The American on the Printed Page
by Leon Edel
Leon Edel was the most prominent Henry James scholar of his time. In addition to collecting and editing James's plays and short fiction, Edel wrote Henry James: A Life, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography that is still recognized as the definitive work on the life of James.
In his critical essays on Henry James, Edel demonstrated his belief that "no work is created in a void but is the projection of a given mind at a given time." He practiced close reading illuminated by biography and comparisons to other works. A fine example of his approach is his Afterword to The American, prepared for the first edition of the novel and reprinted below. This brief essay offers many good starting points for student analysis of the novel and the film.
Leon Edel died in 1997. The Henry James Review awards an annual prize in his name for the best essay on Henry James by a beginning scholar.
He might have called his novel The Democratic Man or The New Man: but he called it The American, and this itself was a suggestive title. Was there ever a novel called The Englishman or The Frenchman? A novel titled The American had particular meaning for the late-nineteenth-century readers -- as particular as The Pathfinder, or The Deerslayer. To the European it suggested a distant, unknown man from the New World, a "natural" man who was fighting the Indians and conquering wild frontier-land. To the American it spoke for their own identity, of which they did not have a clear image in a period of flux and expansion. They possessed a new continent and an indomitable sense of their ability to bestride it. They also had no time to look at themselves in a mirror.
In writing this novel, Henry James was creating a kind of ideal American, a type recognizable at home but an object of curiosity abroad. He was a man from a land where everything was being made over and "made new." Old standards had been cast aside and the ingrained wrongs of centuries were being set to right. What had taken their place? Europeans wondered; they had, to be sure, had a glimpse of a self-made American in Benjamin Franklin; but the time had not yet come when tourists in their thousands would provide a ready answer. An American was, in a sense, a mythical figure, a traveler from an unknown land, as in the books of imaginary voyages.
A new mythology
James named his hero Christopher Newman. The last name explains itself, the first requires very little historical knowledge to be identified. The novelist was intertwining two related myths -- the myth of a Columbus, the explorer, or of a Gulliver, studying strange countries and comparing their customs with those of his own, that myth which had become mixed up with Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo and the Indians. The second myth was that of the new egalitarian society where there were (as Geothe had said in his poem about America) no castles and no ruins, no symbols of serfdom and feudalism. To be sure, such fine, brave notions had been a part of the vision of Voltaire and Rousseau and the ideals of the French Revolution. But in Europe the meaning of democracy was not yet as apparent as it was in America.
To the myth of the traveler and of the utopia James joined still another myth as old as literature itself. This was the tale told in ballad and fairy story of the lady of high estate living in castle and hall, wooed by the humble lover. Out of these materials, long familiar to readers of adventure and romance, James wrote his novel of an American in Paris. He was living in Paris himself at the time (1876), during what was to be the first year of a long residence abroad. Like his hero, he roamed the boulevards and explored the French capital and French society -- as much of it as he could observe, given his limited access to it. His novel was tissued out of his grasp of large human generalizations, but he based it also upon certain profound realities. And, like all users of myth, he made certain wry transpositions within them. It was ironic to have Christopher Newman recross the Atlantic on a voyage not of discovery but of rediscovery; it was no less ironic to have the democrat go in search of the aristocrats. And there was dramatic irony in having this man, who had known wide spaces and the starry skies of the wilderness, move through small cobbled courtyards and enter behind high walls where the aristocrats shut themselves away from the commonplace world. No less ironic was the biographical anomaly that entered into play: for Henry James, writing a story of high romance, replete with duel, skeleton in the closet, and a grand lady taking refuge in a nunnery, thought of himself nevertheless as writing a piece of "realism." He fancied himself doing the sort of thing Balzac had done when he brought his heroes from the provinces and embarked them on fantastic adventures in the "great world," but portrayed that world with minute reality. Newman too comes from the provinces -- those across the Atlantic -- but unlike Balzac's heroes his fortune is already earned. He is a conqueror bent on new conquests. This is the drama of The American -- and it leads James to the confrontation of American and European social values.
A real (or realist?) love story
If Henry James seemed unaware that he was writing high romance under the guise of "realism," his readers did not make this mistake. They knew they were reading an old-fashioned love story; and they knew that in such stories the hero is supposed to win the great lady -- when the story is not cast in the tragic mold. In this case the story was not unlike the one we have read in modern times about a gamekeeper and a lady -- only in James's time human relations and not sexual relations were at issue. What happened to The American was that it was off in one direction -- a direction that gave great pleasure to its readers -- and then it sharply veered into pathos and disaster. Newman among the Bellegardes offered a diverting comedy; and his friendship with the young Valentin, a convergence of Aristocrat and Democrat, gave James an opportunity for the full play of comparative manners. Suddenly Valentin disappears from the novel; the great lady locks herself up in a convent; and Newman, the high-spirited and energetic American, is left holding a chance for a hollow revenge that will gain him nothing. No marriage, no happy ending -- the romance turns to dust and ashes. Small wonder that one translator in Germany, without the author's permission, rewrote the last chapters and inserted a happy ending. William Dean Howells of the Atlantic Monthly pleaded with James to let the hero and heroine be united in the final chapters of the serial. James's lady friends in Rome and in London beseeched him to allow Newman to place the ring on Claire de Cintré's aristocratic finger. "I am a realist," James answered.
"They would have been an impossible couple," James wrote to Howells. A strange remark from an author who was writing a novel filled with an impossible melodramatic murder, a factitious duel, and a wax-doll heroine -- not to speak of a strange American who has made a fortune within three years of the end of the Civil War and then, in the most un-American fashion possible, has stopped his empire building in order to pursue culture in Europe. James had mixed up the romantic and the real to an extraordinary degree, and overlooked -- as he ruefully admitted three decades later -- the simple fact that in a romance the "impossible" is made possible, the improbable becomes probable, simply by the weaving of old myths in which Cinderellas marry Princes and Sleeping Beauties are awakened by a kiss. James's romance, to be sure, has a strong infusion of reality: he invokes no daggers, no cloaks, no mysterious monks, no Donatella fauns, no love-philters. A duel, a mysterious murder, a heroine in a nunnery, were quite enough, and in the midst of the lugubrious, James managed to tell a charming story. For however "impossible," most readers confessed to enjoying the "crash" wooing by Newman of Madame de Cintré. She is prepared to have him if her family will consent. Her family is of two minds. They like Newman's money; but they don't care for an individual as commercial and as democratic as the American, even granting his bonhomie, his good heart, his fresh-air manners. Years later, James acknowledged that the French aristocrats would have jumped at the idea of having a wealthy American son-in-law. This was still one other improbable element in his story. In the end the "realist" had to recognize that his book was romantic, because it contained experience "disconnected and uncontrolled," and that if the balloon of experience had to be tied to the earth, it nevertheless swung in the skies on a very long rope and in a "more or less commodious car of the imagination." In spite of these anomalies The American was and remains a favorite with its readers. It has found more readers and a wider public than any other James novel, for its myths are true, and the storytelling is fresh and has great charm. Had James been willing to give the novel the happy ending he finally gave to the play version, he would have achieved a commercial "best-seller." As it was, this book came very near to giving him this kind of popular success.
Portrait of an American
What sort of American is Newman? A generation of critics has seen him as a New World knight errant, a trifle mercenary, but also possessed of democratic decency and gallantry and a fund of Christian virtue: in a word, a very "nice" American, though not always a "quiet" one. If one looks more closely at him, however, he can be discovered to have certain uncomfortable qualities as well, less reassuring to the national complacency. Thus he is inclined to a simplicity of feeling, "not only a dislike but a sort of moral mistrust of uncomfortable words." He is inclined also to strenuousness: "he scarcely knew a hard chair from a soft." The truth is that, being a busy man, he cannot accept the European ideal of leisure. And he has never had time to "feel things." We see him thus in all his ambiguities. He is innocent, James tells us, but he is also experienced. His eye is frigid; but it is also friendly. He is frank, but he is cautious. He is shrewd, as a good business man must be, yet he is credulous -- quite prepared, for instance, to purchase worthless paintings. The author tells us he is shy, but there is nothing shy about his behavior. He is intelligent; and he is distinctly good-humored in a self-satisfied way. Yet when he has to make concessions, he is defiant. He is, in other words, that paradox in world history -- the generous, open-hearted American who can also be demanding and inflexible, hospitable to life's chances, yet "committed to nothing in particular." For all his openness of character, James makes us see that we have to do with a complex being, less easy to fathom than the compulsive little American clergyman with whom Newman travels during part of his discovery of Europe. Rev. Benjamin Babcock, the Unitarian minister from Dorchester, Massachusetts, takes life hard. Newman takes it as it comes, in the most pragmatic manner possible. In this way James suggests that even if he has called his novel The American he is by no means offering a universal type. This happens to be one kind of democratic man; the one who has risen by his own efforts. The process has made him an ambiguous figure; and he has not had time to learn the lessons of civilization -- he has come to maturity in a historical vacuum.
An American in Paris
James places Newman in the France of the Second Empire, where the democratic ideals of the Revolution had been sharply curtailed, but where a seething democratic urge remained that was to burst forth in the Commune. Only grudging concessions had been made to the "common man." But Valentin, aristocrat to his finger tips, is receptive to the fresh wind that Newman brings from over the sea; he knows that changes must come. And James casts a glance at the lesser bourgeoisie in the opportunistic Nioches, Noémie and her father, whom Newman accepts as friends, arbiters, equals, without questioning their desire to "use" him. Distinctly from the lower classes, they do not share the egalitarianism of their patron. On the whole, the vision offered the reader is that of an essentially aristocratic France opposed to a democratic America. They marquise and her stiff son are storybook "aristos." The matriarch is as money conscious as Newman. The American believes that "Europe was made of him, and not he for Europe." His standard is "the ideal of one's own good-humoured prosperity." When the Marquise de Bellegarde tells him she is a proud and meddlesome old woman, Newman feels his most effective answer to be "Well, I am very rich." The American moves through Paris wanting to know how much he must pay for everything. The marquise's main interest is quite as mercenary: she wants to know how much Newman is worth.
What the American discovers in the end, however, is that his riches cannot buy him everything, least of all Claire de Cintré. He is not accustomed to such a rude reversal of fortune. And James, skating on the thin ice of American sensitivity, succeeds in picturing his hero as both parvenu, possessed of a kind of national obstinacy, and also as an individual wronged by willful aristocrats no less obstinate than himself. The woman he loves and has wanted to possess -- as if she were a railroad or a mine -- eludes him; and standing before the discolored convent walls in the Rue d'Enfer, that is, the Street of Hell, with his opportunity to take his revenge, he decides that this sort of thing isn't his "game."...
This is a good ending to a lively story, and it drives home James's central irony: that the American is wronged by the class pretending to the highest codes of civilization and culture; that the nobleman of nature can in the end be more noble than the nobleman of privilege.... The American is thus a novel rich in the way in which it draws upon archetypal myths and mimetic modes. Behind its melodrama and its simple romance is the history of man's dream of better worlds, travel to strange lands, and marriage to high and noble ladies. At the same time the book reveals a deep affection for American innocence and a deep awareness that such innocence also carries with it a fund of ignorance. Its novelty lay in its "international" character. It has been spoken of as the first truly "international" novel -- that is, the confrontation of "the distinctively American and the distinctively European outlook," which lies at the heart of nearly all of James's fiction.
Essays + Interviews:
About the Film | A Talk with Screenwriter Michael Hastings
A Talk with Diana Rigg | A Talk with Matthew Modine
The American on the Printed Page
Essays + Interviews | Who's Who | A James Timeline
Teacher's Guide | Genius in the Family | Henry Wants a Hit!
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