The American in the Classroom
Activities and Investigations
What's in a Name?
Think about the title Henry James chose for his novel. How is The American different from An American, Christopher Newman, or other alternatives? Titles of works can direct the reader's attention and guide our interpretation of a work from the first page or first scene. How does James' choice of title influence the way we think about the action and characters in this story?
Create a three-column chart. In the first column, write the titles of books, plays, or films you have recently seen or read. In the second column, offer an alternative title for the work. In the third column, make notes on how your proposed change in title might change the way the reader or viewer thinks about the work.
As a class, read your initial lists of titles aloud. What are the most common strategies writers use for titles? Compare the use of names, place names, metaphors, descriptive phrases. Which titles do you like best? Generalize about what writers try to do when they select titles for their work.
Finally, go to the Henry James timeline and review the titles of his other stories and novels. Which type of title does James use most often? Which titles would catch your attention if you were browsing a section of his works in the library?
Character names are another writer's choice that can subtly shape our understanding of and reaction to a character. From the time of its publication, critics have noted the symbolic nature of the names of the main characters in The American. Be a symbol sleuth yourself: What meanings can you find in these character names, and why do you think James selected them?
Biography and Art
Is it valuable to know something about the life of an author when we enter the world he or she created through art? Challenge students to think about the connection between biography and art by copying and distributing the essays on Henry James and his family from Genius in the Family.
a) Based on biographical information, why do you think a common motif in the work of Henry James is the experience of Americans in Europe? Draw on both the biography and The American to answer the following: What do you think Henry James liked and disliked about Europe? What did he find attractive and unattractive about America and Americans? What, if anything, do you think Henry James and his character Christopher Newman have in common?
b) How do you think Henry James's unusual family influenced his decision to be a professional writer? His choice to live abroad for most of his adult life? How did his experiences prepare him to write The American?
c) Think about the women in The American. Do you see any evidence that the women who were a part of Henry James's life influenced the development of his fictional characters? Does his work seem to comment in any way on the lives of the women he knew and cared for?
d) Speculate on any other connections that might exist between the James family and Henry James's novel. Then discuss: How helpful or relevant is it to learn about the life of a writer whose work you are reading?
e) Broaden the discussion of "does biography matter?" to other arts. Generate a list of the many forms of art, including performing arts, and ask students to copy the list on their own paper. Individually or in small groups, direct students to rearrange the list in a new order to reflect how important an understanding of the artist's biography is to understanding the work. For example, which is more vital: to know an actor's personal history when watching a stage or film performance, or to know facts about a painter's life when you look at a work in a museum? Use your answer to rank "acting" and "painting" accordingly.
Compare lists and work toward a consensus. What form of art is at the top of the list? Which is at the bottom? Why does it belong there?
Finally, offer this challenge: Shouldn't any good work of art be able to stand on its own?
After living in Europe for several years, despite enjoying the company of great French writers, Henry James wrote to his brother William, "I am still completely an outsider here." It is at about the same time that James wrote The American. How is Christopher Newman's experience the experience of an "outsider"? What is he unable or unwilling to appreciate or understand about Parisian society? Why do the de Bellegardes refuse to admit him to their inner circle?
Explore the "outsider" experience in writing:
a) Write about a time when you or someone you know felt like an "outsider" (for examples, visiting another culture or another part of the country, moving to a new school, starting a new activity). What set you apart from others? Were you able to become an "insider" eventually? If so, how? What kinds of differences keep people apart in 21st-century America? Are they forces similar to those in The American?
b) Imagine yourself as a visitor in a different country or culture (think of a place you have been, studied, or read about). Write a first-person narrative describing what you see and experience as you walk down the street, or write a dialogue between you and a companion modeled on the scene between Newman and Tom Tristram early in the film.
Happily Ever After. . .
Did the ending of The American surprise or disappoint you? You are not alone. At the time of its publication, critics commented that the bleak ending -- Valentin dead, Claire in a convent -- was an unnecessary disappointment. In 1890, Henry James adapted The American for the stage. James desperately wanted the play to be a commercial success and chose to change the ending of the story. Should he have insisted that the stage version be faithful to the novel?
Put yourself in Henry James' place, and make a choice:
"All the mice are in chains."
An important theme in The American is the tension between freedom of action and social constraint. To very different degrees, each character experiences both freedom and limits to his or her freedom.
Create a line with endpoints marked "most free" and "most constrained." Arrange the characters in the novel along the line. Which two characters are at the extremes? Under the main characters' names, note what the character is or is not free to do, and why. What are the chains that bind Claire, and what freedom does she experience? What, if any, are the limits to Newman's conspicuous freedom?
Brainstorm a list of other American novels or stories that share this theme. Select one and compare it to The American. How does the writer explore the theme? How does the work comment on the problem of freedom and constraint?
F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby
Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter
Henry James: Washington Square, Daisy Miller
John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath
Mark Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Edith Wharton: Ethan Frome, The Age of Innocence, Custom of the Country
Richard Wright: Black Boy
James was a prolific writer: His published works include novels, novellas, and short stories. (For a listing, see A James Timeline) James never told the same story twice, but there are themes that recur throughout the body of his work as a writer. Select one of the following themes and discuss, in writing, how this theme is explored in The American:
The Filmmaker's Art
Ask students to study a single scene from the film closely to consider what elements of the filmmaker's art help tell a story. Suggested scenes include:
When students have completed their scene studies, copy and distribute Adapting the Master. Read carefully and mark passages in which Finlay refers to the technical choices that went into the making of the film. Specifically, how did the costumes, location, setting, and use of color help tell the story?
The Art of Adaptation
-- Michael Hastings, screenwriter for The American
-- Paul Unwin, director of The American
Sketch -- as an image or in words -- a still portrait of a character or a scene between characters in the film. Pay attention to clothing, background, position of the bodies, gestures, and facial expressions. When you have completed your portrait, discuss with others: Which characters are easiest to sketch? How do writers and filmmakers use physical attributes and physical settings to help develop a character and tell a story?
Now imagine you are the book's publisher. Which image would you use for the cover? Why? Do you think your choice would change if you were publishing the book in 1877 or today?
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