An American Visitor is a novel written by Joyce Cary. The book was published in 1933. The novel centers on Marie Hasluck, an American journalist who visits British-controlled Nigeria. She believes in the idea of the "noble savage." She seeks to understand the indigenous population living under a colonial power.
The novel touches on various topics such as the effects of colonialism, particularly in East Africa, as well as the illusion of the "noble savage," the idea that indigenous people are one-dimensional who are purely innocent. The novel shows the complexity of human nature and that this generalization about particular groups of people is a false way of perceiving the world.
Marie's character is the personification of "white guilt," which is the attitude of guilt held by some white people toward nonwhites due to centuries of racist institutions. However, Marie also exemplifies the negative effects of white guilt, such as generalizing all nonwhites as "noble savages," thus taking away their humanity. Marie's perception also clouds her objectivity as a scientist and observer. She is not able to fully realize the complexity of human behavior.
Even Marie's perception of Nigeria as paradise hints at her utopian fantasies and idealization of foreign lands. The white prospectors are portrayed as greedy capitalists who want to claim territory from the Birri tribe of Nigeria. This portion of the novel is quite accurate, as historical records show that Nigerian tribes and lands were exploited by European colonists.
Despite Marie's tense relations with the white prospectors and colonial authorities, she falls in love with the redheaded district officer, Eustace Bewsher. The officer, out of all the characters in the novel, has the deepest understanding of the native Africans, which is why he is able to keep order without the use of force. He uses his intuition and persuasion skills to keep the military forces from using violence against the local populace.
Marie also meets evangelical ministers who successfully convert many of the tribe's people into Christianity. However, it is evident that the conversion to Christianity is also a form of colonialism.
The native characters in the novel also show complexity, which shatters Marie's idea of the noble savage. Instead, we see one of the local men physically abuse his wife. In the end, it was Bewsher, not the "American visitor," who understood the precarious social and political dynamics in British-colonized Nigeria.
In the end, Marie tells us that Bewsher was speared 12 times, symbolizing the fate of the British Empire in East Africa.