The American | Study Guide

Henry James

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The American | Context


The American Century

The American was first published as a serial in The Atlantic Monthly, and its first chapters were published in 1876, 100 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence that established the United States as a nation independent from Great Britain. In those relatively short 100 years America had transformed. It had gone from a loosely knit collection of colonies to an economic power. It had ratified a governing constitution (1788), endured a bloody Civil War between Northern and Southern states over states' rights and slavery (1861–65), and in the end terminated slavery within its borders when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. It had been transformed by a worldwide Industrial Revolution (1760–1840), becoming a major player in manufacturing. Westward expansion had exploded with the California gold rush (1848–55), and Americans were busy fulfilling their national manifest destiny.

Centuries in Europe

In contrast to America's relatively short history, European countries have long histories. France traces its origins back to Gaul (region of Western Europe that included present-day France), which was conquered by Roman general Julius Caesar (100 BCE–44 BCE). It was later renamed after a group of people who occupied the country, the Franks, who were members of Germanic tribes that merged with Gallo-Roman peoples to become the French people. It endured the Hundred Years' War with England (1337–1453), and it remained a major European power for centuries and assisted the United States in its fight for independence from the British (1775–83). Paris, one of France's most important cities, traces its history back nearly 2,000 years. The Louvre, a world-famous art museum in Paris, is home to some of history's most famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa (1503) by Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519).

Like many European countries, France developed an elaborate class system, including a complex hierarchy of nobility. The conferring of titles has changed over time, but in general dukes and duchesses rank higher than marquises and counts, who rank higher than barons.

The Grand Tour and Americans in Paris

In the 1800s it was common for a wealthy young man to go on what was known as a "Grand Tour." Newman himself mentions the Grand Tour as he travels throughout Europe. After a young man of means completed his education, he would take a months-long trip through Europe to experience art, opera, music, and other forms of high culture. France, Italy, and Greece were common destinations, as these countries were viewed as being particularly beneficial for elevating a young man's mind.

Although the Grand Tour was primarily an institution of English society, some Americans also adopted the idea. The idea that traveling to Europe would enrich one's mind by an infusion of art and culture is part of what drove so many Americans to live in Paris in the 1800s. The American expatriate community (made up of artists born in America but living in France), which thrived from the early 1800s through the middle of the 20th century, was built partly upon this idea that Paris history and culture could provide a creative community not available in America. The novel's protagonist Christopher Newman does not take a Grand Tour, nor does he desire to become an artist. However, the belief that the Old World has something intangible to offer that America does not is a motivating factor in his decision to visit it.

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