Study Guide

The American Letters

By Henry James

Letters

Very Verbose

Newman writes up a storm in The American. Of course, he's modest about it. While Newman is gallivanting around Europe, he confesses to Mrs. Tristram that he's a "miserable letter writer" (5.30).

He proceeds to detail his traveling experiences while noting all of the cliché expressions usually used to describe beautiful places. Newman's self conscious about his writing, sure, but he has a lot to say.

In some ways, Newman's more expressive in his letters than he is in real life. He wants someone to discuss all the goopy stuff with him, like castles and the countryside. Since Claire won't give him the time of day (yet), he's forced to put it all down on paper.

He's Got a Lot of Thoughts

Then again, Newman's pretty vulnerable when he's writing letters. He tells Mrs. Tristram about all his "plans and visions" for when returns to Paris, even though he knows he sounds a bit naïve (5.30).

Even though we have our fabulous third person omniscient narrator letting us know what's up with every character's inner thoughts, it's nice to hear it directly from the source once in a while. Writing lots of letters allows Newman to reflect on things he wouldn't otherwise dream of revealing.

Dial M for Murder

Newman's not the only one writing letters in The American. A major murder plot unfolds through a letter written long ago by a long dead character. That's right: M. Bellegarde wants his revenge from beyond the grave.

Spooky.

Suffice it to say that M. Bellegarde does not go gentle into that good night. "It is murder, if murder ever was": we hear it right from the mouth of the deceased (23.69).

Even more excitingly, Newman has to painstakingly translate the French note into English. On one hand, it's plain that his French lessons are paying off. (Gold star, Newman.) On the other hand, Newman's using his knowledge of the French language to sabotage his potential in-laws.

Letters reveal secrets: secrets about Newman's true vulnerability, his inner thoughts, and the Bellegarde propensity for poison. Whenever we see a snippet of a letter included in the book, it's a sure sign we get a direct line to the source material.

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