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 is that, with his native capaciousness, he believes that he can incorporate into his own character the best of other cultures and so improve himself. Indeed, Valentin and Claire, brother and sister of the old Bellegarde family, are willing to join Newman’s wide embrace. Their good natures are stronger than their aristocratic prejudices. James, however, does not allow the best members of the Bellegarde family to prevail. He ends the novel unhappily. In answer to the objections of his editor, William Dean Howells, James explained that a happy ending would have been unrealistic and would have been pandering to his readership. Claire and Christopher would have been, in James’s words, “an impossible couple.”
In exploring the contrasting outlooks of the democratic Americans and the aristocratic Europeans, James utilizes humor. This novel is sometimes reminiscent of Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad (1869), a hilarious account of Americans in Europe and the Middle East. James’s boorish Mr. Tristram, for example, wonders whether the pictures hanging in the Louvre are for sale. Subtler irony lies in Newman’s failure to realize that his having manufactured washtubs jeopardizes his efforts to win the approbation of the French aristocracy. Like Twain, James was keenly aware of differing cultural values and their humorous potential.
James’s biographer suggests that the portrait of Newman as a national type is filled with ambiguity. Newman could not have met with James’s total admiration. He is too obtuse and self-satisfied with his material success, and he has the audacity to believe that he can buy culture, including a cultured wife. The new man has fine qualities and deplorable ones. He does not deserve the wrong he receives, but does he really deserve to gain the hand of Claire?
Some romantic elements in the novel were deplored by critics and by James himself later in his career. The mystery of Monsieur Bellegarde’s death, the implications of foul play lying behind the medieval walls of the Bellegardes’ home, and the horrible prospect of Claire’s impending “burial” in a convent are all melodramatic. James became, in spite of this beginning, one of the major figures of the realistic movement. His attention was on verisimilitude, as his choice of a common man for a protagonist and his interest in the pragmatic philosophy of the protagonist attest. Usually regarded as inferior to masterpieces such as The Ambassadors (1903) and The Portrait of a Lady (1880-1881), The American nevertheless exhibits many of the qualities that made James one of the major novelists of his time.