Tradition and modernity in Henry James's The American
University of Zaragoza, Spain
Since the year of its publication (1877), The American has kept puzzling the critics. Although there is general agreement that the novel's "international theme" is portrayed with grace and skill, its structure and indefinite mode (melodrama/comedy/romance) have been regarded as the flaws that spoil the work. Now, it is my intention to point out that the contradictory features of The American are resolved when viewing the novel from a twofold perspective: as a work firmly embedded in tradition, but already employing technical contrivances that anticipate contemporary fiction. In order to carry out the analysis, I will first consider The American in the light of tradition and then I will refer to the features that link this novel to postmodernism.
The American, James's second novel, portrays the clash between European and American culture taking aristocratic Parisian society as a backdrop. No doubt, this work is one of the most centrally concerned with the "international theme," a subject that worried James all his life, as his writings, both fictional and non-fictional, demonstrate. In his Notebooks (1981, 24), James recorded:
The passage epitomizes the reflexivity and intertextuality of James's work: thus, The American shows the influence of different genres and cultures, which, in turn, bring about the novel's
tension between tradition and modernity. Obviously, this fascination with Europe does not start with Henry James; on the contrary, it forms part of the tradition of American literature: let us recall the work of writers as diverse as W. Irving, J.E Cooper and N. Hawthorne. The three of them visited Europe, and it is no coincidence that Roderick Hudson (1876), James's first novel, stems from Hawthorne's last, The Marble Faun (1860). Both are set in Rome, deal with the foreign artist colony there and show the contrast between European and American civilization by opposing American innocence to European corruption.
Although James reacted against Hawthorne's pervasive influence on his own fiction and treated him with condescension in his biography of the New England writer Hawthorne (1879) the parallel between the work of both authors is inescapable (1). In this biography, James calls Hawthorne "provincial" and "old-fashioned," criticizing, above all, Hawthorne's reliance on romance, his not being a realist. Thus, even though James admires the beauty of The Scarlet Letter, he deplores its "want of reality" and "abuse of the fanciful element" (1966, 49) which, in his opinion, are the main faults of the book.
Ironically, and despite James's insistence on realism and his rejection of Hawthorne's literary devices, The American echoes the "faults" that James found in the work of his predecessor: "a want of reality and an abuse of the fanciful element." Precisely, these characteristics link the novel to the 19th-century American tradition of romance of which Hawthorne and Melville are usually taken as the best representatives (2).
In order to analyse The American (3), it is convenient to recall its plot, for it reflects many elements that point to the fanciful world of romance: Christopher Newman, an American millionaire on a long tour in Europe, meets an aristocratic widow, Claire de Cintré, in Paris through his friendship with the Tristrams, an American couple resident in that city. Although Mrs. Tristram warns Newman of the extreme pride and aloofness of Claire's family the Bellegardes he is determined to marry the widow, assuming that his wealth and dynamism will prove more powerful than European class conventions.
From the beginning, Newman and the reader are aware of the Marquis Urbain de Bellegarde's Claire's elder brother antipathy to him. Similarly, the shrewd, proud old Marquise is also cold and reserved. In contrast, Newman becomes a close friend of Count Valentin, Claire's younger brother, who encourages his courtship of Mme de Cintré; however, the others tolerate him only because of his wealth. Finally, Newman's proposal is
1.On this, see R.E. Long's
The Great Succession. Henry James acid
the Legacy of Hawthorne
accepted, the engagement formally announced and the Marquis reluctantly introduces Newman to his aristocratic friends.
Apart from his relationship with the Bellegardes, Newman is also acquainted with a Parisian impoverished family Mlle. Noémie Nioche, a mediocre copyist of paintings, and her shabby-genteel father who try to get as much profit as possible out of the rich American. Through Newman, Valentin meets Noémie, and though realizing that she is mercenary and unscrupulous, he continues to see her. Unfortunately, she is the cause of a duel in which Valentin is fatally wounded. A little before this event, Claire decides to break her engagement, influenced by her mother and brother.
At Valentin's deathbed, Newman hears the Count's disgust with his family and is told that Mrs. Bread, the Bellegardes' maid, knows a guilty secret about them that Newman may use to his own ends. After Valentin's funeral, Claire announces that she intends to become a nun. Thanks to Mrs. Bread, Newman discovers that the Marquise with Urbain's complicity killed her husband, and he threatens to disclose the evidence, but Urbain and his mother still refuse to allow the marriage. At first, Newman determines to carry out his revenge, but in the end, he destroys the letter in which Claire's father exposed the family guilt.
The first thing that has puzzled the critics is the turn of the plot from light-hearted comedy of manners to melodrama and romance bringing about a sad, unexpected ending. This unhappy denouement has become the source of a flood of criticism, which continues to this day (4). William Dean Howells, as the editor of the Atlantic Monthly in which The American was being published in instalments, was one of the first authors to criticize the novel's ending. In a letter to him (30/3/1877), James explained the reasons for his choice of the ending:
4. Cf. for instance, C. Anderson's Person, Place and Thing in Henry James's Novels (1977) and M. Banta's New Essays on The American (1987).
In James's opinion, Claire and Newman "would have been an impossible couple" (Edel 1962, 254); in his reply to Lizzie Boot, one of James's friends, he added, concerning The American's ending: "I am a realist" (ibid.). But as Edel has noted, given the protagonist's misfortunes in the second part of the novel, the unhappy ending is "no more 'real' than would have been a happy one" (1962, 255). In any case, James produced a happy ending, for The American when he took the novel to the stage in 1891.
In his preface for the New York edition (1907), James recognized his dissatisfaction with The American, noting that given the circumstances,
Although in the preface to The American, James realized that when writing the novel he "had been plotting arch-romance without knowing it" (in Blackmur 1962, 25), and even sketches a definition of the real and the romantic, he is never clear about the difference between them. In fact, he concludes that
Anticipating the typical postmodernist love of ambiguity and paradox, James states that, in fact, "the interest is greater ... when [the novelist] commits himself in both directions" (in Blackmur 1962, 31), "the real" and "the romantic." Significantly, Diane Elam takes James's preface to The American as a point of departure for her work Romancing the Postmodern (1992): she supports James's ambiguous definition of romance since, in her opinion "unlike the prescriptions of literary realism, [romance] has no correct images or
forms per se" (1992, 6). Like James, Elam concludes that "a clear distinction between realism and romance [is] impossible" (1992, 7) (5).
In disagreement with R. Chase, who in The American Novel and Its Tradition (1957) establishes a clear distinction between romance and realism, Elam defends the uncertainty inherent in the concept of romance: romance "uses and abuses conventional categories of genre," "threatens to expose 'reality' as a constructed referent rather than as a 'natural' state of existence" and "is neither realistic nor fantastic" (1992, 4, 8, 23). In short, romance appears to be a contradictory term which, in Derrida's words, evokes "a principle of contamination, a law of impurity" and "excess." (in Elam 1992, 6). Elam adds that "romance should be considered as a postmodern genre" (1992, 12) because both romance and postmodernism share a common excess: romance exceeds generic boundaries and postmodernism, temporal ones:
As I will try to point out, The American epitomizes the excess typical of postmodernism and romance: if this work (like romances) proves to be neither realistic nor fantastic, going beyond generic conventions, it similarly holds within itself many of the features that are associated to the fiction of the late 20th century (postmodernism): humour, irony, parody and self-reflexivity. Thus, The American comes to support the thesis advocated by Elam and other critics (6): that the characteristics of postmodernism are already contained within modernism and anticipated in earlier historical periods: "postmodernism is characterized by a definitive dispute about its location (at which "historical" point is it introduced?)" (Elam 1992, 12).
To begin with, a close reading of The American shows that the shift from realistic comedy of manners to romance and melodrama is not clear, if it exists at all: in fact, from the very beginning of the narrative the reader can discover many elements that suggest the
5. F. Jameson also defends the mixed
character of most literary works: "Magical Narratives: On the Dialectical
Use of Genre Criticism," The Political
Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act
eclectic character of the text: thus, in the first chapter, when the narrator describes the protagonist's eye, he is also summing up the features of the story:
Undoubtedly, this description points both to the subject-matter of the novel and to its contradictory elements, which may include "almost anything" we look for. In addition, the comparison of Newman to the heroes of romance, in which, by implication, he proves inferior, anticipates the parodic features of the novel. Obviously, these parodic features contribute to reinforce the "contamination" and "excess" of The American, since, as is well known, parody is a recurrent characteristic of postmodern works (7).
On the other hand, the second-chapter dialogue between Newman and Mr. Tristram about paintings (copies vs. originals) and reality can also be taken as a metaphor, not only of the relationship between art and life a recurrent topic in James's works but also of the hybrid characteristics of the novel: whereas Mr. Tristram "[doesn't] care for pictures," preferring "the reality" (p. 32), Newman expresses his preference for copies, rather than originals, opinions which reflect the tensions of the novel's structure: just as Mr. Tristram's words may be taken to echo James's insistence on realism in literature ("the air of reality ... seems to me to be the supreme virtue of a novel" [1985, 437]), those of Newman point to the treatment of reality "as a constructed referent" (Elam 1992, 8). as romances do.
Similarly, the first chapters anticipate the gloomy events of the second part of the novel: Mrs. Tristram warns Newman of the "old feudal countess," who "rules the family with an iron hand, and allows [Claire] to have no friends but of her own choosing (p. 55). In turn, Newman, when meeting the old marquise for the first time "felt as if he had plunged into some medium as deep as the ocean, and as if he must exert himself to keep from sinking" (p. 97). In fact, the atmosphere of danger and ominousness is present from the start, as the pervasiveness of hints (8) demonstrates. Ironically, Newman's remark about the Bellegardes' dwelling is absolutely premonitory: "It is like something in a play ... : that dark old house over there looks as if wicked things had been done in it, and might be done
7.On this, see P. Waugh's
Metafiction (1984), L. Hutcheon's
A Theory of Parody (1985) and A
Poetics of Postmodernism
again" (p. 94). In the same way, the symbolic description of this house points to the gothic elements that surround both the past of the Bellegardes and the denouement of the plot.
It is worth noting that sentences such as "It is like something in a play" recur throughout the text, emphasizing the novel's self-reflexivity. In the first chapter, Mr. Tristram asks Newman: "Are you going, to write a book?" (p. 38); although the question is intended as a joke on his friend's cosmopolitan pretensions, Newman answers by narrating something that happened to him two months before, and that, curiously enough, anticipates the denouement of the novel: just as Newman abandoned his pursuit of revenge in the New York business world, he will do the same when confronted with the Bellegardes' treachery, in the context of Parisian aristocratic society. In this anticipatory mise-en-abyme, the protagonist also feels "as if [the events] were a play at the theatre" (p. 38), which again stresses the metafictional elements of the text.
In fact, The American offers varied instances of this kind: both characters and situations are compared to different literary genres, thus invoking the principle of contamination and impurity which Derrida associates with romance. For instance, Count Valentin was to Newman "the ideal Frenchman, the Frenchman of tradition and romance" (p. 114) and his moustache was "as delicate as that of a page in a romance" (p. 107), words that make us conscious, not only of the remote atmosphere that Newman has entered, but also of fiction as a construct out of a written text. No doubt, Valentin is the failed hero of James's romance: Mrs. Tristram notes his resemblance to the hero of Keats's "Belle Dame sans Merci," an allusion that, though dismissed by Valentin with a humorous reply ("it is good manners for no man except Newman to look happy" [p. 235]), is a premonition of his sad fate.
In agreement with the romantic features that define Count Valentin, his death is brought about by a typical element of romance: the duel. As before, the dialogue raised around it can also be taken as a metaphor on literary genres, in this case the survival of romance in adverse conditions:
The self-reflexive character of The American is proved again in its antepenultimate chapter, when Newman recalls the last events: "And yet he knew the case was otherwise; only at present it was not a reality to him. It was too strange and too mocking to be real; it was like a page torn out of a romance, with no context in his own experience" (p. 340). This passage is particularly significant, since it brings to mind the different frames of contemporary metafictional novels: obviously, in this novel there is no breaking of frames, but Newman's confusion when confronted with such strange occurrences recalls the "visions, dreams, hallucinatory states and pictorial representations" which, in postmodern works, "are finally indistinct from the apparently 'real' " (Waugh 1988, 31).
The last pages of the novel reinforce its metafictional character, its dealing with the events as passages from a book: "Without in the least intending it or knowing it, [Newman] attempted to read the moral of his strange misadventure" (p. 372: emphasis added). In a similar style, the narrator adds: "The most unpleasant thing that had ever happened to him had reached its formal conclusion, as it were: he could close the book and put it away" (p. 378). Nevertheless, the book is not put away until its remnant, the accusing letter of the old marquis, has been utterly destroyed: "Newman instinctively turned to see if the little paper was in fact consumed; but there was nothing left of it" (p. 382). Thus, the destruction of the letter puts an end to the romance in which the American has been strangely involved.
Critics have often underlined the humorous vein in which the contrast of manners between Newman and Parisian aristocrats is brought into relief. In fact, humour is so central to the structure of The American that critics have spoken of it as "high comedy" (Edel 1962, 256), or at least conceded that comedy constitutes "Its dominant mode" (Anderson 1977, 41), emphasizing also how important humour is to American culture (9).
Certainly, there are many passages in the book that exploit Newman's spontaneity and ingenuousness, sometimes portraying him as the dupe and the Europeans as jokers. However, the most significant episodes are those that combine humour and parody, since these elements contribute to create the atmosphere of "contamination" and "excess" that we are analysing. Parody is a recurrent feature of postmodernist texts. Hutcheon (1988, 26) defines parody as "repetition with critical distance that allows ironic signalling of difference at the very heart of similarity." This is what happens in The American. in which classic, solemn passages of romance are given an irreverent, grotesque tone.
9. In Hawthorne (1879), James himself remarks that humour is the American's particular "secret," the element that takes the place of what Europeans experience as "culture" (Banta 1987, 28).
First of all, we should focus on the features of the protagonist, Christopher Newman. As I remarked before, he is not so perfect as the heroes of traditional romances: though he "looks at things from a height" (p. 113) and "needed so imperatively the sense of great risks and great prizes" (p. 65), he has many points in common with Ichabod Crane, the comic would-be hero of Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (1820). Like Ichabod, Newman is "long, lean" (p. 17), ingenuous and "shrewd" (p. 17) (10), and fails in his efforts to get his idealized damsel, since, in a similar way, he is a victim of an extravagant, gothic conspiracy. No doubt, James must have had Irving's narrative in mind when writing The American, as the comparison of these passages demonstrates:
Keeping all these elements in mind, the parodic quality of James's hero becomes transparent, since this figure artfully combines not only features of realistic fiction and romance, but also the flaws of a comic antihero.
It is worth noting that the gravity of Valentin's death diminishes by the addition of some comic strokes. When Newman asks his dying friend: "How are you getting on?" Valentin replies with a pun: "Oh, I'm getting off!" (p. 279). In turn, M. Ledoux, one of the friends that accompany Count Valentin by his deathbed, refers to Valentin's confession with the curé as follows: "when a man has taken such excellent measures for his salvation as our dear friend did last evening, it seems almost a pity he should put it in peril again by returning to the world" (p. 371).
10. Ichabod "was, in fact, an odd mixture of small shrewdness and simple credulity" (Baym, 1985, 733).
And the narrator adds: "[M. Ledoux] appeared to think duelling a very perfect arrangement, provided, if one should get hit, one could promptly see the priest" (p. 276).
Although the immediate aim of the statements is to point out the extravagance of the situation the duel and the formalities surrounding it to the American's eyes, their parodic flavour is inescapable.
There is also an ironic tone in the way the circumstances of the duel are modified by Valentin's family to make it respectable. As Lord Deepmere informs Newman: "They got up some story about its being for the Pope; about the other man having said something, against the Pope's morals. They always do that, you know. They put it on the Pope because Bellegarde was once in the Zouaves. But it was about her morals she was the Pope!" (p. 370)
Similarly, the opportunistic, ungentlemanly behaviour of Lord Deepmere, a relative of the Bellegardes' and Claire's former suitor, is worth noting: when Newman meets him in London (11), accompanying Mlle Nioche soon after Valentin's death, he excuses himself in a seriocomic way:
Again, the likely and the unlikely, the lofty and the vulgar overlap. Significantly, the unlordly private life of this lord brings to mind the obscure affairs of many present-day aristocrats. In any case, such up-to-date realistic touches of the novel's last pages are embedded in a heavily gothic atmosphere, which confers on the novel a grotesque air, in which humour is caused by excess itself.
Thus, Claire's decision to go into a convent and take the veil is treated as burial alive: the convent is not only an impregnable prison, it is hell. Accordingly, the house of the Carmelites is located in the "Rue d'Enfer." As the style of these final chapters abounds in impressive, gloomy vocabulary, two examples may suffice: when Newman meets Mme. de Bellegarde and Urbain in their gothic castle at Fleurières, he was "feeling, as if the door of a sepulchre had suddenly been opened, and the damp darkness were being exhaled" (p. 307). Similarly, when Newman beholds the convent, in his solitary walk, "the barren stillness of the place ... told him that the woman within was lost beyond recall,
11. The encounter itself constitutes an improbable, romance-like coincidence.
and that the days and years of the future would pile themselves above her like the huge immovable slab of a tomb" (p. 378).
Nevertheless, the solemnity of such passages is balanced by the narrator's ironic comments, which bring us to parody again: "There was something lugubriously comical in the way Newman's thoroughly contemporaneous optimism was confronted with this dusky old-world expedient" (p. 302). Likewise, the narrator's words about Newman's reaction at Claire's decision point out the self-reflexivity of the text: "that this superb woman should turn from him ... to muffle herself in ascetic rags and entomb herself in a cell was a confounding combination of the inexorable and the grotesque" (p. 299-300: my emphasis).
In fact, there are too many inexorable elements in this improbable plot: as in classic gothic stories, "[t]here is a curse upon the house" (p. 297), and the protagonist echoing tragic heroes feels powerless to confront events: "What had happened to him seemed to have, in its violence and audacity, the force of a real calamity the strength and insolence of Destiny herself. It was unnatural and monstrous, and he had no arms against it" (p. 279). One cannot help recalling Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables (1851), a romance with gothic undertones articulated around a curse that brings about death and misfortune to the descendants of a once-distinguished family. Surprisingly, the ending of Hawthorne's romance is much happier than that of James, which emphasizes the heterogeneous, parodic quality of James's novel, where some tragic strokes are also included (12).
If gothic excess is part of the novel's parody, the characters' names are not less so. As often in metafictional works, The American's proper names are flaunted and "placed in an overtly metaphorical or adjectival relationship with the thing they name" (Waugh, 93). Thus, the protagonist's name, Christopher Newman, stands for a Columbus in reverse (13): "the new man from America coming over to rediscover the Old World" (Anderson 1977, 54). The other names are similarly obtrusive: Claire symbolizes light, purity and innocence, whereas the surname of her deceased husband, Cintré, suggests that, even in a widowed state, she is still girdled by her mother's "iron hand." Something similar evokes the family's surname, Bellegarde, which incorporates the idea of beauty but also of the "fortress" Newman cannot go through (14).
12. In fact, the extravagant, parodic elements of
The American bring to mind Marx's reflections in "The Eighteenth
Brumaire," when he remarks that "a historical event occurs twice, once as
tragedy and then again as farce" (in Miller 1991, 112). in a similar way,
this novel re-enacts traditional situations of romance, but through distortion,
so they appear both farcical and tragic.
In turn, the names of the Bellegardes' brothers are equally self-explaining: whereas Valentin echoes the patron of lovers (the Count supports the Claire-Newman relationship) Urbain epitomizes the extreme civility of the marquis: an aristocrat who speaks "urbanely" (p. 59) and "has the best manners in France" (p. 123). Ironically, he proves to be a criminal and a consummate hypocrite. On the other hand, the Tristrams are the characters that arrange the tryst between the lovers.
With regard to the name of the Bellegardes' family maid, Mrs. Bread, it unambiguously refers to the old woman's role of nurse as Claire's surrogate mother. Whereas Bellringer criticizes James for choosing such a name (15), Clair, in an early article (1959), proposed an extravagant thesis: that, against the common reader's opinion, Mme. de Cintré is in fact Mrs. Bread's illegitimate daughter. Although his theory has not seemed to prosper among later critics," it is useful for our analysis because it foregrounds the romance potential of this novel.
The characteristics of the narrator are also worth pointing out. Although James's essays insist on realism and he admired Flaubert for his emphasis on "the impersonality ... of the artist" (in Chapman 1989, 2)," his fiction shows repeated instances of the narrator's intrusion." In The American, the figure of the intrusive narrator is particularly significant, since it reinforces the characteristics of contamination and excess that define the novel. As in overtly metafictional novels, the narrator of The American enjoys attracting our attention to himself so as to flaunt his knowledge or ignorance about whatever matter.
Although this narrator is not a character in the story he is an external narrator, in Bal's terminology (1985, 122) he refers to himself as an "I," thus blurring the traditional distinction between first-person and third-person narrators. As Booth remarks (1961, 152) "in a sense even the most reticent narrator has been dramatized as soon as he refers to himself as 'I' ." In The American, the narrator repeats phrases like "as I have said before" (p. 43) and whereas on some occasion, he enters briefly the mind of a character other than Newman as an external focalizer, on others he prefers to pretend
15. "The very fact that James could call a character 'Mrs.
Bread' betokens some temporary loss of wit" (1988, 33).
ignorance or doubt, flaunting his arbitrary, "impure" condition. This is what happens in the following passage:
In contrast, the narrator boasts of his knowledge of Newman, which, in his opinion, surpasses that of the protagonist's himself. "[Newman] flattered himself that he was not in love, but his biographer may be supposed to know better" (p. 181). Significantly, the narrator provides information about details that escape the confines of the story:
As can be seen, the characteristics of this narrator anticipate those pointed out by Waugh in Metafiction (1988, 131-32): contemporary metafictional texts pursue Personality, the ironic flaunting of the Teller .... In fact, third-person narrative with overt first-person intrusion allows for metafictional dislocation much more obviously than first-person narratives." Unquestionably, the flaunting of The American's teller is more unobtrusive than that of many contemporary novels, but the germ of the tendency is already there.
As can be seen, The American has proved to be much more complex than it seemed at first sight. Just as James takes the international theme, the contrast of manners and the study of morals from his American predecessors giving them new depth, he also incorporates the romance mode to shape his narrative. However, his handling of romance is so "excessive" that The American becomes a postmodern artifact contrived before the rise of modernism, thus exceeding, generic and temporal boundaries. In this work, traditional elements like the duel, death-bed confession, sick-bed crime, convent withdrawal, impossible love and gothic décor are undermined by postmodern ones such as humour, irony, parody and self-reflexivity. Therefore, if romance, like postmodern works, invokes the principle of "contamination," "excess" and "participation without
membership" (Derrida in Elam 1992, 6), The American may well be taken as the epitome of that impure genre and of postmodernism's ambiguous historical location.
The research carried out for the writing of this paper has been financed by the Spanish Ministry of Education (DGICYT, Programa sectorial de Promoción del Conocimiento, no. PS 94-0057).
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