Henry James American Literature Analysis
The distinctive focus of James’s early fiction is undoubtedly what the author himself dubbed the international theme. From Roderick Hudson (1876) and The American to Daisy Miller, The Portrait of a Lady, and The Aspern Papers (1888), James wrote about Americans in Europe. One might invoke the “innocents abroad” of the Mark Twain title to characterize James’s overarching sense of how his countrymen, generally wealthy and in search of a cultural breadth and depth unavailable in the Gilded Age United States, came to grief when they encountered the more settled, socially entrenched European culture.
The classic examples are Daisy Miller and The American. In the former, the ingenue heroine dies when she foolishly ignores warnings not to venture out in the Roman evening when the danger of contracting fever is greatest. Her life and death allegorize the Jamesian sense that Americans are vulnerable when they go to Europe, that they are simply naïve in the ways of the world and thus easily fall to the wiles of the more cunning and worldly Europeans.
The American makes the same point less dramatically, depicting the tragic involvement of Christopher Newman, a disillusioned robber baron who has come to Paris to escape the ruthless competition of American business, with an old French family whose daughter he loves and wishes to marry. Newman thinks that his money (which the family desires) and native good sense will be proof against the family’s determined resistance to accepting him as a son-in-law. Too late he realizes that the rules of society are completely different in Europe, that discriminations and nuances that have matured over generations count for more than personal determination and a hefty bank balance.
James would never abandon the international theme entirely; it would, in fact, be central to his late masterpieces, The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl. From The Portrait of a Lady onward, however, the capacity of Americans to deal on equal terms with Europeans, to hold their own in the strategic game of manipulating social power, demonstrably improves. It may be that this raising of Americans’ stock, as it were, reflected James’s growing confidence in himself, both socially and artistically.
What seems more likely, however, is that James lived through a period when the balance of economic—hence social—forces had begun to shift dramatically in favor of the United States, particularly in relation to Britain and France, the two countries he knew best. Americans had been going abroad in growing numbers since before the Civil War; James’s own family was a prime example. With the definitive triumph of Northern industrial capital over the Southern plantocracy, the stage was set for a massive expansion of the American economy, with the building of railroads, heavy investment in coal and iron production, and the opening of the Western prairies for capitalist agriculture. By the 1880’s, and increasingly in the decades preceding World War I, American economic power was challenging that of Britain for global supremacy. This, one may surmise, is the relevant background to the demonstrably more powerful American characters who inhabit James’s mature fiction,
Much has been written about James’s prose style, especially about its growing complexity—even obscurity—in the last twenty years of his life. Close attention to the texts, however, reveals that while the periodicity of his sentences did grow as he matured, it is less their syntactic oddity—James’s sentences characteristically parse perfectly well—than their figurative richness that makes James’s prose bewildering.
The difficulty of James’s later writings is related to another feature that, while always observable in his fiction, assumes greater prominence in the texts of his final period. These narratives are often controlled by central symbols announced in the title, for example, the biblical image of the Holy Spirit in The Wings of the Dove , or...
(The entire section is 4,775 words.)