The American (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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The American portrays courtship with the virtuosity and soulfulness that characterizes a seduction. With Paris as its artistic backdrop, the novel reveals the insecurities a powerful American feels when pursuing an elusive woman. The novel is simultaneously a gothic romance, a quest narrative, an unsolved murder mystery, a revenge drama, and James' ticket of admission to the higher echelon of American writers.
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The American (Collins Classics)

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Overview

The American portrays courtship with the virtuosity and soulfulness that characterizes a seduction. With Paris as its artistic backdrop, the novel reveals the insecurities a powerful American feels when pursuing an elusive woman. The novel is simultaneously a gothic romance, a quest narrative, an unsolved murder mystery, a revenge drama, and James' ticket of admission to the higher echelon of American writers.
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Henry James
Henry James was a master at tracing the social boundaries of the Gilded Age -- between Old and New World, Europe and America, desire and convention, men and women. He brought an invaluably clear-eyed, and critical, sensibility to America's evolving cultural mores.

Biography

Henry James (1843-1916), born in New York City, was the son of noted religious philosopher Henry James, Sr., and brother of eminent psychologist and philosopher William James. He spent his early life in America and studied in Geneva, London and Paris during his adolescence to gain the worldly experience so prized by his father. He lived in Newport, went briefly to Harvard Law School, and in 1864 began to contribute both criticism and tales to magazines. In 1869, and then in 1872-74, he paid visits to Europe and began his first novel, Roderick Hudson. Late in 1875 he settled in Paris, where he met Turgenev, Flaubert, and Zola, and wrote The American (1877). In December 1876 he moved to London, where two years later he achieved international fame with Daisy Miller. Other famous works include Washington Square (1880), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Princess Casamassima (1886), The Aspern Papers (1888), The Turn of the Screw (1898), and three large novels of the new century, The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903) and The Golden Bowl (1904). In 1905 he revisited the United States and wrote The American Scene (1907). During his career, he also wrote many works of criticism and travel. Although old and ailing, he threw himself into war work in 1914, and in 1915, a few months before his death, he became a British subject. In 1916 King George V conferred the Order of Merit on him. He died in London in February 1916.

Author biography courtesy of Penguin Group (USA).

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    1. Date of Birth:
      April 15, 1843
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Death:
      February 28, 1916
    2. Place of Death:
      London, England
    1. Education:
      Attended school in France and Switzerland; Harvard Law School, 1862-63

Introduction

A passionate craftsman and deft social critic, Henry James portrays courtship with the virtuosity and soulfulness that characterize a seduction. His third novel, The American, deciphers the tensions that surround the search for companionship, a quest that takes his American hero, Christopher Newman, to Europe. With Paris as the artistic backdrop, the novel reveals the complex insecurities a powerful man feels when pursuing an elusive woman. Simultaneously, The American, written near the beginning of James' unparalleled career, points to some of his own anxieties as a growing artist with contracts and expectations placed upon him that he is not certain he can fulfill. The novel also considers the latent inferiority complex of a nascent class of privileged Americans who have the money, but lack the cosmopolitan sophistication, to travel comfortably abroad and experience foreign cultures, languages, and art. The many layers on which The American functions make it an engaging novel and a revealing commentary on the precarious nature of success. Published more than a century before computers and air travel made globalization a virtual and an actual reality, the novel insightfully documents a pre-Internet history of cross-cultural interaction and anticipates the modern struggles for meaningful communication. Newman unabashedly blurts his desires for a woman in an amusing combination of unrefined English and limited French expressions. The intimate scenario of one man's rather clumsy pursuit of one woman and the ensuing courtship serve as the microcosm in which James explores human frailties as he wins the hearts and the admiration of his readership. The novel is simultaneously a gothic romance, a quest narrative, an unsolved murder mystery, a revenge drama, and James' ticket of admission to the higher echelon of American writers.

Henry James spent most of his life outside of America and probably used his own experiences of displacement throughout childhood as a model for his precise descriptions of Newman's discomfort in a foreign land. Born in Manhattan on April 15, 1843, James-the second of five children-began a lifetime of travel when only six months old. Before the serialization of The American in 1877 and its publication 1878, James had lived in England, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and France, with extended stays in Paris. The senior Henry, the author's namesake, was determined to infuse his children's education with European-particularly French and German-culture and history. While the uprooting of the family from their American residences in New York and later New England led to painful bouts of homesickness for the older boys, the father's investment in extensive private tutoring for his sons yielded impressive results. William, the oldest son and esteemed philosopher who shaped psychological inquiry in America, attended Harvard University and Harvard Medical School, while Henry enrolled in Harvard Law. The two younger boys, Wilky and Bob, adopted abolitionist values from Concord Academy and served bravely as officers with all-Black troops in the Union army during the Civil War. Although Alice, their only sister, suffered numerous nervous breakdowns and eventually succumbed at age 43 to breast cancer, the James siblings enjoyed the privileges of wealth-education, international travel, adequate health care, and residential comfort-and benefited greatly from their father's early grooming. Henry James managed his father's estate, outlived all of his siblings, and wrote novels, short stories, plays, and a three-volume autobiography-the third volume appeared posthumously along with two unfinished novels-until his death in 1916.

James met many of the literary greats of his time in America and abroad, including William Dean Howells, the eventual editor of The Atlantic Monthly in which James' second short story and first three novels were serialized. Journeying to Paris and London to pursue his career as a writer, James also socialized with George Eliot, Ivan Turgenev, Gustave Flaubert, and Robert Browning, esteemed literary innovators who helped to solidify his artistic vision and hone his commitment to realism. Enthralled by the creative energy of his soon-to-be peers, James experienced a burst of artistic inspiration from roughly 1875 to 1881. During this brief six-year span, he published seven novels and ten short stories, including the popular "Daisy Miller" and The Portrait of a Lady, two of his most well-known works that illustrate his fascination with the landmine of romantic courtship fraught with the unavoidable dangers of insecurity, self-delusion, and social awkwardness. James carried out extensive theses on the nature of relationships but never committed to marriage himself. Nevertheless, his intense friendships with women were sources of creative inspiration. Many critics point to close friend Lizzie Boott and his cousin Minny Temple as models for the women in his most well-known tales.

In The American, James places the focus on a man's social fumbling rather than on a woman's, as he typically did in other novels. Some critics assume that James' interest in gender and courtship was limited to the effects of social expectations on female characters who adopt the conventions of the true woman-a Victorian standard requiring purity, chastity, submissiveness, and passivity. Describing the plot of James' first novel, Watch and Ward, J. A. Ward insists that James' "apparent psychological interest is confined to the progress of Nora to womanhood (according to Victorian conventions) and to her recognition that Roger [the novel's protagonist] would be an ideal husband." Similarly, Alfred Habegger argues that James reveals the damaging effects of "daydreams and lies," a "vulnerable imagination," and the deforming power of novels on a woman's mind. Other critics point to the love story as a vehicle for James to consider the harsh social consequences, especially for young women, that judgmental aristocrats exact upon the less refined and vulnerable, such as the tragic "Daisy Miller," who dies while still oblivious to the crimes of etiquette that sealed her fate.

Less often noted in the criticism are James' fascinating depictions of the men, like Newman, who approach the search for wives as one would a business or academic assignment. Belying the supposed power that monetary success should create, these painstakingly meticulous men-such as Rowland Mallet in Roderick Hudson, Ralph Touchett in The Portrait of a Lady, Hyacinth Robinson in The Princess Casamassima, and Roger Lawrence in Watch and Ward-display intense self-consciousness. They are unnaturally deliberate and awkward in movement or speech, as Newman is in his clumsy attempts to learn French. Sometimes James' men rebel against tradition. They abandon their professions, choose to take extended vacations from the business world, or devote their lives to fatherhood. These examples may represent James' preference for the so-designated female world rather than the male world. Nevertheless, some critics note a sexual ambiguity in James' work. Anne Robinson Taylor asserts that James' females are often more "masculine than the males," and Veeder insists that "no one in James is in fact masculine" because "everyone is effeminated by culture and mortality."

Prophetically, James anticipates the modern dilemma of a multicultural, hyperactive, overachieving society that makes marriage even less plausible. The lifelong bachelor seems to have predicted that two people, distanced by their separate and distinct sign systems, have much to conquer before they will ever understand one another. James links Newman's quest for knowledge, experience, and adventure to the protagonist's latent desire to complete his journey toward manhood with marriage. Newman declares, "I want the biggest kind of entertainment a man can get. People, places, art, nature, everything!" The emerging motif of the innocent American abroad is highlighted in his name, Newman, and hints at his recently acquired wealth as well as his purported ignorance (the pun: who knows what this New man knew?), naivety, and immaturity. He is the virtual kid in the candy store with bulging pockets. James introduces Newman with a display of his oxymoronic status as both a privileged American and easy-to-dupe tourist who "abruptly" demands "combien?" upon seeing a work of art he desires to purchase and then proceeds to display particularly poor skills of negotiation.

Emphasizing Newman's inarticulateness, James layers one motif upon another, developing the portrait of Newman as a hapless bachelor seeking to understand and be understood. The burning of a deathbed note late in the novel and Newman's references to himself throughout as a reader of novels, culture, and people all contribute to a trope of miscommunication that makes language, manners, and relationships indecipherable. In the first chapter, Newman confesses that he takes "for granted" that learning another language, French in this case, is "impossible." The omniscient narrator occasionally contributes to the confusion by refusing to translate: "The language spoken by M. Nioche was a singular compound, which I shrink from the attempt to reproduce in its integrity." Similarly, the novel concludes with Newman's choice to conceal what he has learned about the Bellegardes.

This affluent bachelor also has a habit of expressing even his most heartfelt desires in monetary terms. The language of commodity reveals Newman as crass at best, and, according to contemporary standards, guilty of the sexual biases that characterized his nineteenth-century society. With unbridled enthusiasm, he announces that he wants a "magnificent woman," a "great woman." The metaphors he evokes, however, eclipse the aforementioned superlatives and corrupt Newman's ostensible claim to innocence: "there must be a beautiful woman perched on the pile, like a statue on a monument. . . . I want to possess, in a word, the best article in the market." The allusion to a pedestal, the objectification, and the commodification combine to transform his exuberant confession into a regurgitation of the most troubling messages about gender in James' society that placed women and men in distinct, rigidly prescribed spheres. As biographer Leon Edel points out, "in most of Henry James's early stories loved women are compared to statues. Only later does he become aware, if not of their flesh, at least of their heart and mind." Perhaps James reveals here another of his hero's imperfections that lurks beneath the eligible bachelor's well-coifed exterior as he makes an earnest effort to present himself as marriageable material.

Newman's self-conscious attempts to fit the expectations of the public lead to subtle irony and outright comedy. Edel notes the "touch of comedy . . . on almost every page of The American, pointing to the "double entendre," "exchange of wit," and "mockery" that result from Newman's lack of acquaintance with aristocratic and French culture. Interestingly, James chose during the stages of revising The American to make his protagonist 40 years old rather than 35 as noted in the early versions of the novel. This change pushes the anxiety of single manhood to the breaking point for a wealthy man speeding toward midlife crisis. The difficulty of acquiring another language is more pronounced for the elder Newman, and the newly rich American is even more awkward in his curiosity about the social, artistic, and political world of France. Later getting duped by the conniving Bellegardes, Newman is again the object of amusement as an embarrassed man of stature and age.

Instead of laughing, however, many of James' first readers of The American cried, because the novel does not supply the happy ending Victorian standards dictated. James knew that his readers would expect a marriage, a marker of cultural, historical, and social stability, but he denied them this kind of closure. Interestingly, pirated editions of the novel that substituted the expected happy ending appeared following the nine-month serialization of James' version in 1876. James held firm to his original story when he published his own edition in book form in 1877, but, in 1892, he dramatized the novel, and, to the audience's delight, supplied a happy climax as Claire announces in the fourth and final act, ". . . I've determined . . . to become Mr. Newman's wife!"

Far less prone to such concessions throughout his career, James managed to keep his audience engaged in stories and novels that frustrated their expectations relentlessly. He gracefully negotiated what he termed the "complex fate" of American authorship in a society of anglophiles despite his propensity for realism, and his readership acknowledged, however grudgingly, his genius. Reviews in The Nation praised James as an author of "rare skill" who managed well Newman's American idiosyncrasies and Madame de Cintre's "shyness and gracious delicacy," granting "the novel a place among the best in modern studies of society." Another reviewer concurred, referring to the novel as "the most important contribution to American fiction made for a long time." Foreshadowing the attraction of contemporary filmmakers to James' work, a reviewer in The Literary World marvels that James' characters "are more than photographed. They walk through the pages." Rich with complex, suppressed eroticism, James' The Wings of a Dove, The Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, The Europeans, Washington Square, Watch and Ward, The Turn of the Screw, and The American have inspired more than ten film projects in the past decade alone. He continues to engage us in stories that refuse to sooth while insisting that we look unflinchingly at our naked vulnerabilities with the simple reassurance that we all-men and women-experience discomfort, insecurity, and pain when seeking love.

While James lived with anxiety about the literary intersections among realism, history, imagination, and the novel, he persisted in addressing the relationship between Americans and their friends across the sea as well as the conundrum of love. In the satirical novel The Europeans that soon followed The Americans, James directly aims his sharp wit at cold, puritanical New Englanders who offer only cursory hospitality to their relatives from abroad. The Portrait of a Lady, Washington Square, and Wings of a Dove further explore the social discord, stiff etiquette, heartless greed, and self-deception that make The American a precise study of manners, love, and life. Critic Roslyn Jolly writes compellingly about the unstable and shifting relationship with history that made James feel "constantly assailed by his own characters, whose unruly acts of authorship contest the power of history to define their world." James seemed to learn only through the agony of experience that history fails to act as a reliable ceiling on the imagination, especially when the imagination is powered by the genius of a literary master who knows when to humble himself to the beloved voices in his mind.
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 3 of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 22, 2000

    A Romance for the Unromantic

    The American by Henry James is a romance for both people who love romances and those who do not. Set in late nineteenth century Paris, it combines a love story with the struggle between a new, wealthy American and an old, traditional French family over the lovely daughter of the family. The story involves Christopher Newman, a wealthy American businessman, during the Paris portion of his European tour. Romance seems be a large part of what he is looking for. The first suggestion that he may have found it occurs in his encounter with the artist, Noemie Nioche. This turns out to be merely a passing fancy. Things get more serious when his American friends, Mr. and Mrs. Tristan put him in contact with an attractive young widow, Claire de Cintre. Madame de Cintre, nee Bellegarde, whose first marriage had been arranged to an elderly nobleman who gave her a title, but little else. Upon meeting Newman, both seem to find what they are looking for in the world of romance. As the story develops it becomes clear that it is sufficient for Newman to win Claire but that he must also win over her family, which consisted of her mother, Madame de Bellegarde and her brother, Urbaine, the Marquis de Bellegarde. The House of Bellegarde was full of pride and tradition, but short of money. As the Bellegardes size up Newman, it becomes obvious that they are weighing the sale of their pride for Newman¿s money. Ultimately they reach their decision. In their last meeting, Claire informed Newman of that she was to become a nun. Although shocked, Newman could not persuade Claire to break free of her family¿s rule and breath the free air which comes so naturally to an American. Given one piece of evidence, Newman attempts to recover Claire back through blackmail. When the Bellegardes refuse to submit, Newman destroys his evidence. Up to the very end, the reader is left hoping for the happy ending, but he hopes in vain. For the romantic, this book provides an inspiring love story. For the historian, it provides a glimpse into the life of Nineteenth Century Aristocracy on two continents. For the lover of freedom, it provides a struggle between New World freedom and individuality and Old World tradition and bonds of consanguinity. With something for everyone, The American is a worthwhile read for all.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 10, 2009

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    Posted October 24, 2011

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