The American / Henry James

Henry James has always struck me as a writer’s writer. There is no denying he is a gifted author; even so, when reading his novels in college, despite being told otherwise, I found his novels ponderous and dry. Now in my sixties, I decided to revisit him to see if my initial impression had changed.

The novel I chose was The American, originally published as a serial in the Atlantic Monthly in 1876-1877. It is an account of a rich American businessman who comes to Paris on a European tour. Christopher Newman is someone who, although born into poverty, has succeeded in making a fortune by dint of sheer hard work. Nearing middle age, he has come to Europe to explore the Old World and perhaps find a wife as well. Newman is intelligent and good-natured, even if not culturally astute.

The core of the novel concerns his determined courtship of a young widow from an aristocratic family, the Bellegardes. James does a wonderful job of contrasting Newman’s “can do” attitude with the Bellegardes’ stiff, fossilized adherence to ancient traditions. The woman who captures his heart, Claire de Cintré, while beautiful, is a timid soul who is dominated by her mother and older brother. Thankfully, a younger brother, Valentin, befriends Newman and agrees to assist him in winning his sister’s hand.

From the first, it is clear that to win Claire, Newman must first win over her mother, the forbidding and haughty Madame de Bellegarde. While she finds him gauche and not worthy of her daughter, he does possess one thing that interests her, wealth. This leads her into allowing him to propose marriage, and his proposal is accepted. End of story? Not quite; it is merely the first half of the tale. In the second, a contest of wills develops to see if Madame de Bellegarde will actually allow the marriage to take place. While Newman is determined to succeed, he does not fully understand the disdain the mother feels toward him and to the new ways he represents.

While it is no way “action packed,” I found the story highly engaging. It is not in the least a dry academic read. To my surprise, there was even a bit of subtle humor woven into the text. If I have a complaint, it is that the second half of the story was a bit too melodramatic for my taste, although I found it believable throughout.

The theme of the story can be found in Newman’s name. He represents the rising New World, while the Old World is represented by the Bellegardes. In The American, James knowledgably portrays the cultural divide between America and Europe, and does so in an entertaining manner. It has piqued my interest in diving deeper into his impressive catalog.


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