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Long before American tourists had a reputation for wearing board shorts and fanny-packs to the Vatican, Henry James was trying to get a handle on what makes Americans tick.
After all, by the time James dropped The American in 1876, the U.S. had had a hundred years to figure out a national identity. Should be easy enough, right? And James was writing in a year chock-full of significant American events. We're talking the dirtiest presidential election of all time, the founding of baseball's National League, and the patent of the telephone. Oh, and ever heard of a little show called Deadwood? It chronicles the way the West was expanding (in a lawless manner) during—yep—1876.
James had plenty of material to draw from.
With all that awesome stuff going on, you'd think that James would write a story about presidential candidates fighting their way through the Wild West while playing baseball.
But our guy James drops a quintessentially "American" character in Europe to see what will happen. Because the only real way to see how American an American is is to throw him into a situation that is decidedly not American.
And in 1876, life among the European gentry was just about the opposite of life among purple mountains majesty and amber waves of grain.
Meet Christopher Newman. He's wealthy, brash, and ready to spend some serious cash on his quest to find a wife. There's just one problem: throwing money at a problem isn't a solution in French high society. In fact, everything that Newman does highlights his all-American status—from the way he pays for French lessons to his vengeance plot in the book's final chapters is all as American as apple pie.
The American is part comedy-of-manners (think lazy rich men and scheming marriage plots) and part massive melodrama (think duels, convents, and revenge). But this split personality actually works toward the book's themes: after all, what do Americans like more than a side of melodrama with our comedy?
This novel manages to highlight the stereotypes of both brash Americans and snooty Europeans almost 150 years after it first dropped. That's insanely impressive—it's not often that media stays relevant for a decade, let alone more than a century.
But that staying power can be chalked up to the fact that this book is written by Henry James, one of the undisputed masters of English-language literature and a major pioneer into the world of psychological realism. The American stands proud among other James novels—think The Portrait of A Lady, The Wings of the Dove, and What Maisie Knew.
Scratch that. The American not only stands proud, but it stands proud with its shirt off, waving the stars and stripes, eating an ear of corn on the cob, drinking a sweet tea, and shouting U-S-A, U-S-A.
Just ask young Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen: a passport to Paris is one hot commodity. An entire industry has formed around nailing that too-cool-for-school French style, mostly represented by striped shirts, berets, and baguettes.
It's pretty clear that Americans are obsessed with French style, even if that obsession is based on an unrealistic image (the French always look great with unwashed hair) or a flat-out fantasy (the French eat croissants for every meal but never gain weight).
Now, our titular American, Christopher Newman, might not pull on a jaunty beret at every opportunity, but he's also feeling the French love. Why else would this super-successful dude drop his American business and try to immerse himself in all things French?
The guy is dead-set on finding some "culture"…whatever that means. And he does it just like M.K. and Ashley do it in their classic movie: by chomping on delicious cheese, hanging out at the Louvre, and riding around with cute guys on mopeds.
Okay, not that last one.
It's not like Newman manages to magically morph into a Frenchie by soaking up culture like a sponge. Even though he learns the language, talks the talk and walks the French walk, the Bellegardes don't see him as one of them.
Just by virtue of being an American, he's not welcome in the family. Just like how buying expensive striped shirts gets you closer to looking like a zebra than being Coco Chanel.
But we think you should care about The American not only if you're a Francophile. Or hey—an American.
Because what The American is portraying is the way that the fantasy we have of other places dissolves from a rosy-tinted dreamscape into something much more complicated. You know this from experience: maybe high school didn't turn out to be anything like a John Hughes movie. Maybe you went to Hawaii and instead of crystal clear skies got nonstop rain. Maybe the state fair turned out to be less Charlotte's Web and more David Foster Wallace's "Ticket to the Fair."
We're not saying you shouldn't move to France, enter your pie in a state fair contest, or take that trip to Maui. Do it. But do it with open eyes.
And nothing will pry those lids open like reading The American.
Will the Real Henry James Please Stand Up
Who is Henry James, anyway? Being both a British and American citizen was apparently pretty complicated for the guy.
Is The American Hip or Old-Fashioned?
For real, though. Does James endorses Newman's forward-thinking business views, or is he mocking them?
Newman and Noemie, Sitting in a Tree
If you thought you noticed sparks flying between Newman and Noemie in the book, check out this 1998 adaptation of The American.
An American Masterpiece
As always, Masterpiece Theatre hits it out of the park with their 2001 version of The American.
The Making of The American Movie
Ever wonder what goes into making a Henry James novel into a movie? Screenwriter Michael Hastings has you covered.
Could Henry James have predicted his own staying power as an author? Sounds like it.
Newman and Claire 4Ever
PBS has kindly provided this video documentation of Newman and Claire's romance.
Newman meets Claire's family for the first time.
James, the Mystery
Much of James' life remains a mystery, according to this podcast.
A Dashing Newman
Actor Edward Compton played Newman in the 1891 play version. Looking good.
The Whole Fam
Want to see Henry's family? Look no further than this illustrated family tree.