Introduction

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 306

Henry James’s The American was one of his earliest full-length novels, serialized in the Atlantic Monthly from June 1876 through May 1877. It was written after the thirty-two-year-old native New Yorker had spent a year in Paris and then in London. In it, James began to master his exploration of the cultural conflict between the Old World and the New World, much as he had experienced himself. Despising the commercialism that was overtaking his hometown of New York City following the Civil War, James turned his back on his homeland, yet did not give up his devotion to individual liberty. This personal struggle is evident in the character of Christopher Newman, a wealthy American who rejects the new American financial focus and seeks the historical cultural enlightenment of the lands of his forebears. Eventually,  he became a British subject shortly before his death in 1916.

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In The American, James reveals his inner turmoil of an expatriate who still retains a love for the fundamental virtues of his country. Christopher Newman, as a type of “reverse discoverer,” is seeking to bring the wealth of individual freedom to this “undiscovered country” of a decaying Europe. The notion of democracy was beginning to find lasting roots in the Old World, and thus The American traces its early encroachment. James’s revelation of the moral dearth that had overtaken the European aristocracy is balanced with struggles of the younger generation (epitomized by Valentin and Claire) as they seek to adapt Newman’s notion of individual choice within the culture in which they were raised and still seek to live.
The American is thus a precursor to many of James’s later works. The rising of a new individual out of the ashes of the old will reappear throughout many of his novels and short stories for the remainder of his writing career.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 953

In 1868, Christopher Newman, a young American millionaire, withdraws from business and sails for Paris. He wants to relax, to develop his aesthetic sense, and to find a wife. One day, as he wanders in the Louvre, he makes the acquaintance of Mlle Nioche, a young copyist. She introduces him to her father, an unsuccessful shopkeeper. Newman buys a picture from Mlle Nioche and contracts to take French lessons from her father.

Later, through the French wife of an American friend named Tristram, he meets Claire de Cintré, a young widow, daughter of an English mother and a French father. As a young girl, Claire was married to Monsieur de Cintré, an evil old man. He soon died, leaving Claire with a distaste for marriage. In spite of her attitude, Newman sees in her the woman he wishes for his wife. An American businessman, however, is not the person to associate with French aristocracy. On his first call, Newman is kept from entering Claire’s house by her elder brother, the Marquis de Bellegarde.

True to his promise, M. Nioche appears one morning to give Newman his first lesson in French. Newman enjoys talking to the old man. He learns that Mlle Nioche dominates her father, who lives in fear that she will leave him and become the mistress of some rich man. M. Nioche tells Newman that he will shoot his daughter if she does. Newman takes pity on the old man and promises him enough money for Mlle Nioche’s dowry if she will paint more copies for him.

Newman leaves Paris and travels through Europe during the summer. When he returns to Paris in autumn, he learns that the Tristrams were helpful; the Bellegardes are willing to receive him. One evening, Claire’s younger brother, Valentin, calls on Newman and the two men find their opposite points of view a basis for friendship. Valentin envies Newman’s liberty to do as he pleases; Newman wishes himself acceptable to the society in which the Bellegardes move. After the two men become good friends, Newman tells Valentin that he wishes to marry his sister and asks Valentin to plead his cause. Warning Newman that his social position is against him, Valentin promises to help the American as much as he can.

Newman confesses his wish to Claire and asks Madame de Bellegarde, Claire’s mother, and the Marquis for permission to be her suitor. The permission is given, grudgingly. The Bellegardes need money in the family. Newman goes to the Louvre to see how Mlle Nioche is progressing with her copying. There he meets Valentin and introduces him to the young lady. Mrs. Bread, an old English servant of the Bellegardes, assures Newman that he is making progress with his suit. He asks Claire to marry him, and she accepts. Meanwhile, Valentin challenges another man to a duel in a quarrel over Mlle Nioche. Valentin leaves for Switzerland with his seconds. The next morning, Newman goes to see Claire. Mrs. Bread meets him at the door and says that Claire is leaving town. Newman demands an explanation. He is told that the Bellegardes cannot allow a commercial person in the family. When he arrives home, he finds a telegram from Valentin stating that he is badly wounded and asking Newman to come at once to Switzerland.

With this double burden of sorrow, Newman arrives in Switzerland and finds Valentin near death. Valentin guesses what his family did and tells Newman that Mrs. Bread knows a family secret. If he can get the secret from her, he can make the family return Claire to him. Valentin dies the next morning. Newman attends the funeral. Three days later, he again calls on Claire, who tells him that she intends to enter a convent. Newman begs her not to take this step. Desperate, he calls on the Bellegardes again and tells them that he will uncover their secret. Newman arranges to see Mrs. Bread that night. She tells him that Madame de Bellegarde killed her disabled husband because he opposed Claire’s marriage to M. de Cintré. The death was judged natural, but Mrs. Bread has in her possession a document proving that Madame de Bellegarde murdered her husband. She gives this paper to Newman.

Mrs. Bread leaves the employ of the Bellegardes and comes to keep house for Newman. She tells him that Claire is in the convent and refuses to see anyone, even her own family. The next Sunday, Newman goes to mass at the convent. After the service, he meets the Bellegardes walking in the park and shows them a copy of the paper Mrs. Bread gave him.

The next day, the Marquis calls on Newman and offers to pay for the document. Newman refuses to sell. He will, however, accept Claire in exchange for it. The Marquis refuses. Newman finds he cannot bring himself to reveal the Bellegardes’ secret. On the advice of the Tristrams, he travels through the English countryside and, in a melancholy mood, goes to some of the places he planned to visit on his honeymoon. Then he goes to America. Restless, he returns to Paris and learns from Mrs. Tristram that Claire became a nun.

The next time he sees Mrs. Tristram, he drops the secret document on the glowing logs in her fireplace and tells her that to expose the Bellegardes now seems a useless and empty gesture. He intends to leave Paris forever. Mrs. Tristram tells him that he probably did not frighten the Bellegardes with his threat, because they knew that they could count on his good nature never to reveal their secret. Newman instinctively looks toward the fireplace. The paper is burned to ashes.

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