Volume VIII, Number 1, Spring 2012

"The Uses of Architecture as a Metaphor for the Critique of American Culture – Henry James’ The American Scene and Edith Wharton’s Italian Villas and Their Gardens" by Ágnes Zsófia Kovács

Ágnes Zsófia Kovács is a Senior Assistant Professor at the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. She is the author of two books, A Contextual Model of Understanding in Henry James (Mellen 2006) which was awarded the HUSSE Book Award Honorary Mention 2009 and Literature in Context (JatePress 2010). She has published articles on James, Wharton, and contemporary American literature in both Hungarian and international journals and essay collections. She defended her habilitation project on James’ and Wharton’s nonfiction in 2011. Email:


Henry James’ and Edith Wharton’s work have always been deeply invested in problems of seeing and understanding. In their literary essays, they reflect on their authorial positions as similar to that of a painter. In Formalist accounts of the novel form, Jamesian technique is characterized primarily with a conscious play with perspective, the exploitation of the difference between showing and telling (Lubbock 1921, Booth 1961, Cohan 1988), features present in Wharton, too.

Yet, today we tend not to be interested in these formal matters of technique. Instead, after the cultural turn, we Americanists at least, all seem to be primarily interested in issues of race, class, gender, history, politics as the themes where interdisciplinary study tends to locate discursive meeting points. (Hale 665) However, the cultural turn has also brought a revived interest in visual culture. Does the new interest in the visual offer a chance of reintroducing the old problem of seeing and perspective into our discussions of James and Wharton under a new rubric? And if yes: does it offer anything more than a repetition of old tenets?

As an inquiry into the questions above, in this paper I propose to stage the interaction of the visual and the cultural in travel texts by James and Wharton, :The American Scene_ and Italian Villas, respectively. Travel texts inform us about their author’s experience of the other, the foreign just as much as they inform us about their author’s own expectations and preferences. For James and Wharton in particular, architectural descriptions bear the marks of their authorial techniques and are also invested with their concerns about Modern America. My hypothesis is that looking at specific architectural descriptions in James and Wharton, their respective critical attitudes to American modernization can be articulated.

The paper is divided into three parts. The first explains the role of architecture as a trope in James and Wharton. The second part introduces the relevance of different architectural styles James attributes to New York City and Philadelphia in his The American Scene. The third part analyzes the role of the architectural principle for Wharton in her book entitled Italian Villas.

1. Problem: Architecture as Sign

Architecture as a trope has multiple relevance in James’s and Wharton’s fiction and criticism as an analogy to problems connected to creative writing and authorship. James makes frequent uses of architectural analogues in his essays and novels. A commonplace from James’s literary criticism is his reference to the house of fiction. In his Preface to his New York edition of The Portrait of a Lady, James envisions the role of the creative author as someone who is looking at the ‘real’ through different windows of a house. Simply put, the house with its apertures provides the perspectives from which parts of what we think of as the real can be perceived. (James 1984b, 1076) The literary author makes use of these diverse perspectives to provide a complex view of the realm outside the house of the text he is unable to leave. Also, in his essays, “The Art of Fiction” and “Flaubert,” James describes the act of imaginative understanding in terms of one’s access to a house. For James, the problem with Flaubert and realism in general lies in remaining at the surface of things: hovering always in the yard, not even knocking at the door, never even listening at the door of the chamber of the soul, never revealing the contents of its crystal box. (James 1984a, 335) Writing about understanding in general, it is the image of the chamber of the mind that occurs in his “art of fiction” essay where he describes the act of imaginative understanding in spatial terms: events are understood and imagined simultaneously as they are narrativized in consciousness, he writes, all this happening in the chamber of the mind as a process (James 1984c, 52). So, there is a two directional use of architectural tropes in Jamesian literary criticism: interior space as the site of the process of understanding and the literary representation of that as the task of the novelist. The novelist is listening at the chamber of the soul, processing experience in the chamber of his mind, and is looking out of the windows of the house of fiction to fathom diverse faces of the ‘real.’

For Wharton, architecture remained an important metaphor of writing, Amy Kaplan claims. As early as 1897, with the publication of her book: The Decoration of Houses, she is immersed in the problem of architecture versus interior decoration. Wharton claims that interior decoration should be treated as a branch of architecture (1998, 1-2). By doing so, she appropriates the traditional male discourse of architecture and brings it into “the interior space which had consigned women to decorating themselves” (Kaplan 78). The public/private division of outer/inner space is disrupted when she aims at introducing the architectural principles of rhythm and logic into interior decoration, the female private sphere. Similarly, in her early short stories she addresses the collapse of the two spheres and problematizes the position of the professional female author in terms of architectural metaphors: the professional female author is not supposed to be confined to the private space of the interior but is to occupy the public space of the exterior, as well, which practically means the rejection of the role of the lady novelist of leisure and the adoption of typically male authorial roles (like writing art history) for the professional female author.

The discourse of architecture connected to creative writing has different reverberations for James and Wharton. James’s interest in how understanding as such works is turned, in Wharton, into a gendered problematization of where understanding is allowed to work. At this point, the question is whether the concerns with architecture and understanding from inside and outside, architecture and gender roles inside vs. outside, can be used to analyze actual architectural descriptions in travel texts by James and Wharton that would also indicate their different attitudes to architecture as a trope and architecture as cultural production.

2. American Architecture and Questions of the American Past and Present in James

Henry James has written several volumes of travel writing ranging from his early Paterian Italian pieces through his French experiences to his English landscapes. His The American Scene is an account of his travel in the US after an absence of 20 years, in which he relies heavily on the discourse of architecture to articulate his cultural criticism of contemporary US life. In what follows, I am to focus on his descriptions of NYC and Philadelphia as representations of two different architectural styles and also two different American attitudes James diagnoses. Their difference also allows for a survey of Jamesian cultural preferences.

The American Scene is James’s project to make sense of his American past through revisiting current locations of interest. He aims at collecting material for a travel book on American life that will be comparable to Taine on Italy or Tocqueville and H. G. Wells on America. (Anesko 4; Gooder 17, 20) He spends considerable time on the East coast, revisiting NYC and comparing it to the city of his youth, goes to Boston of his birth and to Newport of his early summers to see these spaces all grossly transformed. His round of visits includes sites in the Midwest and he also goes down to Florida, as well, in search of impressions. His chapters 2-5 describe his NYC experience of shock while chapter 9 on Philadelphia is made out to be the impression of stability. Let us have a look at the NYC-Philadelphia relation and also its architecturally oriented rhetoric.

NYC, for James, is primarily the city of hard and glittering surfaces that resist interpretation and baffle the analyst. He illustrates this impression via his description of his sense of buildings. His major example is the Waldorf-Astoria, where there is no division of exterior and interior spaces and functions, no doors of separation, just vast disfunctional and impersonal spaces, the space of the American hotel-world, as James puts it. He despises the NYC skyline jarred by skyscrapers, he loathes the everpresent elevators, in general, he dislikes the vertical expansion of buildings, the uniform facades, the demolition of buildings of the past with different spatial extensions. He likes the Tiffany Building for its connection to past styles, and the Presbyterian Hospital for its vertically oriented layout. The significance of the NYC atmosphere, for James, is translated into the language of buildings. So, in the descriptions of buildings in NYC, architecture becomes a metaphor for American life. The vertically oriented buildings with their open, functionally undifferentiated internal spaces that become exteriorized and public represent the mass produced homogeneity of Modern America where imaginative experience has neither space nor subject. (Follini 31)

The Philadelphia chapter of The American Scene is introduced as an experience of relief compared to that of NYC. James the restless analyst reflects on his need to locate meaning behind things seen. To be analytically minded, he says, means that one has the superstition that places and objects must have a sense of their own. (273) This equals to a hypothesis that “the essence of almost any settled aspect of anything may be extracted by the chemistry of criticism and may give us its right name” (ibid). Yet from the moment this assurance is questioned, the critic begins to go to pieces. The analytically minded critic is not allowed to express this experience as baffling, but may portray it for incoherence. James did this with NYC, yet with Philadephia the experience works the opposite way. Philadelphia communicates to him the perception that character and sense were there, only wanting to be disengaged.

And so it happens, Philadelphia presents itself as a city that, in contrast to the usual American city, does not bristle. To “bristle” in this context indicates the city does not move, there is no process, yet there is a lot of significance. The indication of the lack of change is connected to the lack of the perpendicular aspect, instead there is indefinite level extension, the layout that has remained the same since its inception. Pennsylvania social life does not bristle, either, everyone is everyone’s cousin, social life is settled, confirmed, content, a sum of organic social relations. Also, life has a historic aspect, the past looms through it, (280) aliens are not present, either. All this is represented in James’s experience of his visit to the State House and within it, the Independence Hall in which the Declaration of Independence was signed. The hall reflects seated antiquity, as if the whole town was built around it socially, morally, aesthetically (290), a core. For James, the moral value of Pennsylvania is the legacy of the past. However, in describing the sad house of the Pennsylvania Penitentiary, one perceives the ancient grimness of the breath of generations, too. Eventually, for James, Pennsylvania the town becomes a monument of a social and also grim past (Gooder 29), because American life performs hostility towards this connection to the past and unwillingness to bristle.

In sum, for James NYC buildings represent the vertical and empty, resistant, hard surface of the present difficult to analyze according to any coherent formula, while Philadelphia exhales a definite sense of past decency and coherence that also seems outdated by current American standards. James the analyst expresses his preference for the outdated and his bafflement at the signs of incoherence at the heart of his experience of NYC, the epitome of the American City.

3. Interior Architecture in Wharton

Edith Wharton’s attraction to problems of art history, architecture, and garden design is most explicit in her fiction. In search of the function of architectural descriptions, in this section I have chosen to introduce her nonfiction book, Italian Villas and Their Gardens, as a text where the discourse of architecture takes on the additional relevance of cultural criticism.

In Italian Villas, architecture appears as the larger rule behind Italian garden magic invisible for the everyday American perceiver. A harmony of design is based on the rule that the garden must be studied in relation to the house, and both in relation to the landscape. (Wharton 1976, 6) For Wharton, the garden is in effect a prolongation of the house with its own logical functional divisions. It is related to the landscape in its orientation, and in using the natural building materials and plants of the region. In this way, the relevance of the inside and outside opposition is questioned. Wharton also introduces the historical aspect in explaining the fake inside/outside relation of villas/gardens. She contrasts the architecturally designed Renaissance or Baroque Italian garden to the English garden of the landscapist school. Renaissance and Baroque garden design was aware of the functional connections between interior space and garden space. This way the architectural principle in interior decoration is also utilized. Historically, the English landscape school brought about a different view of the relation of houses and gardens in that it wished to blend the garden with the landscape, instead of linking it with the house functionally. The landscapist is responsible for the alteration of several Italian Renaissance gardens into English parks from the mid-18th century on. In essence, it is responsible for a national forgetfulness about functions of the garden space even in Italy since the 18th century, a forgetfulness that characterizes American garden design, too.

Wharton is on the lookout for the architectural principle in every villa-garden-landscape relation she presents. She mentions the position of the villa on the property, she identifies the separate functional parts of the garden and their relations to the house, respectively. The garden of Villa Arnolbrandini is presented as a mini example of functionality and simplicity in garden design. In her analysis, Wharton manifests her belief in the value of historical knowledge of changes of functions in garden space. It is not only that she criticizes the way the landscapist school blots out former traditions of garden design, making geometric lines seem ugly for visitors. She also wishes to acquaint her readers with subsequent styles of art history from Gothic through Renaissance and Baroque, contrasting these to Classicism and Romanticism. She leads her readers through seven regions of Italy: regions around Florence, Siena, Rome, Rome itself, Geneva, Milan, and Venice, but these can, in fact, be seen as two tours: one a tour of mainly Renaissance architecture (1-4) and one a tour of mainly Baroque architecture (5-7) for the American readers. Her aim is to make them reflect on different possible styles of garden design and argue for the priority of the functionalist one that links interior space to the exterior through the architectural principle.

Italian Villas manifests an interest in the architectural principles of garden design with an eye to the relation of inside and outside, functions, but at the same time also stresses that one acknowledges the historicity of garden constructs and the artificiality or constructedness of artistic manners. All that functions as an instructive guide for American garden designers.


It appears that both for James and Wharton, architectural descriptions stand for something other than themselves. More specifically, in the texts analyzed, architectural descriptions represent a critique of American style and taste. For James this boils down to pointing out how the interior aspect is absent both in American buildings and in Modern American life, similarly to how the past is absent from Modern America. Wharton stresses the importance of functionality in architecture and garden design, and of awareness of historical change of styles – against strict opposition of internal outer space. She wishes to teach this lesson to her fellow Americans. Yet, their criticisms represent two different kinds of criticism of industrialization and materialization in modern America. James is baffled, inquiring, nostalgic: he sees he has lost the battle but goes on trying to scratch the surfaces that resist his kind of interpretation. Wharton remains practical; she presents a piece of scientifically argued criticism of American’s lack of a sense of the past. Her belief in the meaningfulness of the functionality she reveals remains undisturbed as she guides us through the functions in interior and the exterior designed space. Therefore, it seems to me that their concern with the visual is very much entangled with their cultural preoccupations.


Works Cited

  • Anesko, Michael. 2008. “James in America: In Quest of (the) Material.” The Cambridge Quarterly, 37:1, 3-15.
  • Booth, Wayne C. [1961] 1983. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: CUP.
  • Cohan, Steven and Linda M. Shires. 1988. Telling Stories. New York: Routledge.
  • Follini T., Tamara. 2008. ”Habitations of Modernism: Henry James’ New York, 1907.” The Cambridge Quarterly, 37:1, 30-46.
  • Gooder, R. D. 2007. “The American Scene, or a Paradise Lost.” The Cambridge Quarterly, 37:1, 16-29.

  • Hale, Dorothy J. 2006. The Novel: An anthology of criticism and theory. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • James, Henry. 1984a. “Gustave Flaubert.” In Leon Edel and Mark Wilson eds. Henry James. Literary Criticism I. New York: The Library of America, 314-46.
  • ——. 1984b. “Preface to The Portrait of a Lady.” In Leon Edel and Mark Wilson eds. Henry James. Literary Criticism I. New York: The Library of America, 1070-85.
  • ——. 1984c. “The Art of Fiction.” In Leon Edel and Mark Wilson eds. Henry James, Literary Criticism II. New York: The Library of America, 44-65.
  • ——. 1968. The American Scene. London: Rupert Hart-Davis.
  • Kaplan, Amy. 1988. The Social Construction of American Realism. Chicago: Chicago UP.
  • Lubbock, Percy. [1921] 1966. The Craft of Fiction. London: Jonathan Cape.
  • Wharton, Edith. [1904] 1976. Italian Villas and Their Gardens. New York: Da Capo Press.
  • Wharton, Edith and Ogden Codman, Jr. [1894] 1998. The Decoration of Houses. Introduction by John Barrington Bayley and William A. Coles. New York: Norton.