Columbus in Reverse : Henry James – “The American”

ABOVE: Voulez vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?

When we first meet Christopher Newman, he’s an American in Paris, exhausted by a visit to the Louvre, trying hard to appreciate a painting by Murillo, (an aesthetic exercise which has practically drained him). We deduce that he’s interested in the painting because the Baedeker guide has marked it with an asterisk, and therefore it’s more worthy of his valuable time; because the Catholic Marian imagery is exotic enough to excite his Protestant interest; and, perhaps as importantly, because there’s a comfortable divan placed before it. Also, there’s a pretty French girl nearby working on a reproduction, and she’s probably less virginal than the painting. Newman approaches her and his first word, the only French word he knows, is: “Combien?”

“How much?”

ABOVE: The moon-borne Immaculate Conception by Murillo.

When Newman flirts with the girl, she’s bemused by his name. He mistakenly assumes “Christopher” is the bemusing part, so he points out defensively that it’s a perfectly fine European name, very Columbus-y. We readers know that it was the “New Man” part which amused the girl. Perhaps it’s a little on the nose, this new reverse Columbus discovering the Old World (it reminds me of Brian Griffin in “Family Guy” playing at being a novelist: “And his name will be Norm Hull, ’cause he’s just a normal guy. But not everybody will get that. That’s just for the scholars a hundred years from now.”)

With the opening scene of “The American,” Henry James has said much of what he needs to say about Yankees in Europe: the cultural innocence ; the need to “keep up” and “improve oneself” that antedates “Top 10 Paintings You Must See Before you Die” listicles; the democratic reduction of art to monetary considerations, (democratic, because it divorces art from the class system to which it was tied, and gives it to whomever can afford it.)

The rest of “The American” elaborates on that idea as Newman, a “commercial” man, courts Madame Cintre, a French woman from a reduced but noble family.  We’re told Newman is “…the great Western Barbarian, stepping forth in his innocence and might, gazing a while at this poor effete Old World and then swooping down on it.” But the Old World resists the new invader, and soon Newman slams himself against the glass doors of the French class system. No, “glass doors” is wrong: that suggests some frailness. They’re proud concrete ramparts  that happen to be invisible.

Newman doesn’t understand why Madame de Cintre’s relatives look down their noses at him with a mixture of scorn and disdain, why they delay the union: after all, he has the money they don’t!

His “problem” is that he’s an American, a democrat, an enemy of smugness and bigotry. The servants and the nobility elicit an equal level of respect from him. The faces of maids and doormen brighten when Newman comes around: “Newman, for indefinable reasons, enjoyed the confidence of the liveried gentry.”

Not so indefinable. They confide in him because he doesn’t assume they’re inferior. And I really liked Newman. The latter scenes, when it becomes obvious the “noble” family won’t let the marriage happen, probably strike the average James fan as melodramatic, not “realistic” enough (which makes sense considering “The American” was intended as a riposte to Alexandre Dumas fils’ “The Foreigner” – and so there are duels, and seeeeecrets, and women running off to convents to protect their honor). I have unusual fondness for melodrama, and “realism” in literature is not one of my priorities. I’m cool with duels and seeeeecrets and convents… if there’s enough ROMANCE to make me believe in them.

That’s where “The American” loses half a star, (as people who like to rate things might say).

It hinges on Newman quixotically bucking against the caste system, trying to change it by the sheer force of his “love” for Madame de Cintre. But it’s hard to call it love. It’s more like he doesn’t mind her too much and finds her less threatening sexually than other women (like Noemi Nioche, the scandalous French girl from the first scene at the Louvre, whose sexual exploits are painted as positively disgusting). Newman seems merely amenable to the idea of marrying her and frustrated by the obstacles.

He is impotent against the pretensions and prejudices of the Old World.  To the European aristos, he is of the wrong race, the AMERICAN race… and that’s all they need to know about him.

Glass doors can be broken, concrete ramparts can be breached; but the closed mind is the most insurmountable barrier of them all.

ABOVE: There’s a BBC movie of this with Matthew Modine. Chances are it’s very boring. Love Henry James. Not necessarily blockbuster material, though.

I said we “deduce” things in James’ novels, because they almost work as mysteries, except what we’re trying to solve aren’t crimes, but emotional puzzles. Although James’ authorial voice seems heavy at first sight, it’s actually very subtle: he only hints at the implications, and he lets us do the detective work. He’s the narrator who is never obtrusive and always welcome, because he knows how to strike the absolute perfect balance between showing and telling. On any given scene, he’ll give you HALF of his omniscient opinion- and then discreetly withdraw to let you fill in the other half. Here’s an example of what I mean, (that also shows he’s hardly humorless):

“Newman uttered an imprecation which, though brief – it consisted simply of the interjection “Oh!” followed by a geographical, or more correctly, perhaps a theological noun in four letters—had better not be transferred to these pages.”

So, Newman says, “Oh! Hell!” and James intrudes to tell us that jokingly: he makes that intrusion worth our while with a fun word riddle that brings attention to, and subtly mocks, James’ own reticence. That’s the right kind of literary collaboration: one in which the writer is ever present and distinctive as a stylistic force, but also courteous enough to let you, the reader, put in some effort. He gives you room to READ, so to speak.

RATING : MASTERPIECE!!! Minus half a star. 4.5 out of 5!


5 thoughts on “Columbus in Reverse : Henry James – “The American”

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