America seen: Henry James's picturesque and the science of culture

Kendall Albert Johnson, University of Pennsylvania


From the Civil War to the first decade of the twentieth-century, Henry James's picturesque reflected a general aesthetics of race that enabled an ideal of American culture. America Seen explores James's use of the picturesque to consider nineteenth-century writers (including Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Catlin and Nathaniel Hawthorne) and scientists (Thomas Jefferson, Louis Agassiz, Daniel Garrison Brinton, Emile Durkheim and Franz Boaz) who blended the seemingly contradictory rhetorics of aesthetic sensibility and scientific objectivity while writing about American culture. The picturesque harmonized not only visual but social difference in visions of a nationalized landscape, courting complexity only to frame it within the unifying configuration of a visual artifact. ^ Recent considerations of race in James's fiction (by Sara Blair, Walter Benn Michaels, Toni Morrison, and Kenneth Warren) have emphasized his representation of African Americans; this dissertation, however, focuses on Native Americans because of their centrality to visual aesthetics, contemporaneous anthropology and the crises regarding American citizenship at the turn of the nineteenth century. The anthropological investigation of Native Americans fueled not only federal legislation that removed tribes from land, but also critically influenced legislative attempts to regulate immigrant “aliens.” ^ James's use of the landscape painting—especially in his 1907 travelogue The American Scene—manipulates figures of romantically picturesque noble savages. His reflections on culture both replicate and at times test the logic behind federal laws that regulated United States citizenship. Each of America Seen's chapters considers a historical context in which the pressures of scientific and literary authority were negotiated through the picturesque. By reading James's fiction in relation to the formulation of the key terms “America,” “race,” and “culture,” one senses the underlying social processes informing his literary practice during a historical period in which the United States consolidated economic authority in the international marketplace. ^

Subject Area

American Studies|Literature, American|Literature, English

Recommended Citation

Johnson, Kendall Albert, "America seen: Henry James's picturesque and the science of culture" (1999). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9926147.