The American – Henry James – A Critical Review


The American – Henry James

This novel is one of James’s early works. We are reminded that he was educated in both Europe and America by tutors and private schools and then attended Harvard Law School briefly. He was a member of the American James dynasty, along with his brother William James the preeminent psychologist, begun by his father, Henry James, Sr., a Swedenborgian lecturer and writer. Henry James, Sr. was made independently wealthy by his father who worked real estate deals in upstate New York and was involved in the development of the Erie Canal project.

James was thirty-four when he wrote this novel and had been out of school for fifteen years. He lived in London at the time of its publication. He left America in 1875 to remain in Europe for the rest of his life.

It is a story of an American who travels to France to expand his life apart from business and finds and loses the woman that he sought with much effort and romance. The book is a character study, one that James holds up as representative of sturdy American stock.

Christopher Newman is a successful American business man in 1868, shortly after the end of the American Civil War. He conducts manufacturing and banking businesses in the United States ( at the time there are still several territories in the Rocky Mountain West) and presumably amasses his own wealth. He is in his mid-thirties when he departs for France.

Newman’s travels lead him to Paris and he meets the French woman that fulfills his idea of a suitable mate: cultured, intelligent and beautiful. Newman sets out, therefore, to acquire her through marriage as James makes the relationship feel like a business transaction, albeit a very personal one.

Newman is the quintessential American – self-made, driven, polite, respectful and follows his own path. James shows in the closing pages that he is good too, not one to act out revenge such that the effects will destroy his opposer.

We are shown how an American behaves in a social setting giving value to personal desires and circumstances, contrasted with the French bluebloods, who ultimately respect heritage above all else, even money.

The novel’s drama is developed in Newman’s struggle and drive to woo Madame de Cintre and to overcome her domineering family. When he is very close to consummation, the plug is pulled and the family retracts its approval, sending Newman into a set of actions fraught with obstacles and French deceptions. The final obstacle is that Madame de Cintre elects to enter the monastic life to resolve the dual circumstances that her culture will not resolve: her desire to be Newman’s wife and her desire to obey her mother.

Along the way we are shown the formality of French old world nobility including a dramatic pistol dual between two men to resolve an insult that appears trivial in its nature.

We are given the final impression that Newman is at peace with his personal resolutions to leave the family stew in its own juices only to be stirred to second thoughts by a friend who points out the notion that he has been beat at his own game and that is ultimately, very un-American in that the relationship is brought back into the realm of business and in business it is the deal that rocks.

While the James’s rigid stylistic control over language is dated, the story line and characters are well developed.

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