Monday, February 3, 2020

Henry James' The American

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."
Hunh. You caught me. That's actually Jane Austen and not Henry James at all. But one of the people in that universe of truth-acknowledgers is Christopher Newman, the titular American of Henry James' novel. He's got a fortune and he wants 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


  1. dynamite post! yes, it's true, i read in terror of HJ... but your excellent precis gives me hope! tx a lot!

    1. Thanks!

      I know not I'm by no means the only one who's in fear of late James. It's weird how different his late & early phases are.

  2. I love Henry James in all his phases. (Though The Golden Bowl was definitely a much more difficult read than his earlier books.)

    1. I will admit to preferring the earlier Henry James; the later ones I've read (I haven't read The Golden Bowl) it was more a question of being impressed than actually enjoying them. I guess I get what he's doing with that eternal ambiguity, but I couldn't help but think The Ambassadors would have been better if had been written just a little more straightforwardly... ;)

    2. He does love his long prosy sentences, doesn't he? :D

  3. Nice to see a male character in place of the usual female naif. I wonder if that will change the ending and make it less tragic. I will have to read it myself and see!

    1. I hadn't thought about that, but it's true: It's usually a female naif in these sorts of circumstances.

      It's a good 'un! I do recommend it.

  4. Okay, I plan to careful wade into James' works, probably next year. I'm glad to hear that this one is accessible, because I find him rather daunting. He sounds like an author that perhaps is best read in chronological order …???

    It's nice to hit some challenges, isn't it?

    1. I don't know that perfect chronological order is necessary, especially as I see he disavowed his very first novel. Though his second, the first he later acknowledged, is Roderick Hudson and that's a strong one, I thought.

      It's just that in the early ones are very strong Victorian-style novels. Less humor than Dickens, but strong plots & great insight into character. The later ones are well on their way to a certain sort of modernism that leaves everything much more up in the air. I'd say the inflection point is probably around The Turn of the Screw. Anything from there on, you're in for a more difficult read.

      Years ago I had a roommate who loved late Henry James, preferred him to earlier. But this roommate read Chinese philosophy, was a ranked chess player, and went on to write a monograph on Milton's Lycidas. So, you know...

  5. Early James is so readable. Middle James, too. People who only know the late prose are always shocked.

    Reading James in chronological order - let's say semi-chronological, no need to be neurotic - and no need to read everything - is great fun because he really does work on specific problems, or characters, or situations, and you can see his thinking from book to book. If that sort of thing sounds interesting, at least.

    1. Actually it would be interesting to read James more or less in order. He's such a considering novelist & interested in the process of his own development, thinking about it in the context of other novelists.

      But my reading has been totally out of order: I started with The Bostonians, which gets called middle usually, back in the 80s when the movie came out. I read the early ones last. And that may have contributed to my simple delight in them.