The American (novel)
|Publisher||James R. Osgood and Company, Boston|
|May 5, 1877|
|Media type||Print (Serial, Hardback & Paperback)|
The American is a novel by Henry James, originally published as a serial in The Atlantic Monthly in 1876–77 and then as a book in 1877. The novel is an uneasy combination of social comedy and melodrama concerning the adventures and misadventures of Christopher Newman, an essentially good-hearted but rather gauche American businessman on his first tour of Europe. Newman is looking for a world different from the simple, harsh realities of 19th-century American business. He encounters both the beauty and the ugliness of Europe, and learns not to take either for granted. The core of the novel concerns Newman's courtship of a young widow from an aristocratic Parisian family.
The American was popular as one of the first international novels contrasting the rising and forceful New World and the cultured but sinful Old World. James originally conceived the novel as a reply to Alexandre Dumas, fils' play L'Étrangère, which presented Americans as crude and disreputable. While Newman is occasionally too forward or cocksure, his honesty and optimism offer a much more favorable view of America's potential.
Literary significance and criticism
When James came to revise the book in 1907 for inclusion in the New York Edition of his fiction, he realized how fanciful much of the plot was. He made enormous revisions in the book to try to make all the goings-on more believable, but he was still forced to confess in his preface that The American remained more of a traditional romance rather than a realistic novel.
Most critics have regretted the New York Edition revisions as unfortunate marrings of the novel's original exuberance and charm. The earlier version of the book has normally been used in modern editions. Critics generally concede that the second half of the novel suffers from improbability, but still find the book a vivid and attractive example of James' early style. More recently, some pundits have taken Newman to task as an obnoxious and even imperialistic westerner. But James' hero still finds many supporters, among critics and readers in general.
The American generally flows well and is easily accessible to today's reader, more so than some of James's later novels. Newman's friendship with Valentin de Bellegarde is particularly well drawn, and the descriptions of upper-class Parisian life are vivid. The modern reader may be somewhat taken aback, however, that in a lengthy novel primarily about courtship and marriage, James totally ignores the theme of sexual attraction. Newman seems to see Claire de Cintre only in terms of her elegance and suitability as a consort for a rich and accomplished man like himself. As for Claire, we learn nothing about what transpired between her and her first (much older) husband, nor is anything significant revealed about her feelings for Newman. Only the mercenary Mademoiselle Nioche is presented as a sexual being, and this only in the most oblique and negative terms. Even by Victorian standards, James's reticence on sexual matters is striking.
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
Always yearning for success in the theater, James converted The American to a play in the early 1890s. This dramatic version altered the original novel severely, and even ended happily to please theater-goers. The play was produced in London and other English cities, and enjoyed moderate success.
The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) produced a television version of The American in 1998, directed by Paul Unwin and starring Matthew Modine as Christopher Newman and Diana Rigg as Madame de Bellegarde. Michael Hastings wrote the script, which deviates significantly from James's text, including explicitly sexual scenes between Newman and Noémie, and Valentin and Noémie, for example.
- The American: an Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism edited by James Tuttleton (New York: W.W. Norton & Company 1978) ISBN 0-393-09091-4
- The Complete Plays of Henry James edited by Leon Edel (New York: Oxford University Press 1990) ISBN 0-19-504379-0
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