Thursday, August 27, 2015

"You can say all sorts of bright things in it" - the Americans in The American learn French

From The American’s American to other characters, some of whom are also Americans, such as Babcock the Unitarian minister who “lived chiefly on Graham bread and hominy” to the extent that “[i]n Paris he had purchased a bag of hominy at an establishment which called itself an American Agency” and took his Grand Tour with it, insisting that the cooks at his various Italian hotels prepare it for him, a position that the narrator, who can be snide, “show[ed] extreme serenity and fortitude.”  Babcock “was extremely fond of pictures and churches” but “nevertheless in his secret soul he detested Europe.”

Babcock fills much of Chapter 5 and is never mentioned again.  He provides a good example of how the character of the protagonist, Brigadier-General Newman, is presented negatively.  Newman is at risk of looking inflexible, but no, he is not like Babcock.

Goethe recommended seeing human nature in the most various forms, and Mr. Babcock thought Goethe perfectly splendid.  He often tried, in odd half-hours of conversation to infuse into Newman a little of his own spiritual starch, but Newman's personal texture was too loose to admit of stiffening.  His mind could no more hold principles than a sieve can hold water.  He admired principles extremely, and thought Babcock a mighty fine little fellow for having so many.

That last line is Wildean, yes?  The American who is the contrast on the other side, Mr. Tristram, gets off some good ones, too.  He has just met Newman – we are back in the Louvre – after a gap of eight or nine years.  If Babcock has too much sensitivity to Europe, to culture, Tristram has none at all.

“I have just made arrangements to take French lessons.” [this is Newman]

“Oh, you don't want any lessons. You'll pick it up. I never took any.”

“I suppose you speak French as well as English?”

“Better!” said Mr. Tristram, roundly.  “It's a splendid language. You can say all sorts of bright things in it.”

“But I suppose,” said Christopher Newman, with an earnest desire for information, “that you must be bright to begin with.”

“Not a bit; that's just the beauty of it.”

I had wondered if James meant Newman to be a bit of an idiot.  Knowing what I was thinking he introduces a genuine specimen to steer me in another direction.

In case I go to far the other way, imagining that Newman is secretly sly, James brings in Mrs. Tristram, sophisticated, almost Machiavellian, where her husband is idiotic, with a “marked tendency to irony” (Ch. 3).  It would not be too much to say that much of Newman’s development in Europe is to acquire a sense of irony, but not so strong that it corrupts him.  Corrupt is a little too strong for Mrs. Tristram, who “was buying a good conscience, by installments.”  Also a good line.

I could do the same exercise with the French characters but I will not.  By the end – no, by the middle – Newman has emerged out of these American and French types with a character of his own, which is then allowed to deepen through hardship and suffering in something more like an ordinary good novel.  It’s a bold way to set up a character.

Tomorrow: a different kind of character, the grotesques, not something I associate strongly with James.  And also some favorite lines, some like what I am calling Wildean, some a whole ‘nother thing.


  1. henry must have been pretty young when this was written; it kind of weaves all over the place like someone having had a few too many. how cheerful was james as a youth, anyway!? humorous, though; never expected to find that in james, the friend of old morose joseph conrad...

  2. 33. I guess that is pretty young.

    James was a comic writer. The novel is fundamentally a comic form. I don't know about Conrad-the-human, but there is great humor in his stand-in Marlow, and The Secret Agent is a scream.

    1. i got that mostly from looking at his picture. but you're right; i read the rescue recently and it was funny in bits, but that might have been due to generation gap.

    2. Conrad wrote a sequel to his early Malaysian novels - that he messed with for over 20 years - I did not know any of that.