Sunday, January 04, 2015

The American (1877)

It was a treat for me finally getting to this Henry James staple, which I somehow missed in spite of all the American literature courses I took in college. It's made to order for them, and indeed often taught, with its virtually diagrammatic exposition that pits raw New World vigor against effete Old World sophistication. The American of the title is one Christopher Newman—yes, I said Christopher Newman, a thundering point made more complicated for me in the present day by my association of "Newman" with Seinfeld and Wayne Knight—Christopher Newman, who has made his fortune at the age of 36 and arrived in Europe to seek a wife. Never mind that it's not exactly the life course of the average American, even then, even for a white man of Anglo-Saxon extraction. Ultimately, I don't know how much The American has to say about either Europe or America, though the contrasts as adduced remain mostly interesting. I actually engaged more with the story of the suitor and his beloved, and found that it paid off with satisfying emotional charges. Newman is a bit of a stuck-up prig, yet more open-minded in many other ways than the Europeans he meets and consorts with. It works well as a novel of manners, with many interesting and complex sideline characters and scenes. The villains, for villains there are, are very villainous, and I was caught up and deeply in thrall. Now and then it becomes too ludicrously dated, reminiscent of the horrors George Bailey suffers in the movie It's a Wonderful Life when he discovers that his wife's alternative future is to be an unmarried librarian. Occasionally, also, one wishes for the expedient of people simply declaring openly what they want and mean. At the same time, Henry James can be very good at closing off these avenues in the situations he develops. The characters are often vivid, their situations often truly impossible. In the end it turned out to be a real page-turner as at some point I realized I could not guess what would happen next, and cared very much about these people and wanted to know. It's no simple and tidy finish. Excellent.

"interlocutor" count = 5/431 pages (includes "interlocutress")

In case it's not at the library.

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