A Mid-Nineteenth Century American In Paris
Christopher Newman, 36, an American who has become wealthy in commerce and manufacturing following the Civil War, is the hero, in "The American", an early novel by Henry James. Most of the story is set in France in the late 1860s as Newman, vaguely dissatisfied with his life of making money, wants to learn what Europe has to teach. Newman is also lonely and in search of a wife; but the "bar", as he puts it, for a prospective wife is high. Through American friends in Paris, Newman is introduced to a young aristocratic widow, Claire de Bellegarde, 25, whose elderly husband from an arranged marriage has died. Newman is taken with the cultured, reserved Madame Bellegarde and determines to wed. The Belllegarde family begrudgingly permit the courtship to proceed up to a point due to Newman's wealth. But after Newman wins his lady's consent at last, the family persuades the Madame to break of the engagement. She enters a convent instead. "Our hero", as James calls him is grief-stricken and angry. The latter part of the novel shows Newman dealing with his grief and his anger.
The James brothers, Henry and William, are often referred to as the novelist who writes like a philosopher and the philosopher who writes like a novelist. Even in this early novel, the depiction is accurate for Henry James. "The American" is funny and sharply satirical. It is as well a comedy of manners and more than a touch melodramatic. James already has a fully developed eye for places and characters and they are described in depth in lengthy, complex sentences and in the intricate plot. The book has a great deal to say, in the twists and turns of the story, about letting go, dealing with loss, and finding self-knowledge. With all the melodrama, the story offers a good deal of reflection and wisdom.
But there is more. James portrays the conflict between a wealthy, successful but undefined American and a Parisian family with a long lineage that has fallen on hard times but which still scorns a man who makes money through trade as a proper suitor for their family. James' Newman also genuinely wants to improve his mind and spirit by learning the music, architecture, literature, and more that Europe has to offer. The portraits and the sympathies of the reader shift subtly and several times during the course of the work. For the most part, Newman becomes admirable with his desire to learn and with his persistence in winning his lady. But the Bellegardes' with their traditionalism and for all their treachery have a case to be made as well. James looks closely at the courtship between Newman and Claire. Newman might be thought of as looking for a prize in a wife to match his wealth, but that would take an overly narrow view. He unquestionably respects and wants to do the best for Claire who gradually and reluctantly has accepted him. What the relationship lacks on both sides is passion. Sexuality is absent, for all the reader can see, on both sides For that and other reasons, it could be questioned whether any marriage between the two would be happy even without the family opposition. Lack of passion also is important in thinking about Newman's over-reaction to the end of the courtship. The anger seems less directed towards losing a woman he adores and loves than towards the suffering of a personal affront.
One of the broad issues raised by "The American" is the nature of love and marriage. On both sides of the Atlantic in the book, we are in the mid-19th Century. The tendency has developed to view marriage as strictly a matter of love and of the free choice between the two putatively autonomous people involved. The views of family or of that vague thing called "society" should have nothing to do with it. That certainly is not the view of marriage of the Bellegardes in this book and it is questionable whether it is the view of Newman. The book thus encourages readers to recognize their own position on the parties involved in a marriage -- whether the two individuals making the marriage alone or whether others are involved -- and to see that different positions have been taken at different times in different places.
The other broad issue I found interesting in this novel was the portrayal of the United States in respect to Europe. Newman is the primary American character but there are others. He comes across as brash, poorly educated and naïve; but he wants to learn, is well-meaning, and has a good deal of undeveloped intelligence. The America which has allowed entrepreneurial individuals such as Newman to prosper is satirized but not rejected. It is shown in its rawness as having potential as well as a good deal to teach an entrenched Europe. In short, the portrayal of the United States is nuanced and balanced. Those from all shades of the political spectrum in James' day and in ours could recognize themselves in the portrait and respond to it constructively. Much, not all, of the literature written by Americans over the past, say, 50 years takes, in my view, an unduly derogatory, angry, and deflationary view towards the United States. These novels and writers have an important lesson to learn from "The American". For all its 19th Century tone, language, and story, the book is fresh and entertaining. Readers may learn and enjoy.