Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The comically implausible American of The American

The American of The American, Christopher Newman, is an odd character.  Or should I call him General Newman?  He rose, from nothing, to the rank of brigadier-general during the Civil War.  No one in the novel calls him General, though.

He is also enormously rich, an entrepreneur, but exactly how rich I cannot say.  He is called a “millionaire,” including by the narrator, and casually refers to another character being able to earn “half a million” in America under his guidance, but “million” may well be a synecdoche for “very rich.”  I remind myself that a million in May 1868 is something like twenty billion today, and Newman does not need to be anywhere near that wealthy for the story to function.

Regardless, there is an issue with Newman’s wealth.  In the first sentence, when Newman is lounging in the Louvre, it is May 1868.  He is thirty-six.  He was poor before the war, although “’in business since I was fifteen years old’” (Ch. 6, “at one time I manufactured wash-tubs”).  He is poor after, “without a penny” (Ch. 2) when he enters San Francisco, where he makes his fortune in some vague way.  That brigadier-general rank cannot have hurt.

The fortune is sufficiently large that he is about to engage in a stock market speculation worth $60,000 (or, today, $1.2 million) when he is struck by an epiphany – “’a mortal disgust for the thing I was going to do’” – and throws up the game.

Let’s say that was several months earlier in 1868. He musters out of the U.S. Army in 1864 (he was in for four years, he says).  After four years, during some of which he is still poor, he is wealthy enough to make a massive stock market gamble for the sake of revenge (“’I owed him a grudge, I felt awfully savage at the time,’” Ch. 2).  Not that people did not make fast fortunes in California, but this much, this fast?  I at times wondered if James had forgotten that his novel was set a decade before he was writing it.

But the implausibilities of Newman’s story, the most unlikely of which is his crisis of conscience, the realization by a blank man that he is a blank, helped me see what James was doing with The American.  Newman is not meant to be typical, or even likely.  The novel is more broadly comic than is usual for James, and one source of comedy is that he goes big.  He is too rich, just as his character is too narrow (the narrator summarize him in four words: “Decision, salubrity, jocosity, prosperity,” Ch. 1).  Even the plot, where he tries to marry a French countess, is about as implausible as James could make it, as if a Mark Twain con man somehow crashed into a Proust novel.  I guess he could have had Newman court a duchess, or a Bourbon princess.

Anyway, my point is that for a writer strongly associated with something called “realism,” this particular novel is impressively exaggerated.  The contrasts are going to be big ones.

It took me a little effort to figure this out.  The Europeans, written a year later is not written like this, but is a more ordinary social comedy, even if there is a character married to a German prince.  Washington Square, from three years later, is not written like this, even if the sums of money involved are similarly eye-widening.

This is all a setup for the comedy itself, so that is where I should go tomorrow.  Big laughs ahead, for me and other readers who happen to remember the context of the jokes.


  1. My limited reading of James combines with you fine assessment of his novel to suggest a thesis: the expatriate James cared not much for Americans. I wonder if that thesis could be supported through further reading of James. Well, perhaps I should consider that game-plan. However, what do you think? Is this an empty-heading, dead-end thesis or something with some legs to it?

  2. Maybe I should have emphasized more - I guess I still could - how American The American is. "I'm a strong man!" says Newman, while proposing to a French countess. And "I have no bad ways." And he means it, and I think James means it. He likes Newman pretty well.

    Which stories / novels / characters are you thinking of? In the batch I have been reading, all from this narrow period (1877-9), I would not be able to argue that James does not care for Americans.

    But there is so much James. I make no assumptions.

  3. As I think about it, the easy case - just with these texts - would be that James does not care for expatriate Americans. I take that as irony.