If I were reading The American as it was serialized in Atlantic Monthly (June 1876-May 1877), I might not at first realize that I was reading a novel. Let me assume that I had skipped the first two novels of Henry James, even though they both appeared as serials in the Atlantic, I suppose because they looked too boring, but that I for some idle reason started this one. For its first few chapters The American is blatantly comic and plotless. An American self-made millionaire who as a character is close to a perfect blank is wandering around Europe for some reason, encountering a variety of comic types, French and American, roughly one per chapter.
By the sixth chapter and what I am guessing was the third month of serialization, Christopher Newman, the millionaire, decides he wants to marry a French countess he met previously and a more ordinary, unpicaresque plot unrolls with romance, conflict, and even melodrama, like the plot of a novel. At one point the book even threatens to become a murder mystery.
So that is all fine, but I was most impressed by the boldness of James’s opening, especially by the emptiness of the title character, Mr. Newman, who is characterized negatively for much of the book, meaning that James does not show what he is but rather what he is not – he is not like the series of people he meets on his adventures. Then, once the more plotty part of the novel begins moving, he begins to fill out on his own. It is like James is writing a parody of a Bildungsroman, with the joke that American men do not do their developing until they come to Europe. Maybe that is not meant as a joke.
Another joke. Is it not Henry James who complained about Anthony Trollope’s comical names – Dr. Fillgrave – calling them a “terrible crime”? Yet here we have Mr. New Man and his first encounter with Europe, with culture.
He had looked out all the pictures to which was an asterisk was affixed in those formidable pages of fine print in his Bädeker; his attention had been strained and his eyes dazzled, and he had sat down with an aesthetic headache… Raphael and Titian and Rubens were a new kind of arithmetic, and they inspired our friend, for the first time in his life, with a vague self-mistrust.
This is from the first page, the first paragraph. It is practically the first thing we learn about Newman. Actually the first thing James mention is that he is “muscular” and “had often performed great physical feats which left him less jaded than his tranquil stroll through the Louvre.” Also, that he enjoys looking at the women who come to the Louvre to copy paintings, and is thus led to the first of his picaresque meetings with comic types. Also his second, and even third – takes Newman a chapter-and-a-half just to escape the Louvre.
I would like to say that The American is about how Newman cures his “aesthetic headache,” but that is too glib. James skillfully makes a big shift as the novel goes along, both in structure and tone, and then meaning.
I may just write about the opening chapters, though, because they are funnier.