Tuesday, August 25, 2015

He had sat down with an aesthetic headache - Henry James begins The American

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.


  1. This is exciting, a James I haven't read! I wonder how much James had planned this one in advance. If he was still finding his feet and writing it as it was being published, I mean, rather than having got the whole thing more or less down before it started appearing in The Atlantic. Henry James as Dickens. "What am I doing?" he asks himself over dessert.

    I would bet that "American men do not do their developing until they come to Europe" is never a joke in James. I think that was one of his most firm beliefs, and that American men who do not develop in Europe are failures.

  2. My not too diligent research suggests that James had the novel planned out more than the opening chapters would suggest, but that it was by no means complete when serialization began, so he had some room to improvise, have surprising insights, regrets, etc. Closer to Dickens than to Flaubert, yes.

    Newman is old for one of these characters - 36 - so his undeveloped state is stark. I will write more about him tomorrow. He is not exactly what I would call a great character, but James does a lot of smart things with him.

    1. Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors is in his 50s, I think, when he arrives in Europe and discovers a new kind of arithmetic. Maybe James' characters got older as the writer aged. That happens sometimes.

      It's also true enough that, if you read enough James, you begin to see how he divided people into types, and there are a limited number of types in his books. That's also probably common enough. But James was a good comic writer. One could wish he'd relaxed more often, written more funny ironical bits.

  3. The American is just about as relaxed as I have ever seen James, and it all works just as you say.

    I will return to the types, maybe more than once.

  4. I really need to read James, and perhaps you have given me the necessary push; however, I am preoccupied at the moment with other matters:

  5. Whatever use Henry James's fiction might have, it is not much good for that.

  6. I have had a fear of Henry James ever since I read The Turn of the Screw, but this is pretty intriguing. I may not give up on James yet. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

  7. James, had a long, long career and he changed a lot. You might never guess that The American or "Daisy Miller" are by the same author as "The Turn of the Screw."

    The American could have a "Henry James without Fear" sticker on it.

  8. I have read eight or ten of James's novels and twice as many of his short stories, and I find The American and the weakest end. More interesting is Roderick Hudson from the early years, and The Spoils of Pointon, The Bostonians, and What Maisie Knew from the middle years. The three great novels of his late period are all stunningly complex and brilliant, but not for the faint of heart. I think The Ambassadors to be one of the great American novels, and I always tell people that The Golden Bowl may have been the most difficult novel I have ever finished (although I said that before I tried Gravity's Rainbow and Infinite Jest, novels that don't even deserve to be mentioned in any posting about the greatness of James). To call James even slightly Dickensian would have constricted his poor bowels even more than the chronic constipation from which he suffered ironically, since he certainly had no trouble excreting words.

    Love your blog even when you write about people and books I have never heard of.

  9. Roderick Hudson! Oh no, I skipped that one. Just as I was feeling passably well-read in James (through 1880, I mean).

    I have been quite impressed by The American, but you may notice that I am dodging its substance for matters of construction and style. Those are what impressed me.

    I hope - I believe - I will find the energy to tackle one of those late novels fairly soon. I still haven't even read Portrait of a Lady, though. Or The Bostonians. Or What Maisie Knew. Help.

    James and Dickens were alike in one big way - maybe only this one way. They were both writers who learned what they were writing by the act of writing. They were not conceptual artists. They had to put their hands in the clay to know what kind of pot they were making.