"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."
That's not the only thing he's up to, of course. He's in Paris to civilize himself and marriage, he figures, is part of the civilizing process, along with learning to eat with a fork.
We first meet Newman in the Louvre, a suitably civilized place, in 1868, where he's trying to educate himself about art. Newman is pretty clearly meant to be the best type of American: though he was forced to go to work at fifteen and forgo any advanced education, he's interested in culture and recognizes the value of higher things. But when he worked, his labors were rewarded:
"Made your everlasting fortune?"
Christopher Newman was silent for a moment, and then, with a tranquil smile, he answered: "Yes."As a consequence Newman can go to Paris and cheerfully gallivant around Europe in search of culture. And he wants to. Because the process of acquiring wealth hasn't coarsened him.
Soon after Newman arrives in Paris, he meets an old acquaintance, Tom Tristram. Tristram is quite the contrast, 'a great gossip and tattler...' [whose] '...only aspirations were to hold out at poker, at his club, to know the names of all the cocottes...' But then he meets Tristam's wife, who is more cultured than her husband, and it's through her the main thread of the plot begins. He tells her:
"Since you ask me," said Newman, "I will say frankly that I want to marry. It is time, to begin with; before I know it, I shall be forty."Lizzie Tristram suggests the most eligible woman in Paris is Madame de Cintré, a widow at twenty-five, a daughter of the aristocratic de Bellegarde family. She arranges the two of them meet, Newman is convinced, and the plot is set in motion.
Over the course of the novel, we learn some backstory about Newman. He's ironic and deprecating about the sources of his wealth: did well with washtubs, not so well in leather, 'successful in copper, only so-so in railroads, and a hopeless fizzle in oil," he tells us. He fought for the Union during the Civil War (Tristram steered clear) and rose to the rank of Brigadier-General. The most telling episode of his wealth-acquisition comes early in the novel when he's talking to Tom Tristram: he had the opportunity to pull off a coup and deprive an avowed enemy of $60,000; in the end he decides vengeance wasn't worth it, and as for the money, it wasn't that much. (Though Tristram says he wouldn't have forgone it.)
Newman's naiveté in the face of European customs is also well-portrayed. In the very first chapter at the Louvre, he meets Mademoiselle de Noémie, and makes the acquaintance of her father, who will go on to give him French lessons. She is in the Louvre, apparently an art student, copying one of the masterpieces; Newman is taken with quality of the painting and buys it on the spot, commissioning her to paint more for his soon-to-be established private collection. Newman thinks it good, and we do, too, as far as we can tell; but it soon appears that de Noémie is not a very good painter, and is, in fact, one of those Parisian cocottes.
Newman goes on to befriend Valentin de Bellegarde, Madame de Cintré's younger brother. He, too, tells Newman his sister is a worthy catch. But the other members of the de Bellegarde family are less certain about this rich, but not aristocratic, American.
So this is our hero: hard-working, curious, willing to learn, honorable, naive. A good American. Does he marry Madame de Cintré? Should he want to? Well, you'll just have to find out...
The American (1877) is early Henry James. If you're one of those people who goes around in terror of late Henry James (Reese raises a hand here...) this is not one of those: it's really quite readable. I felt the ending a little unnecessarily melodramatic, so it doesn't replace Washington Square as my favorite early Henry James, but it's a very good entry. Recommended.
A book off my Classics Club list...
Also the novel is set almost entirely in Paris; James had moved to Paris' Quartier Latin in 1875. I'm using it for my France book for Gilion's European Reading Challenge.