The American
by Henry James

Review by Edward Tanguay
January 2, 1996

I'm currently reading James's short story "Daisy Miller" with a student and find a strong similarity in James control of character. James's characters are real and living and breathing. Reading James is stepping into a world that has no holes; it's complete and water-tight. It doesn't deceive. Chris Newman is a real person.

Everyone seems motivated by an internal force that is unknown to the reader and mostly unknown to Newman. (Even Newman--he can't be as innocent as he comes across here.) Here, James gives us a peek into the inner drive of Mrs. Tristram:

The truth is that circumstances had done much to cultivate in Mrs. Tristram a marked tendency to irony. Her taste on many points differed from that of her husband; and though she made frequent concessions, it must be confessed that her concessions were not always graceful. They were founded upon a vague project she had of some day doing something very positive, something a trifle passionate. What she meant to do she could by no means have told you; but meanwhile, nevertheless, she was buying a good conscience, by instalments.

Valentin's reaction to Newman's proposal solidified his character as someone who is steeped in the old world but has a taste of the new, a very French character in terms of their revolutionary history of violently rejecting yet embracing their past. He frankly tells Newman that he is "simply not good enough" because he doesn't carry the title of a noble, yet he finds the whole idea of Newman's proposal intriguing and wants to support it.

I found the continuous warning by almost all of the members of the Bellegarde family that they were "strange people" enjoyably spooky and foreboding, almost Gothic. It adds to the suspense.

"I told you, you remember, that we were very strange people," Bellegarde went on. "I give you warning again. We are! My mother is strange, my brother is strange, and I verily believe that I am stranger than either. You will even find my sister a little strange. Old trees have crooked branches, old houses have queer cracks, old races have odd secrets. Remember that we are eight hundred years old!"

. . . and Newman's response to this shows his innocent American sense of Old World curiosity:

"Very good," said Newman; "that's the sort of thing I came to Europe for. You come into my programme."

We see quite clearly the secrets that the Old World family has in this book. They must adhere to a structure forced upon them from the past and this creates deep secrets and strange personalities and complex relationships. But what about Newman? As his character becomes more

and more clear to me, it seems that James has identified a true American character: curious, innocent, and superficial:

"Oh no, I don't understand you at all," said Newman. "But you needn't mind that. I don't care. In fact, I think I had better not understand you. I might not like it. That wouldn't suit me at all, you know. I want to marry your sister, that's all; to do it as quickly as possible, and to find fault with nothing. I don't care how I do it. I am not marrying you, you know, sir. I have got my leave, and that is all I want."

And Clair notices this shallowness of Newman as well:

"I don't like the way you speak of my brother Valentin." Hereupon Newman, surprised, said that he had never spoken of him but kindly. "It is too kindly," said Madame de Cintre. "It is a kindness that costs nothing; it is the kindness you show to a child. It is as if you didn't respect him."

If one comment on Americans repeats itself in the descriptions I hear from Europeans who have been to America, it is that "Americans don't take things seriously enough." Newman has this lackadaisical air. I appreciate this book in that it brings this value of Americans out in a character as pleasantly complicated as Newman. I don't know why yet, but I just don't believe that he is as simple as he is being portrayed. Intriguing.

James describes his characters as a sculptor carves his statue-- throughout the book you get various emotions or characteristics described in chunks. Pieces of the character seem to come to life and fit into what has previously been described. Here, James reveals the insatiability of Chris's character regarding European culture:

When an excursion, a church, a gallery, a ruin was proposed to him, the first thing Newman usually did, after surveying his postulant in silence, from head to foot, was to sit down at a little table and order something to drink. The cicerone, during this process, usually retreated to a respectful distance; otherwise I am not sure that Newman would not have bidden him sit down and have a glass also, and tell him as an honest fellow whether his chuch or his gallery was really worth a man's trouble. At last he rose and stretched his long legs, beckoned to the man of monuments, looked at his watch, and fixed his eye on his adversary. "What is it?" He asked. "How far?" And whatever the answer was, although he seemed to hesitate, he never declined.

The mother of the Bellegarde family is quite the old shrew. She is a solid monster of a character, representing the whole of French antiquity with her "smile as thin as the edge of a knife." I wouldn't want to try to marry her daughter!

Lastly, every few pages there is a priceless description. Here are a few I enjoyed:

The young lady gathered her shawl about her like a perfect Parisienne, and it was with the smile of a Parisienne that she took leave of her patron.

He walked across the Seine, late in the summer afternoon, and made his way through those gray and silent streets of the Faubourg St. Germain, whose houses present to the outer world a face as impassive and as suggestive of the concentration of privacy within as the blank walls of Eastern seraglios.

And then it simply pleased him not to speak--it occupied him, it excited him.

And a quote I liked on the mastery of a foreign language:

She can express displeasure, volubly, in two or three languages; that's what it is to be intellectual. It gives her the start of me completely, for I can't swear, for the life of me, except in English. When I get mad I have to fall back on our dear old mother tongue. There's nothing like it, after all.

Enjoyable reading. Deep stuff.

Edward Tanguay

*** The American, by Henry James
*** Notes on the SECOND half
*** by Edward Tanguay
*** January 9, 1996

This book shows us new American energy pitted against old European tradition. In the first part of the book, Newman seemed to have adopted many European values, but in the second part, it was refreshing to see his American identity surface. His European gloss has fallen. He stops sounding like the refined Europeans and begins to almost whine like a child:

"I thought you said you wouldn't interfere. I know you don't like me; but that doesn't make any difference. I thought you promised me you wouldn't interfere. I thought you swore on your honour that you wouldn't interfere. Don't you remember, marquis?"

"Is that all you have got to say?" asked Newman, slowly rising out of his chair. "That's a poor show for a clever lady like you, marquise. Come, try again."

"Do you suppose it can matter to me what you say? Do you suppose I can seriously listen to you? You are simply crazy!"

"The second is that--well, in a word you are talking great nonsense." Newman, who in the midst of his biterrness had, as I have said, kept well before his eyes a certain ideal of saying nothing rude, was immediately conscious of the sharpness of these words.

William Spengemann wrote in the introduction to my edition that _The American_ is not stylistically an American novel. It is decidedly European in its treatment of manners and characters and plot lacking the Americana of Twain or Whitman or Cooper. The book is called _The American_ only because it deals with a quite international topic: the newness of the American and the tradition of the European and the ball- and-chain relationship that Americans have with Europe, both anchoring and restricting:

The idea does seem altogether American, an evocation of America's perennial love-hate relation with Europe and all its attendant feelings of cultural inferiority and moral superiority, of parricidal guilt and newborn innocence, of nostalgia for the old home and the urge to destroy it.

It's interesting that in this novel Newman is rejected by the same world that he came to Europe to join. In the end, he has neither joined that world nor destroyed it. His love-hate with Europe remains locked within him just as Claire remains locked within the convent. He cannot have the satisfaction of visiting his loved one's grave. In the same sense, he does not have the sense of death of the Old World, he simply moves away from it.

Madame Bellegarde is well described throughout the book. You can imagine clearly this aging shrew with her "thin lips curving like scorched paper":

You know my lady's eyes, I think, sir; it was with them she killed him; it was with the terrible strong will she put into them. It was like a frost on flowers.

It was effective how Urbain and Madame Bellegarde seemed to talk as one entity. They spoke for each other and as if what they uttered was somehow the "official family decree." This made them solid and gave a sense that the family was something rooted and majestic.

James' description of Newman making his final visit to the convent where Claire has chosen to spend the rest of her life is powerful:

This seemed the goal of his journey; it was what he had come for. It was a strnage satisfaction, and yet it was a satisfaction; the barren stillness of the place seemed to be his own release from ineffectual longing. It told him that the woman within was lost beyond recall, and that the days and years of the future would pile themselves about her like the huge immovable slab of a tomb. These days and years, in this place, would always be just so gray and silent. Suddenly, from the thought of their seeing him stand there again the charm utterly departed. He would never stand there again; it was gratuitous dreariness. He turned away with a heavy heart, but with a heart lighter than the one he had brought.

James has a beautiful control on his characters and is a pleasure to read, something like a Thomas Hardy with a touch of America. He exists in a curious suspension between America and Europe and gives insights which observe and inform in both directions.

Edward Tanguay

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