Study Guide

The American Identity

By Henry James


The gentleman on the divan was a powerful specimen of an American. (1.2)

Newman's not just an American. He's the prime example of a red-blooded American guy. Bring on the baseball and apple pie!

He was by inclination a temperate man […] (1.2)

Newman doesn't want debauchery. He'd rather sip some cocoa at home with a special lady…provided, of course, that that special lady can help him on his ascent from rags to riches.

He had the flat jaw and sinewy neck which are frequent in the American type […] (1.2)

You heard it here first, Shmoopers. Newman's neck is American. Maybe those sinews are actually bald eagle feathers? Is that jaw flat from too much high school football? Man, the 19th Century was a weird time.

He was shamefully idle, spiritless, sensual, snobbish. (2.6)

Yeah, this is a good description of Tom Tristram. But it's also how Newman perceives Tristram—which tells us even more about Newman's identity. Newman's #1 priority is being upwardly mobile and working hard. To him, Tristram seems more like a Persian cat than a man.

"I didn't know I had a social position, he said, and if I have, I haven't the smallest idea what it is." (4.1)

Okay, so Newman is fibbing a little bit. He's obsessed with his social position.

He had apparently once possessed a certain knowledge of English, and his accent was oddly tinged with the cockneyism of the British metropolis. (5.4)

Newman is just a little nostalgic for his American roots. He even finds reminders of his old identity in M. Nioche…even just because M. Nioche speaks good English.

"Ah, you are a strong man!" (7.3).

Valentin's being sarcastic. The fact that Newman doesn't smoke shows that he's an outsider. This would be a-okay…if Newman didn't so desperately want to be an insider.

"But I will admit that I was conceited." (8.52)

Part of Newman's narrative about himself is that he used to be a little stuck-up. Used to be? Used to be?! Newman's a good guy, but he's definitely more image-obsessed than a Youtube celebrity.

Love, he believed, made a fool of a man […] (13.1)

This belief is integral to Newman's identity. He's willing to be a fool for a while, but even he has limits. Especially when he's been made into a fool by the fact that he sticks out like a red, white, and blue sore thumb in Parisian society.

But it left me no loophole for escape—no chance to be the common weak creature that I am. (20.23)

One of the reasons Newman seems to be having an identity crisis is that he doesn't hear people when they tell him who they are. Should have listened to Maya Angelou, Newman.

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