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.
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.