One of Henry James’s achievements is that he developed the international novel. The American, his first major book, portrays a typical post-Civil War American and delineates his differences from Europeans. Although ultimately a tragic story, The American uses irony and humor in its depiction of some of the incongruities between the two cultures.
The hero’s name strongly hints at James’s purpose. Christopher Newman, the reader is told, is named after the explorer Christopher Columbus. Thus, as he returns to Europe for the culture and civilization that he has not had time to pursue in his moneymaking career, this new man becomes a discoverer in reverse. Whereas Columbus brought the Old World to the New World, Newman is a representative of the New World who seeks to discover the Old World.
Besides visiting museums, Newman seeks a wife who embodies culture. In his pursuit, he strikes against rigid European traditions. The new man is confronted with the old ways. Those old ways include the exercise of unearned privilege. Newman underestimates the power and prejudice of his French adversaries. In his New World innocence, he does not anticipate their sinister machinations. He achieves some small victories and attracts the approbation of the finest Europeans—Mrs. Bread, Valentin de Bellegarde, and the incomparable Claire de Cintré—but ultimately Newman discovers something that he did not experience in America. He is denied an opportunity to reap the rewards of his own endeavors. Through no fault of his own, but rather through the injustice of others, he loses the prize for which he has longed.
Part of the frustration the American experiences...
(The entire section is 694 words.)