Some color commentary on autumn

Henry James had a theory on everything American, including the weather. The American winter, he decided, is too ''fierce.'' The American summer is too ''irresponsible.'' Only James could create a moral scruple out of a perfect July day. But autumn - autumn, he thought, is the season America always intended to be.

To James, American autumn meant New England. He wrote with downright un-Jamesian excitement about the ''perceptibly golden air'' and the ''strange, conscious hush of the landscape.''

True. In this Eden he also detected the signature of the American work ethic - the ''scenes of old hard New England effort.'' Cornfields testified to reapers , pastures to mowers. Everywhere stood the ''big, dusky'' barns, crammed with harvest. Apples scattered across the floor of orchards, like spillover from the horn of plenty.

But still, autumn, in the Jamesian version, is not a vulgar success story, as American success stories go. Out of his passion for anything mellowed by experience, James embraced old abandoned farmhouses, with sagging roofs and porches all askew, as if they were European castles. He loved the ''vague, lost cart-paths'' beside them, the ruts exposed by the defoliation of autumn.

Autumn seems to show its tracks, like an eventful period in history. It is the most transitional of seasons. Yesterday was summer; tomorrow is winter. Some days autumn thinks it is both. This mobility may have made autumn appear American to James. He certainly felt that autumn slowed the tempo and introduced a gentle moodiness he missed when Americans were too full of springtime cockiness - going for broke.

Autumn, for James, was rather like the third act in one of his plots, when American innocence gets firmly shaken and Lessons Are Learned.

One autumn, James, traveling in a motorcar with unnamed companions and an equally anonymous French poodle, went forth into the New England countryside to analyze American autumn, as only James could analyze.

He asked the natives what ''the condition of their life'' was - ''socially.'' One can imagine them scratching their heads and stonewalling it, Yankee style, in the august presence of this large, correctly dressed gentleman with the piercing eyes, the alien accent, and the odd questions.

As usual, James supplied his own answers anyway. He seized as an unfastidious symbol of Progress the railroad locomotive, chugging through every village, sending smoke into the blue autumn sky to swirl around the town's white church steeple.

But in the end, as the trees stripped themselves of leaves and the rocks looked starker and starker, the wilderness seemed to reclaim America in James's autumn. The rivers lacked nothing primeval but an Indian canoe. Those post-card villages faded like an act of nature into the hills, turning violet and blue in an autumn afternoon.

What are the secrets of these people?mPerhaps James, the most social of novelists since Jane Austen, kept trying to ask the relentless question he brought to every scene. But in a New England autumn, he confessed, ''every ugliness melted and dropped,'' and for once, all those cerebral inquiries were beside the point.

Something in an American autumn, James admitted, kept ''raising it out of the reach of even the most restless analysts.'' The world distilled itself into ''a single strong savor'': the pungency of autumn.

One autumn Sunday morning James, the ex-analyst, simply looked long and breathed deeply and wrote: This is ''what American beauty should be; it fills to the brim its idea and its measure.''

Open your door, dear reader, as writers used to say in James's time. Look and breathe for yourself the savor of autumn '83. Say what you will about the man, when James was right, he was right.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.