The American | Study Guide

Henry James

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The American | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Novelist Henry James wrote about interactions between Americans and Europeans, with The American perhaps his most direct comparison of the two cultures. First serialized in the Atlantic Monthly between 1876 and 1877 and released as a book in 1877, The American follows the exploits of Christopher Newman, a by-the-books American businessman on his first trip abroad. Newman encounters a variety of cultural differences as he courts a young woman in Paris. James uses Newman's naiveté in Europe to highlight the cultured, comfortable European mentality in contrast to the fast-paced businesslike outlook of Americans.

The American is particularly important because it contextualizes perceived cultural differences at a time when global powers were shifting. It also provides insight into the mind of an author who, living as an expatriate, gained a unique perspective on both cultural spheres.

1. James wrote The American as a response to a French play that criticized American culture.

Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, wrote a play in 1876 entitled L'Étranger, which criticized the moralist elements of American society in contrast to the freer Parisian spirit. James detested the play and crafted The American in part as a response to the negative image of Americans Dumas painted. In a letter to a friend, James expressed his distaste for Dumas's play by writing, "They all detest it—very properly, and predict for [Dumas] a great fiasco before long."

2. Although The American is a romance, the protagonist is not concerned with sexual attraction.

Throughout The American, sexual attraction plays almost no role whatsoever in main character Christopher Newman's conduct abroad. Even though Newman courts a potential bride, James leaves out any moments of sexual intrigue, focusing more on Newman's desire to gain money and influence through marriage. Many critics believe that James omitted this purposely, helping craft his image of Newman as a "new man," an American who is not overcome by the comparatively hypersexualized culture of Europe.

3. A 1998 PBS film adaptation of The American was far more sexually explicit than the novel.

The film adaptation of The American was notable for including a sex scene between Newman and Noémie—something James never featured in his novel. Regarding the alterations to the plot, director Paul Unwin explained, "We looked at James's temerity with the whole subject of sex as a weakness, and didn't perpetuate it in our adaptation of it."

4. James made major revisions to The American three decades after its publication.

James collected his novels and short stories into a series of volumes called the New York Edition, published between 1907 and 1909. James felt that since these volumes would likely reach a much larger audience, he needed to revise many of his earlier works of fiction, including The American. Responding to criticism that the novel's plot was over-romanticized and unbelievable, James's revisions focused on modifying The American to be more realistic. James was rumored to be unhappy with the final result of these revisions, but they appeared in the New York Edition nonetheless.

5. James wrote a theatrical version of The American.

From 1890 to 1895 James aspired to shift from novel writing to playwriting. One of his first attempts at writing for the stage was his 1891 dramatization of The American, which was reportedly met with "modest success." In 1895, however, James was booed at the premiere of his original play Guy Domville, essentially putting an end to his playwriting days.

6. The American was inspired by James's own youthful travels.

Although technically an American author, James spent a great deal of time outside the United States. His inspiration for The American came mostly from his travels during his youth. He first studied in Switzerland and later lived briefly in Italy while writing his second novel, Roderick Hudson, published in 1875. While living abroad, James became fascinated with the refinement of European culture in comparison to the business-minded energy of American life—a polarity that led him to write The American.

7. James attended law school at Harvard before finding success as an author.

After studying in Switzerland, London, Paris, and Italy, 19-year-old Henry James briefly enrolled in Harvard Law School. He found, however, the legal occupation was dull and not something he wished to pursue, so he dropped out to continue honing his craft as an author.

8. The American is considered James's most accessible novel.

The perceived accessibility of The American when compared to James's later work has been credited to his relationship with his brother at the time. William James, Henry's older brother, was famous for his philosophical writing and thought that is now considered a crucial part of the American philosophical tradition. At the time Henry James was writing The American, he still had strong connections to William at home in the United States and to American culture in general, which would become less and less clear after Henry lived as an expatriate in Europe.

9. Author Edith Wharton claimed James was a "wretched exotic."

Writer Edith Wharton was criticizing herself, a fellow expatriate, as well when she jokingly dismissed James's American citizenship. Wharton noted that American authors living abroad had a unique perspective on the world yet couldn't quite be classified as "American" in the traditional sense, and were instead "wretched exotics." She noted, "We don't think or feel as the Americans do."

10. James stated in a preface that The American was not a work of realism.

Although the author had tried to incorporate realism more fluently into The American after his drastic revision for the New York Edition, James stated in the novel's preface that he understood it was still a work in the romantic tradition. He wrote:

If in The American I invoked the romantic association without malice prepense, yet with a production of the romantic effect that is for myself unmistakable, the occasion is of the best perhaps for penetrating a little the obscurity of that principle.

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