Wednesday, August 30, 2006

James on returning to NYC

There's a great mention in today's Writer's Almanac of Henry James' famous return visit to the U.S., which began on this day 102 years ago: "James chose to spend his last few weeks in the United States in New York City, and he planned to use that time to gather memories for a possible memoir. But he found that the city was so different from the one he remembered that he almost didn't recognize it. When he went to find the house where he'd grown up, it was gone, having been demolished by the expanding New York University. He remembered a church being built near his house when he was a kid, but that church was gone too. New buildings were being constructed all over the city, and it seemed to James that all the new buildings were uglier than the old buildings. ¶ Those last few weeks soured his whole experience. He began to think of America as a place where all the glorious traditions of the past were being destroyed in favor of the new." Funny how this is such a common sentiment, shared by so many people today. And yet it may be that some harken back to the very period that James found revolting as a grand era worth preserving. I always wonder how much of this nostalgia is the mythologizing of the past and how much could be argued on more empirical grounds. And yet isn't it usually a value judgment, and thereby hard to measure?

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