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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The American

Henry James

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To purchase The American

Title: The American
Author: Henry James
Genre: Novel
Written: 1877
Length: 333 pages
Availability: The American - US
The American (1907 ed.) - US
The American - UK
The American (1907 ed.) - UK
The American - Canada
L'Américain - France
Der Amerikaner - Deutschland
in: I grandi romanzi - Italia
El americano - España
  • Originally published serially in The Atlantic Monthly
  • A considerably revised -- by James -- version was published in 1907

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a bit simple, but appealingly lively

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Daily Globe . 10/5/1877 .
Le Monde . 1/4/1977 Pierre Kyria
Die Zeit . 2/12/1966 Rudolf Hartung

  From the Reviews:
  • "Henry James's American is a novel from which all admirers of pretty stories are warned off at once. (...)
    (B)ut into the story of Newman's wooing Mr. James has woven a description of such a French family as has never been seen in American fiction before, and has done his work so well that one finds almost the same pleasure in reading the book that one finds in Balzac." - Boston Daily Globe

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[Note that Henry James revised The American for the New York Edition (1907), but the text generally reprinted (and on which this review is based) is that of the 1877/79 editions (although the Oxford World's Classics edition is based on the 1907 edition). As Leon Edel wrote: "To grasp the original vividness and the original humor, the novel must be read it is unrevised state [.....] The late revisions may be interesting to study for the light they throw on the author's creative process; but they are extremely artificial."]

       The American of the title is Christopher Newman. He is thirty-six and, having made his fortune, has come to Paris to try his hand at a life of some leisure, taking a break from work and seeing a world he's unfamiliar with:

     I have come to see Europe, to get the best out of it I can. I want to see all the great things, and do what the clever people do.
       He is not well-educated -- he stopped going to school when he was ten -- or cultured -- "he had never read a novel !" -- but is almost insatiably curious, albeit more of surface than depth (which continues to elude him); so, for example, when he spends a summer traveling through Europe, he visits no less than four hundred and seventy churches; later, he regularly goes to the opera. The novel even opens with him visiting the Louvre -- and he does show greater interest in the art on display there than some of the arguably more cultured characters do. He only limitedly seems to be trying to better himself -- barely giving a thought, and then certainly not much effort, to learning French, for example, despite settling down for quite a while in Paris -- but he does try to expose himself to a great deal.
       Newman is gung-ho, gregarious, and blunt, and not embarrassed by anything. He doesn't brag about his fortune, but speaks about it (and the making of it) matter-of-factly; he also makes no effort to hide his limitations. One character admits: "I can't make out [...] whether you are very simple or very deep", and while Newman confidently responds: "I'm very deep. That's a fact", there's a lot of simplicity to him too; there's certainly something of the very two-dimensional cartoon-version of 'the American' to James' character -- compounded by the Old World setting he is placed in, whose rarefied, indeed often stultifying, refinement he stands in such clear contrast to.
       Newman doesn't lack in confidence; he is also determined -- notably, to get married. Having achieved financial success, he's now in quite some hurry to get married; he also knows what he's looking for, after a fashion: "I want to possess, in a word, the best article in the market".
       Mrs.Tristram, the wife of an old friend, immediately has a suggestion for him: Claire de Cintré. Only twenty-five, she is already widowed, after a very unhappy marriage, and lives again with her mother, Madame de Bellegarde; the family is of old noble stock (though Madame de Bellegarde is, conveniently, originally English, so the whole family speaks the language well). After meeting Claire, Newman decides to pursue her -- rather easily convinced (or convincing himself) that: "She is exactly what I have been looking for. She is my dream realized". He is also very upfront about his intentions, practically from the very start; he also states them clearly to everyone involved, from Claire to her family.
       Class is an issue: noblesse oblige, and the de Bellegardes are very conscious of it and their place in society. Despite being rather down on their luck -- "their fortune is small" -- they are defined by their long-held position in society, and have to continue to live up to it. It extends to, for example, Claire's younger brother Valentin:
When I was twenty, I looked around me and saw a world with everything ticketed 'Hands off !' and the deuce of it was that the ticket seemed meant only for me. I couldn't go into business, I couldn't make money, because I was a Bellegarde. I couldn't go into politics, because I was a Bellegarde -- the Bellegardes don't recognize the Bonapartes. I couldn't go into literature, because I was a dunce. I couldn't marry a rich girl, because no Bellegarde had ever married a roturière, and it was not proper that I should begin. We shall have to come to it, yet. Marriageable heiresses, de notre bord, are not to be had for nothing; it must be name for name, and fortune for fortune. The only thing I could do was to go and fight for the Pope. That I did, punctiliously, and received an apostolic flesh-wound at Castlefidardo. It did neither the Holy Father nor me any good, that I could see.
       Self-made man Newman represents a world which isn't nearly as stifling in this regard, and he's practically oblivious to class-differences -- though he does watch himself rather carefully in his interactions, and, aside from some blunt admissions, navigates social graces surprisingly adroitly; he is not uncouth or (too) crass in his behavior. Nevertheless, the fact that he is not of the proper stock is quite an issue -- though when Newman gives Madame de Bellegarde a run-down of just how big his fortune is she gives her approval for him to woo her daughter. (The family had been seriously burnt by Claire's first, arranged marriage: "She made at eighteen a marriage that was expected to be brilliant, but that turned out like a lamp that goes out; all smoke and bad smell", the husband: "an odious old gentleman".)
       It all goes well until it doesn't. Having won over family and bride-to-be, Newman thinks, businessman-like, that it's a done deal. For well over half the novel we find him in confident but easy-going pursuit of his goal -- only to find, when everything seems not just within reach but already firmly in his grasp, that he can't have his way after all. What had been a rather light romance turns melodrama.
       There's been some melodrama all along, but mostly it has bubbled at the very edges -- not least in the character of Noémie Nioche. The novel's opening scene has Newman make her acquaintance, coming across her at work painting in the Louvre, and offering to purchase the copy she is making, in the kind of easy, generous gesture that is part of his character. He can suddenly see himself as a collector -- it seems the kind of thing one might pursue when one travels to Europe -- and why not start here ? He is intrigued by Noémie, but there's no danger of his being seduced by her; she is wily, and he is both too plain and too commonsensical to be taken in by her. In their straightforwardness the two can banter easily enough but where others would (and apparently do) fall for her coquettishness, Newman remains untouched by it.
       Newman nevertheless offers to commission a whole series of overpriced copies from her, to furnish her with the dowry that might allow her to escape the impoverished situation she and her father find themselves in -- all this despite the fact that even she doesn't rate her painting all that highly. But then painting in the Louvre is merely an opportunity -- to spend her time in relatively comfortable surroundings (and on display), and to bide her time waiting for the proper opportunity. While Newman isn't taken in by her, he also doesn't quite see through her -- unlike, for example, Valentin, whom he introduces to her and who immediately has her number:
     She has taken the measure of life, and she has determined to be something -- to succeed at any cost. Her painting, of course, is a mere trick to gain time. She is waiting for her chance; she wishes to launch herself, and to do it well. She knows her Paris. She is one of fifty thousand, so far as the mere ambition goes; but I am very sure that in the way of resolution and capacity she is a rarity. And in one gift -- perfect heartlessness -- I will warrant she is unsurpassed. She has not as much heart as will go on the point of a needle. That is an immense virtue. Yes, she is one of the celebrities of the future.
       Newman warns him off her, but, despite knowing better, Valentin can't leave it be; he succumbs -- and pays for it.
       There's melodrama to the family then turning Newman away, too, beginning with the appearance of a distant cousin, Lord Deepmere, whom Madame de Bellegarde clearly sees as a better match for her daughter. Their reasoning -- and it is their decision, much more than Claire's -- is summed up by the woman who had proposed Claire to Newman in the first place:
They had overrated their courage. I must say, to give the devil his due, that there is something rather fine in that. It was your commercial quality in the abstract they couldn't swallow. That is really aristocratic. They wanted your money, but they have given you up for an idea.
       Madame de Bellegarde had admitted as much:
Since your relations with us began you have been, I frankly confess, less -- less peculiar than I expected. It is not your disposition that we object to, it is your antecedents. We really cannot reconcile ourselves to a commercial person. We fancied in an evil hour that we could; it was a great misfortune. We determined to persevere to the end, and to give you every advantage. I was resolved that you should have no reason to accuse me of want of loyalty. We let the thing certainly go very far; we introduced you to our friends. To tell the truth, it was that, I think, that broke me down.
       The irony is that it is his commercial position that could have saved not one but two of her children, as Newman was preparing to help Valentin, about to send him off to America to make something of himself -- including his own fortune. As things turn out, both children are lost. Valentin's fate is silly -- but similarly has to do with social mores and expectations, honor having to be defended (even if it is not deserving). Meanwhile, however, Madame de Bellegarde does not really get her way either: Claire submits to the greater force of family in turning Newman down, and turning away from him -- but she also refuses to enter into a marriage that would be more to her family's liking, choosing a horrible third way as escape that disappoints absolutely everyone. Even Newman is horrified; he can hardly bear the loss of her, but the alternative seems too awful to consider, and he begs her:
     "Madame de Cintré, don't, don't !" he said. "I beseech you ! On my knees, if you like, I'll beseech you."
       Newman has one more ace up his sleeves, a family secret hinted at by Valentin that he can hold over Madame de Bellegarde. It would be damaging to the family, though it's unclear to what extent; at the very least, however, Newman, would get some satisfaction out of it becoming known:
This is my revenge, you know. You have treated me before the world -- convened for the express purpose -- as if I were not good enough for you. I mean to show the world that, however bad I may be, you are not quite the people to say it.
       What he wants, of course, is Claire, but by that time she is out of all their reaches; still, even a bit of (petty) revenge has something going for it, and Newman hems and haws as to whether or not he will have it -- and the de Bellegardes wait him out. Once again it is Mrs.Tristram who sums it up so nicely:
My impression would be that since, as you say, they defied you, it was because they believed that, after all, you would never really come to the point. Their confidence, after counsel taken of each other, was not in their innocence, nor in their talent for bluffing things off; it was in your remarkable good nature !
       The family bet the American would live up to the reputation of Americans, a nice guy finishing last.
       Ultimately, family and its obligations were too much for Claire to break free from. As she told Newman:
"It is not marrying you; it is doing all that would go with it. It's the rupture, the defiance, the insisting upon being happy in my own way. What right have I to be happy when -- when --" And she paused.
       This tension, between love and sense of family obligation, would be more effective if James were capable of presenting a more romantic tale; as is, the relationship between Newman and Claire never manages to fully convince as a truly romantic one. For all of Newman's impulsiveness, something of the calculating businessman always remains. So, for example, when he falls for Claire he nevertheless convinces himself:
Love, he believed, made a fool of a man, and his present emotion was not folly but wisdom; wisdom sound, serene, well-directed. What he felt was an intense, all-consuming tenderness, which had for its object an extraordinarily graceful and delicate, and at the same time impressive, woman who lived in a large gray house on the left bank of the Seine. This tenderness turned very often into a positive heartache; a sign in which, certainly, Newman ought to have read the appellation which science has conferred upon his sentiment. When the heart has a heavy weight upon it, it hardly matters whether the weight be of gold or of lead; when, at any rate, happiness passes into that place in which it becomes identical with pain, a man may admit that the reign of wisdom is temporarily suspended.
       The 'biographer' who tells this tale here makes a rare showing in his narrative, James suggesting Newman is more deeply smitten than the character himself can understand -- but it's telling that James feels the need to spell it out for the reader, as throughout elsewhere he fails in his efforts to convince by merely showing. (The narrative I is a curious figure here, very much staying in the background, but James unable to keep himself from bringing him to the fore, and the reader's attention, on a few occasions; it's really rather clumsy.)
       Claire is an even less developed character, which doesn't help the would-be romance either. Indeed, the two most interesting and lively characters are Noémie and Valentin, but both are ultimately under-utilized in the story; by the time Noémie resurfaces at the end of the story, she's merely a figure meant to serve a specific narrative purpose -- when, on the whole, her story likely would have been more interesting than Newman's. Still, Newman, too, is quite well-drawn. Too determinedly much a type, of course, -- very much 'the American' abroad, and a specific kind of American at that -- but big and colorful enough that his story remains engaging throughout.
       James' novel is an entertainment, fundamentally a romantic melodrama -- in imitation of too many of the European novels of the time --, but he already shows some of his talents here. There's little depth here, but hints of possibilities he'd like to explore; here he lets his plot dominate, and that doesn't play to his strengths. There is some satisfaction to be found in how he lets his story play out, avoiding the easy endings and opting for one in which, after all, basically none of the characters get what they want -- though the way he has drawn Newman makes this, at least for him, less tragic than it would otherwise seem; one has little doubts that he'll land on his feet and marry happily enough back in the United States, no matter how much he mopes around at first. (James also tries hard to make Claire's fate seem a terribly sad one, and yet she is rather easily left to it, out of sight and soon out of mind.)
       For better and worse, Newman completely dominates the novel -- James ultimately not giving the more interesting characters like Noémie and Valentin that much of a chance to compete with him (as they easily do in the scenes they share with him). He is a bit bland for that, but there's enough to him that his story can sustain the novel; his forthright manner, and its contrast with that of many of the other characters, is particularly effective (though, again, it pales besides the equally forthright Noémie and Valentin). He gets quite a few good lines in -- such as: "I shouldn't like to resemble anyone. It is hard enough work resembling one's self" -- and many good scenes, too, and it helps that he's a generally appealing character, especially in his generosity.
       If not quite fluff, The American certainly is a rather light novel, but quite successful as that; it's certainly an enjoyable read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 September 2021

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The American: Reviews: Henry James: Other books by Henry James under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Henry James lived 1843 to 1916.

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© 2021 the complete review

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