Thursday, July 5, 2012

Henry James' "The American"

Recently read: The American, Henry James' 1877 novel of American capitalistic brashness clashing with unyielding Parisian aristocracy.

The novel, James' third (if you count his immature Watch and Ward - he didn't count it) is a transitional novel, more complex and arresting than his previous Roderick Hudson. In The American, James' protagonist is Christopher Newman, a self-made, uncultured American millionaire who travels to Paris to find (i.e. buy, with his freedom and wealth) culture and a wife. He aims for what he perceives as the top: a beautiful widow, Claire de Cintré, of the long-lived and righteously proud Bellegarde family.

Despite a second half which some readers (though not me) find too melodramatic (I thought the novel surprisingly detoured into Dickens-like material), The American is a compelling read to the last ironically sad page. The subtle and often witty verbal sparring is measured and engaging.

James' descriptions, based on his own limited admittance into Parisian high culture, brings the Bellegardes and their hermetic residence to life; I feel as if I've visited there. Certainly souls quite like the Bellegardes must have made an acute impression on James because, with the exception of Claire, they are the most sharply drawn characters in the book.

Truth be told, I found my sympathies  for the characters divided: I could relate to both Newman's and the Bellegarde's uncompromising determinations and positions. James' main intention for the novel was to write about an American wronged by the old aristocracy and ultimately doing the "right thing" in return. This makes for a plot that perhaps sounds more potentially satisfying than the final result.

The novel does suffer somewhat from the sketchiness with which James draws Claire. Little is revealed by her or about her apart from Newman's somewhat superficial observations and interractions, making the love he professes to feel for her less convincing than it might have been, if not almost puzzling. This fault in the novel coincides with Newman's lack of passion and energy in fighting for the hand of Claire when that's what's required for him to meet the goal the novel has established for him. Certainly a man who started with little in life and made an immense fortune manufacturing washtubs wouldn't admit defeat as wimpily as Newman does. It's almost as if James couldn't conceive of, or bring himself to write about, the sort of person who would passionately love and passionately fight for love. James, who never married, frequently disallows his protagonists to marry and the critical reviews of the novel when it was first published are so united in their puzzlement over this aspect of the plot that they almost, understandably and inadvertently, become an indictment against James the person (as opposed to James, the novelist).

The version of The American I read was a Norton Critical Edition, with plentiful footnotes, James' frequently inscrutable forward to the 1907 "New York" edition, excerpts from James' letters at the time of the writing of the novel, reviews written when the novel was first published
and various 20th century reviews. The Norton Edition also contains the "happy ending" version of a play James wrote based on the novel, a cringe-inducing example of an artist throwing what he has to know is slop to a perceived audience of pigs.

In the name of all that's good, if you decide to read the novel, please read the original 1877 version instead of James' 1907 revision. The rewritten version thickly covers the fresh immediacy and clarity of the original text with elaborately needless details and twisting asides which frequently obscure rather than reveal James' original intent.
Pin It

No comments: