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The American | Study Guide

Henry James

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The American | Chapter 2 | Summary



Still at the Louvre Newman encounters Tom Tristram—a man he'd met during the Civil War. They also strike up a conversation, and Newman learns that for the last six years Tristram has been living with his wife and children in Paris. Tristram suggests they go to the Palais Royal, have a smoke, and talk. There Newman shares part of what brought him to France: He's been a hard worker all his life, and that work has paid off. He is now a wealthy businessman. He describes an experience in which he had been traveling to make a lucrative business deal—and one that would ruin a rival businessman in the process—when he unexpectedly fell asleep. When he woke he no longer wanted to make the deal or get his petty revenge on the other businessman. After this change of heart Newman decided he wanted to see Europe and quickly made the arrangements. Now here he is in Paris. As the two men wrap up their conversation, Tristram invites Newman to dinner.


This chapter fills in the gaps in Christopher Newman's backstory, answering nagging questions the reader may have from Chapter 1: What has brought this tough American to Paris? What made the practical, hardworking businessman leave his business interests and go off to Europe for an extended vacation? As it happens Christopher Newman had an "awakening," both literal and figurative. When he wakes up from his nap he finds he is a "new" man with a new outlook. This sudden turning point resulted in the trip to Europe. And his plans are quite ambitious, in true American style. He's not just planning to experience Paris or other European destinations, he wants to "rest awhile, to forget the confounded thing, to look about me, to see the world, to have a good time, to improve my mind, and, if the fancy takes me, to marry a wife." Since he is wealthy this will be easier than if he were poor, but it is still a tall order. For one thing Newman wants more than just an experience, he wants to gain those things that he feels are lacking in his self and personal life: an improved mind and a wife. In addition his natural inclinations don't lend themselves to the items in his list. For a man to whom "exertion and action were as natural ... as respiration," rest, forgetting, and having a good time are going to be especially difficult.

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