilege of subjecting to his penetrating scrutiny the unassuming black porters, the undistinguished drummers and the unexceptional young ladies who shock him by their obtrusive lack of reserve. In his own words, he has “the impression of the spectator enjoying from his supreme seat of ease, his extraordinary, his awful modern privilege of this detached yet concentrated stare at the misery of subject populations” (286). Class-conscious, and yet self-critical, he is sensitive to the material conditions required for the play of subjectivity and admits to himself that “it was a monstrous thing, doubtless, to sit there in a cushioned and kitchened Pullman and to deny to so many groups of one’s fellow-creatures any claim to a ‘personality’; but this was in truth what one was perpetually doing” (286). By dint of successive snapshots, he proceeds to evoke and compartmentalize those telling if unremarkable “human documents” (219): the casual black porter who carelessly dumps into the dust the luggage he has kept on his knee (305), “a group of tatterdemalion darkies”( 269) who, by merely looming into view, suddenly heighten suppressed racial anxieties on his part. “The formidable question […] rose like some beast that had sprung from the jungle” (269). The comparison is all the more striking as “The Beast in the Jungle” had been written before his American journey. True, the metaphor is applied here to the haunting “question” of race but it seems to betray the fact that James cannot help associating the actual physical presence of African Americans at this juncture with the return of some dreaded beastliness left intentionally unspecified within the context of the short story. At the very time of the Plessy vs Ferguson ruling which highlighted it, James appears to overlook the evidence of racial discrimination on board trains and, more largely, in every area of public life, and to register instead the concerns of Southern whites whose supremacy was challenged by the lurking presence of African Americans claiming their rights. Even as he incidentally pays tribute to Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk (300), James unabashedly confesses he has realized that “the negro had always been and could absolutely not fail not to be ‘on the nerves’ of the South” (270). The phrase, according to Ross Posnock, implies “injecting the Negro inside” (Posnock 238). This amounts to a sort of “double-consciousness” in reverse, whereby the minds of White Southerners are necessarily haunted by the internalized spectre of their African American fellow-citizens.

8Other sections of the travelogue are also devoted to “the obvious ‘bagman’,” “the lusty ‘drummer’ of the Southern trains and inns” (305-306). Those professional commercial travellers come to be seen as the epitome of the gross materialism of the age. Implicitly for James, they stand for trade and business, as opposed to a more refined literary or spiritual kind of commerce. They serve as a foil to the writer but also call for a process of aesthetic spiritualization on his part. As for the not so well-educated young ladies who take possession of the car as if they were at home and ventilate unreservedly “their puerile privacies” (309), they are equally looked down upon by the frowning Master. They exemplify “the comedy and the tragedy of manners” (314) in the U.S., an awkward stage in an incomplete artistic education. Jessica Berman points out that “James bemoans the fact that the American male has abdicated his social role in favour of purely commercial pursuits and has therefore given over to women the care and nurturing of American manners and language” (Berman 56) and, having been entrusted with this formidable task, owing to the resignation of men’s responsibilities, the young ladies hardly rise to the occasion, Henry James slyly insinuates. James blames them and the drummers with whom they seem “fairly to share the field” for their disproportionate “occupancy of the scene” (310). By exhibiting themselves, they threaten “to block out of view almost every other object” (305). Once more, turning the tables, and ascribing to them “a secret desire to surrender their crudely overpowering position” (Buelens 38), James chooses to put those “vociferous young women” (309) in their place by usurping their part like a ventriloquist, thus lending them a voice and making them lament over “their cruel exposure, that treachery of fate which has kept them so out of their place” (310), assumedly by their own admission: “Ah, once place me and you’ll see––I shall be different, I shall be better.” (310) Within the framework of an autobiography that resolutely sounds like a solo performance, the writer comes to assume all parts like a one-man-band and, more largely, he ascribes a place to his fellow-travellers in the social scene he surveys which, eventually, comes to revolve around his highly vocal point of view. The impression he gives is that of occupying virtually the whole stage. Revealingly enough, he praises the Pennsylvania Railroad which seems particularly prepossessing to him because he could almost “have fancied the train disvulgarized of passengers, steaming away, in disinterested empty form, to some terminus too noble to be marked in our poor schedules” (198). The resulting sense of elevation is compared to soaring “up in a balloon” (198).

Automatic Autobiographical Writing

9The travelogue could be read as a sequence of more or less disconnected vignettes affording glimpses into the American Scene that they encapsulate in miniature. But the discontinuous social survey also enables James to embark on an inward journey parallel to his official goal. No matter how uninteresting the American Scene might look, “the thing absolutely was to provide one’s own play” (314). Travelling by train becomes a pretext for retracing trains of thoughts, keeping track of loose connections by associations of ideas, the remembrance of things past, rambling reveries. From the outset, the writer records his very first impressions on returning to his home country, “conscious that the impressions of the very first hours” were “instant vibrations” that set in motion “a train of association that receded for its beginning, to the dimness of extreme youth” (1). The very first intense impressions imply “instant vibrations” that involve a series of variations ranging from the past to the present. Instantaneous impressions felt on the spur of the moment enfold from the start a string of implicit cogitations to come like so many collapsible bellows: “My impressions were to lay a train for those reflections” (235). And the effect of vivid impressions is to reconstitute with a touch, “a link in laying down again every inch of the train of association” (157). Incidentally, “taking in” (53) the overwhelming sensations is compared to the storming of a streetcar by a crowd of people: “and there was nothing at play in the outer air, at least of the scene, during those glimpses that didn’t scramble for admission into mine very much as I had seen the mob seeking entrance to an up-town or down-tight electric car fight for life at one of the apertures” (58). In other words, a multitude of perceptions are jamming into literal trains of thoughts. Sara Blair remarks that “against the ‘chain of Pullman cars’ mastering America, [James] counterposes a linked series of his own memories” (Blair 199), as if a literal means of transportation happened to cross a figurative train of thoughts and were transferred onto a corresponding set of cognitive connections. And the “trains” or “chains of thoughts,” to use William James’s image in Principles of Psychology, are all the more valuable as they point to some underlying “stream of consciousness.”

Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as ‘chain’ or ‘train’ do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A ‘river’ or ‘a stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.” (W. James, 2001 26)

10Although Henry James’s intricate style in The American Scene remains perfectly syntactical, unlike the disconnected snatches of incoherent thoughts captured through “the stream of consciousness” technique (a concept that gained currency in the early twenties, well after Henry James’s death and more specifically after the publication of Ulysses and that should not be confused with the recourse to free indirect speech already exemplified by some of James’s works, as Dorrit Cohn’s Transparent Minds and Ann Banfield’s Unspeakable Sentences have amply shown), William James’s original psychological notion of “the stream of consciousness” (before it was coupled with a narrative technique), as well as the distinction he made in 1890 between trains and stream, that was later on borrowed and deflected by literary critics, is highly relevant here and merits comment. This is especially so given the fact that the overarching concern of Jamesian critics with “the stream of consciousness technique,” absent of course from The American Scene, has tended to overshadow the far more philosophically recondite question of the intertextual interplay and reciprocal influence of the works of the two brothers, whose expressions sound so close that they may give one the impression of an unconscious, almost mechanically telepathic merging of minds on this point. William James’s watershed opposition between “chain” and “train” on the one hand in contradistinction to “stream” on the other hand is equally taken up and posited by his younger brother, Henry James, no matter how shaky, slippery and loosely metaphorical those concepts might be from a logical standpoint (but words are bound to be vague and to waver indefinitely, Charles Saunders Peirce might object, so that ultimately the so-called “stream” might seep even into a textual logic that is never watertight). The rhapsodic juxtaposition of various sections of the travel by train conveys fragmentary views of places (Richmond, Charleston and Florida) and a wide range of social types randomly described one after the other, but it is unified by the writer’s supposedly continuous “flow” of thoughts and words or, at least, what is assumed to be a flow rather than a heterogeneous, potentially disjunctive network (of railway lines, telephone or telegraph wires?) in other contemporary writings by William James (2000 61). The assumption is that “the loose human cohesion, the scant consistency of parts and pieces, to which the array by the railway platform testified” (285) is offset by this continuum. Just as his brother William James had pitted the discrete trains of thoughts against the uninterrupted undercurrent of the stream of consciousness, so odd, random impressions are supposed to unleash a flow of memories or ideas. Henry James refers to a “rising tide” that “floated [him] back into remembered depths of youth” (314-315). As he recollects the impressions associated with the various places of his journey, the narrator is flooded by the surge of memories: “these and other matters, wholly thrilling at the time, float back to me as on the current of talk and as the flood, so to speak, of hospitality” (211). The recurrent water-imagery fraught with positive connotations seems to point to the fond dream of finding some connection and dissolving whatever is sectional, fragmentary or discontinuous back into a more fluid state. At one point, James refers to a “contemplative person, floating serenely in his medium” (40); “he felt himself up to his neck in a delightful, soothing, tepid medium, the social tone of the South that had been. It was but a matter of a step over––he was afloat on other waters, and had remounted the stream of Time” (276); “the easy wave that I have mentioned continued to float me” (4). Revealingly enough, the water-imagery is so pervasive that it comes to permeate the scenery he observes; travelling southward from Boston by train, he remarks that he tends to “fall back on old props of association, some revival of the process of seeing the land grow mild and vague and interchangeably familiar with the sea.” (26)

11In this connection, it is worth noting that the view from the train is especially enjoyable to him whenever it opens out onto some vast watery expanse to the point of having the impression of being almost immersed in it. For instance, on his way from Washington to Boston, he embarks on one of the huge “train-bearing barges,” descends the western waters, passes round the bottom of the city and remounts the other current to Harlem, “all without ‘losing touch’ of the Pullman that had brought [him] from Washington” (52). The aesthetic pleasure derived from the contemplation of the New York bay from that standpoint offshore has something to do with “the whole process, involved in the prompt floating of the huge concatenated cars” (52). At this juncture, the train made up of “concatenated cars” is made to float and virtually to merge with the surrounding stream, just as, ideally, trains of thoughts or chains of associations are to dissolve into a more fluid “stream of consciousness.”

12But at the same time, what meets his eye then is not merely an objective reflection of his own mellowing or melting state of mind, but the spectacle of overwhelming “power” conveyed by “the motion and expression of every floating, hurrying, panting thing.” (54) Everything seems to palpitate in unison, whether it be “the throb of ferries and tugs” or “the plash of waves and the play of winds” and the universal flux, or rather, the electric current thus produced gives the onlooker the impression of witnessing a vast choreography of sublime forces, “a great intricate frenzied dance […] performed on the huge watery floor” (54). At that point, the landscape is transfigured into a vision of “an enormous system of steam-shuttles or electric bobbins” (54). The bay is transmogrified into a vast “machine-room” and even the bridges come to be seen “as the horizontal sheaths of pistons working at high pressure” (54). Commenting on this passage, Lisi Schoenbach concludes that James shrinks from “inhuman, industrial forms” (121), but it might be argued that this almost pre-modernist picture of the city foreshadows Henry Adams’ evocation of the Dynamo as a telling sign of the times in The Education of Henry Adams (published in 1918 but the work circulated in private circles as early as 1907). The view of the city from the bay thus highlights the dynamic forces at play within this field. The stage machinery underlying the American Scene has become a literal machine. The natural scenery is metamorphosed into a larger than life factory and we may wonder whether the emphasis put on machines at work in the midst of the watery expanse is not a way of objectifying and materializing the workings of the observer’s mind, its impersonal automatisms and mechanisms, rather than merely reverberating a relatively mild and tame image of the writer’s fluid state of mind.

13Maybe, what transpires here through such imagery is the intimation that, for all his claim to a self-assertive subjectivity, the “restless analyst” he is admits implicitly that his “trains of associations” are mere connections in a vast network of circulating energies. They point to a less romantic vision of the psyche as a nervous system based on the influx of vibrations or shocks and pervaded by a current of another kind, an electric current of variable “intensities” (213). Laura Marcus points out that in the medical literature on the manifestations of railway-related fear and nervous disorder “the vibrations to which travellers were subjected caused, it was believed, nervous, muscular and mental exhaustion” (Marcus 42). And Marie-Odile Salati underlines the fact that James uses an odd phrase to refer to his taking the streetcar in New York: “I electrically travelled” (139), as if he too, like the streetcar, were propelled by the same electric impulses (Salati 110). In a sense, “the vibration of the view” (197) does not testify to the superior gift on the part of a highly subjective aesthete of perceiving subtle variations, shades of differences even in a dull, blank scene, but rather to the innumerable little nervous shocks associated with travelling by train. The recording of impressions by “the restless analyst” (39, 59, 125, 216, 235, 286) could be put down to the unwitting transmission of those nervous shocks at “which the sensitive nerve of association forever winces” (265). The imprint on one’s nervous system is underscored and, tellingly enough, the phrase “on the nerves” recurs several times (270, 314): “the ‘beaches’ in especial were to acquire a trick of getting on one’s nerves!” (314). Another portrait of the artist thus emerges from the picture of the American Scene; far from conveying the image of a belated romantic genius faced with an increasingly de-spiritualized country, the autobiography records like a seismograph the reactions of a writer who is complicit with the age of machinery since he almost admits through the very words he uses that his own productive brain works like a train and is electrically driven by impressions or, in other words, by nervous impulses, not unlike a streetcar. Did he sense dimly when he “electrically travelled” inside “a cage” that, like the telegraphist of “In the Cage,” his own nervous circuit was wired to that of his brother and that unwitting transmissions of thoughts (notably on trains of associations and the stream of consciousness) took place as if his brother exerted a major intellectual influence on him by some kind of telepathy or mental telegraph despite Henry James’s own claim to a distinctive personality and a style of his own? And, in the same connection, did he realize that, while gazing at the scenery through “the plate-glass” (335) of the car-window, he recorded his impressions as through a lens “on the sensitive plates of his brain” (Giles 115)? Did not the writer’s mind involve then a network of interconnected machines, a telegraph coupled with a camera and a gramophone? And what was the train that generated impressions and, by and by, printed pages, once transcribed into a travelogue, but another word for a typewriter so to speak?

14To conclude, there is a tension therefore throughout The American Scene between two antithetical visions of the process of writing. On the one hand, it is a highly subjective artistic expression pitted against a backdrop of prevailing blankness, whether it be the bleakness of the surrounding scenery or the comparative dullness of his fellow-passengers. But, on the other hand, the would-be Master’s interest in trains has more or less unconsciously something to do with the intuition that his own trains of thoughts, no matter how stylistically elaborate perception can be, involve an impersonal mechanical process as well.


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Michel IMBERT, «“Train-haunted” Trains of Thoughts on the American Scene», Viatica [En ligne], n°HS3, mis à jour le : 24/01/2020, URL : http://revues-msh.uca.fr/viatica/index.php?id=1222.

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LARCA (UMR 8225), Université de Paris