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Henry James's Europe

Dennis Tredy
Annick Duperray
Adrian Harding

II. French and Italian Hours

10. The Wavering Ruins of The American

Enrico Botta

Texte intégral

To delight in the aspects of sentient ruin might appear a heartless pastime, and the pleasure, I confess, shows the note of perversity.
Henry James, The Italian Hours

1This essay focuses on the motif of ruins in Henry James’s The American in the light of Italian scholar Francesco Orlando’s theory of non-functional objects in literature. I would like to explore how this topic traces a cause effect relationship between the idea of an appropriation of the European artistic and cultural heritage—metaphorically outlined by Newman’s initial attitude towards the ruins of the Old World—and the belief that this assimilation should be purified of its corrupt traits before being transported to the United States—symbolically suggested by the burning of the tell-tale letter at the end of the novel.

2The aim of this chapter is to demonstrate how the idea of ruins—which oscillates throughout the novel between being the emblem of an artistic and cultural past to be achieved, and the tragic witness of the decline of Western civilisation—is a dialectical process that not only reflects the inevitable friction between the objectivity of physical ruin (the object itself) and the subjective perspective of the observer (Christopher Newman), but also defines the cultural relationship between the Old and the New World.

3The American first sets up the themes, characters, and values of American and European culture, which it then includes and combines, thus overcoming their initial opposition. In reaction to an escalating American exceptionalism, attempting to frame the cultural identity of the United States within a nationalistic framework, James’s ”first international novel” (Cargill 419), epitomising both Americanism and internationalism, traces a transatlantic map where American and European culture meet and interact. If on the one hand, the man of the West and, even more importantly, the model of Americanness, desires to enrich his American self by acquiring European values and commodities in an international context, on the other hand, The American aims at turning into a transatlantic novel by appropriating the literary topoi and motifs that have made up the European canon—e.g., The Moon-borne Madonna by Murillo, The Marriage at Cana by Veronese, Hamlet and Othello by Shakespeare, La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Keats, Don Giovanni by Mozart, etc. This is a process that is made more significant by the novel’s date of publication—1877, when the United States was celebrating the first anniversary of its independence and projecting itself into an international context as a new cultural as well as political power.

4The motif of ruins represents a significant element in the transtextual and transatlantic operation of the novel, allowing it to explore the idea of cultural appropriation from a wide viewpoint, both spatial and temporal, both physical and metaphorical. If, as argued by Donatella Izzo, ”the international theme in The American becomes mainly a literary theme” (Henry James 9), and keeping in mind Walter Benjamin’s definition of quotation as a ruin that emerges from the past, we could interpret Christopher Newman’s and the novel’s tour amongst the (artistic and literary) ruins of the Old World as the reading and reinterpretation of that tradition, which gives a new meaning to James’s present literary construction.

  • 1 According to Woodward, the ”Ozymandias complex” is the idea of “ruins as an obvious symbol of the (...)

5In my consideration of ruins, my starting point is two-fold: on the one hand, Christopher Woodward’s theorisation of a time-honoured idea of ruins as having both an objective value (as an assemblage of bricks and stones) and a subjective one (as an inspiration to artists and thinkers on the themes of man, nature, art, and mutability), enabling memory to see through a paradox: the coexistence of the glory of the past and the decay of the present.1 On the other hand, Francesco Orlando’s consideration of ruins as ”non-functional objects,” which unlike Woodward’s, seems to turn the deep cultural and moral value of the motif itself upside down, at least from a physical and materialistic point of view.

  • 2 Here Orlando develops the idea of literature as a compromise-formation, produced by the conflict o (...)
  • 3 According to Orlando, useless and superseded objects can be conceived in twelve categories: the so (...)

6By tracing Western literature’s obsession with outmoded, obsolete, and superseded objects, the Italian scholar claims that ruins—together with relics, rarities, rubbish, uninhabited places, and hidden treasures—take on a new meaning in the literature of the nineteenth and twentieth century. If the non-functional is something that has no function in relation to culture, especially in an age increasingly devoted to technological progress, its prominence in Western literature indicates that this is not only the place, in Freudian terms, of the returning past that refuses to die, but also the dimension in which a literary ”compromise formation” turns the primary non-functionality of a physical lack of value into the moral value of its secondary refunctionalisation.2 Orlando proposes twelve ”strategically arbitrary” categories to describe the ways in which literature uses nonfunctional objects; by reading The American through some of these categories, it is possible to frame the Jamesian ’international theme’ in a cognitive map, which would underline not only its primarily spatial identity, but also its temporal and chronological value.3

7From this perspective, ruins link The American with the theme of time, which on the one hand wears out and destroys things, but on the other hand confers on them the prestige of rarity and antiquity. This double focus reverberates on the dialectical process between the acquisition and rejection of ’old things’—which are moral, aesthetic and cultural values—outlined by the irresolute vacillation between Newman’s, James’s, and American culture’s desire to assimilate European values, and the need to purify them from their allegedly corrupt traits. Thus, if the ”wavering” of my title first refers to the physical condition of an object, it also concerns Christopher Newman’s state of uncertainty during his European journey. This swinging movement can be framed as an oscillation between the extremes of Orlando’s range of categories, especially between the ”positive” frame of what he terms the ”precious-potential” and ”prestigious-ornamental” modes, and the ”negative” field of the ”sinister-terrifying” and ”worn-realistic” ones.

8The theme of ruins is particularly significant in Henry James’s Autobiography. Remembering his first ”ecstatic vision of Europe,” James writes that, while looking outside the window of the train from Lyons to Geneva, he saw ”a castle and a ruin” along with ”the first peasant [he] had ever beheld.” This picturesque frame led James to assert: ”Supremely, in that ecstatic vision, was ’Europe,’ sublime synthesis, expressed and guaranteed to me [...].”

  • 4 In this perspective, even the famous passage from Hawthorne—concerning the need for an American wr (...)

9Like his creator, after ”long[ing] for a new world” (The American [1978] 536), Christopher Newman starts to contemplate European ruins, because he recognises them as a primary tool to trace a continuity between what he has left in America and what he is going to find in the Old World—that is, a new perspective connecting his past and his future. By an aesthetic and moral assimilation of the Old World values and commodities, he (unconsciously) sets up a secondary refunctionalisation of ruins, which involves the idea of importing them in order to construct American history and culture.4 This process seems to be in line with J. B. Jackson’s idea according to which the European and Western models of cultural history need the physicality of the past ruins, around which segments of memory are re-constructed and interwoven, thus giving continuity to their own evolution. This temporal theory can be translated into a transatlantic spatial structure in which American culture and history require an assimilation and re-elaboration of the Old World tradition (represented by its own ruins), thus duplicating the process through which Rome delineated its identity by synthesising indigenous elements with the heritage of ancient Greece.

10This cultural move can be viewed through Orlando’s ”positive” category of the ”precious-potential,” describing the imaginary effects of ruins as an impressive cultural resource for the present. In fact, in the first part of the novel ruins are represented as very valuable tools for Christopher Newman’s (and Henry James’s) cultural improvement. This is how the narrator describes Newman’s tour through Newman’s own eyes in Chapter V:

He [Christopher Newman] lounged through Belgium and Holland and the Rhineland, through Switzerland and Northern Italy, planning about nothing, but seeing everything. [...] When an excursion, a church, a gallery, a ruin, was proposed to him, the first thing Newman usually did, after surveying his postulant in silence, from head to foot, was to sit down at a little table and order something to drink. [...]”What is it?” he asked. ”How far?” And whatever the answer was, although he sometimes seemed to hesitate, he never declined. He stepped into an open cab, made his conductor sit beside him to answer questions, bade the driver go fast (he had a particular aversion to slow driving) and rolled, in all probability through a dusty suburb, to the goal of his pilgrimage. If the goal was a disappointment, if the church was meagre, or the ruin a heap of rubbish, Newman never protested or berated his cicerone; he looked with an impartial eye upon great monuments and small, made the guide recite his lesson, listened to it religiously, asked if there was nothing else to be seen in the neighborhood, and drove back again at a rattling pace. [...] Newman, now and then, in an unguided stroll in a foreign city, before some lonely, sad-towered church, or some angular image of one who had rendered civic service in an unknown past, had felt a singular inward tremor. It was not an excitement or a perplexity; it was a placid, fathomless sense of diversion (575-76).

11In his moving backward in time and space to re-discover and re-appropriate the Old World, the ruins that the new Columbus encounters are the emblems of the cultural achievements of the ancient European civilisation. Simultaneously, they stand for the tools James employs to provide moral and aesthetic lessons to America.

12First, it is worth noting that Christopher travels without a definite plan but with the intention of admiring the Old World as much as possible: ”I seemed to feel a new man inside my old skin, and I longed for a new world” (536) is the way he describes his reason for undertaking his journey. At a first reading, he may seem rather inexperienced and superficial; he gives the impression of not being particularly interested in his own spiritual edification, but he carefully does everything required by the Grand Tour tourists’ duties as quickly as possible: he regards everything that is shown to him as having equal dignity, and listens to all stories and anecdotes. Although the narrator describes Christopher’s reaction as ”a sense of diversion,” ironically denying any sublimity to the vision, Newman has the ambitious project to purchase every element of the European tradition. In this first part of the novel, Christopher seems to regard European culture not only as an intellectual heritage to learn, but also as a kind of unknown territory, often in ruins, to be observed, explored, and appropriated—”I have come to see Europe, to get the best out of it I can. I want to see all the great things, and do what the clever people do” (535). The marginalia he writes on the pages of his tour guide, after visiting cities, castles, monuments, and churches, further confirm his symbolic appropriation of the continent: ”Wherever you find a scratch, or a cross, or a ’Beautiful!’ or a ’So true!’ or a ’Too thin!’ you may know that I have had a sensation of some sort or other” (585). His desire to learn is enormous—”I find that the more I see of the world the more I want to see” (585)—and, as a new Ulysses, his goal is to return home after having experienced an ancient and magnificent universe.

13Nevertheless, Newman begins to realise that Europe is also a perverse and deceptive world, and ruins are not only a precious resource for him but also—in line with Orlando’s ”prestigious-ornamental” mode—a sophisticated artifact of culture and time. As the spiritual and moral decadence of the Old World reveals itself to Christopher in the metaphorical ruins of certain places—the de Bellegarde’s palace, the castle in Fleurières, the Convent in Rue d’ Enfer, and so forth—Newman’s desire to observe and assimilate gradually fades. After realising Claire’s sudden change of heart, Newman goes to Fleurières to convince her to marry.

14As soon as he received this letter Newman went straight to Paris and to

Poitiers. The journey took him far southward, [...] and the next morning he drove in a couple of hours to the village of Fleurières. But here, preoccupied though he was, he could not fail to notice the picturesqueness of the place. It was what the French call a petit bourg; it lay at the base of a sort of huge mound on the summit of which stood the crumbling ruins of a feudal castle, much of whose sturdy material, as well as that of the wall which dropped along the hill to inclose the clustered houses defensively, had been absorbed into the very substance of the village. The church was simply the former chapel of the castle, fronting upon its grass-grown court, which, however, was of generous enough width to have given up its quaintest corner to a little graveyard. Here the very headstones themselves seemed to sleep [...] (780-81)

15As can be seen, his new state of mind does not preclude Christopher from observing the attractiveness of the place: the crumbling ruins of the castle, the fortress protecting the village, the church, and the picturesque cemetery. The feelings produced in the American by this scene are no longer those of a heroic achievement, but of a dark and melancholy lyricism, and the pathetic fallacy of the headstones that seem to sleep, duplicates the material and spiritual fading, both of Claire and of her family.

16If the first part of the novel—the complication—focuses on Newman’s acceptance and assimilation of ruins, the second part—the dénouement—is concerned with their rejection. By experiencing the Old World, Newman (James) realises that the encounter with the ruins swings between what he actually sees and feels, and his expectations regarding his own trip. Thus, when in the turning point of the novel the ruins start to indicate no longer the greatness of the past, but the immoral traits of Europe, the coordinates of a (utopian) cultural appropriation need to be changed. While the story of Christopher progressively becomes a melodramatic plot of murder and vengeance, James manages the transition from a notion of ruins as aesthetic principle to one of ruins as warning and moral teaching. The imaginary effects of ruins invest the ’supernatural’ order of the entire gloomy setting of Claire’s seclusion—the palace in Rue de l’Université, the castle in Fleurières, and the convent in Rue d’Enfer—with passive expectations, according to Orlando’s category of the ”sinister-terrifying.”

17If at this point ruins no longer prove the greatness of the European past but rather symbolise its most decadent aspects, it is noteworthy that the tragic and unexpected crisis of the novel begins in the same ruinistic frame of Fleurières. Newman meets Mrs. Bread at night in a secluded place: ”Come to me in the old ruin there on the hill, in the court before the church. I will wait for you there, I have something very important to tell you” (797), the American says to the woman. The quotation that follows describes the encounter between the two characters:

The path which led up the hill to the ruin was easy to find, and Newman in a short time had followed it to the top. He passed beneath the rugged arch of the castle wall, and looked about him in the early dusk for an old woman in black. The castle yard was empty, but the door of the church was open. Newman went into the little nave and of course found a deeper dusk than without. A couple of tapers, however, twinkled on the altar and just enabled him to perceive a figure seated by one of the pillars.
[...]’We shall be safer,’ said Newman, ’where no one can hear us.’ And he led the way back into the castle court and then followed a path beside the church, which he was sure must lead into another part of the ruin. He was not deceived. It wandered along the crest of the hill and terminated before a fragment of wall pierced by a rough aperture which had once been a door (802-03).

18The introspective and psychological depth of his transatlantic quest is converted into a Gothic and melodramatic conventionalism, and his love story and European dreams seem to crumble like the walls he passes through. In the castle courtyard and in the church where his marriage to Claire would have been celebrated there is only darkness and a sense of solitude, which seem to duplicate his sinister story.

19In the final chapter, we encounter the last reference to ruins. Disgusted and rejected by the de Bellegarde, before going back to America Newman moves to England, where we find him again ”wandering about cathedrals, castles, and ruins. Several times, taking a walk from his inn into meadows and parks, he stopped by a well-worn stile, looked across through the early evening at a gray church tower, with its dusky nimbus of thick-circling swallows, and remembered that this might have been part of the entertainment of his honeymoon” (863-64).

20When, ”a sadder and wiser man,” Christopher finally goes back to America, he has realised that European ruins—the evidence of its past—are the majestic symbol of its civilisation but also tell the tale of its decadence and transience. In line with Orlando’s ”worn-realistic” category, Newman discovers that ruins everlastingly belong to history, and not only to his story.

21The last scene of the novel seems to solve the dialectical process between the acceptance of non-functionality and its rejection. Reading this scene through Orlando’s mode of the ”solemn-admonitory”—in which ruins indicate a perception of time that gravely reminds men of the transience of worldly things—the burning of the tell-tale sheet suggests that everything in the Old World indicates its fascinating history and culture, but also its corruption and degeneration: ”Newman instinctively turned to see if the little paper was in fact consumed, but there was nothing left of it” (872).

22The image of the burned sheet could be regarded as James’s original re-elaboration of the motif of ruins: in fact, this is a ruin that does not leave ruins. At this point of the novel, the de Bellegardes’s ideology and commodities no longer represent the ruins of a glorious yet vanishing tradition, but they become the symbol of a hierarchic order that has been trying to defend its own rights against Newman’s American values. By destroying the immoral and perverse elements of the Old World, Christopher can definitely realise its artistic and cultural value and, even though the European civilisation and the de Bellegardes’s tradition seem to fade away amongst the ashes in Mrs. Tristram fireplace, they will never cease to exist in his mind. In the end, while Orlando’s systematic modes seem to frame Newman’s understanding of ruins (as containing lessons for the United States as much as for Europe itself), the pendulum swinging between attraction and repulsion keeps on tracing the composite trajectories of the encounter of American and European culture.


1 According to Woodward, the ”Ozymandias complex” is the idea of “ruins as an obvious symbol of the rise and fall of empires” (177). Ruins have long been objects of contemplation and sources of creative inspiration, and have determined different yet intermingled reflections. They are reminders of the splendor of what has been, and at the same time of the transience of human ambition.

2 Here Orlando develops the idea of literature as a compromise-formation, produced by the conflict of the pleasure-principle and the reality-principle.

3 According to Orlando, useless and superseded objects can be conceived in twelve categories: the solemn-admonitory, the threadbare-grotesque, the venerable-regressive, the worn-realistic, the reminiscent-affective, the desolate-disconnected, the magic-superstitious, the sinister-terrifying, the precious-potential, the sterile-noxious, the prestigious-ornamental, and the pretentious-fictitious. According to the Italian scholar, these categories are ”strategically arbitrary”: strategic, because they can disclose patterns of thought broadening across temporal, spatial, and cultural boundaries; arbitrary, because they are potentially capable of revealing further patterns.

4 In this perspective, even the famous passage from Hawthorne—concerning the need for an American writer to seek in Europe the key elements for creating a work of art—can be considered to have a ruinistic frame.


Enrico Botta is a PhD student in Literary Genres at the University of L’Aquila, Italy. Botta is currently writing his doctoral thesis on nineteenth-century American epics—in particular on the relationship between the epic mode and the International Theme. He has published his essay ”Transatlantic Intertextuality in The American” in the volume Revisionary Interventions into Henry James (2008) and has presented his research, ’From Barlow to James: Some Epic Features’, at Dartmouth College.


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