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Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

III. The Novelist

The American (1877). Life and Form

Texte intégral

  • 1 “Daniel Deronda: A Conversation” in Selected Literary Criticism, p. 47.

In life without art you can find your account; but art without life is a poor affair.1

1The American forms with Madame de Mauves a diptych illustrating the failure of Franco-American personal relationships but in the novel the ambiguity has disappeared and the balance has been broken. Except for Mr. Babcock, who remains undeveloped, and for the Tristrams who, like Mrs. Draper in the preceding tale, are mere links between the two worlds, Newman is the only American in the novel, but he is so heavy that he weighs down the scale and overshadows the French characters, to whom, however, James has devoted more attention than before.

  • 2 The American, pp. 39-40. The quotations are from the Chiltern Library edition (London, 1949).
  • 3 A Small Boy and Others, pp. 361-366.

2A new Columbus, who wants to repeat his namesake’s conquest in the opposite direction and who walks in seven-league boots among the ants of the Lilliputian Old World, Christopher Newman comes to Europe not, like most of James’s Americans, for “experience” but for amusement. He is a bachelor of forty-two and a half, who has had to work hard in manufacturing wash-tubs and other useful objects; since he has never had time to enjoy himself he has now decided to devote the second half of his life to using the money he has been piling up as a younger man. With grandiose plans in his mind, he leaves America for Europe and naively imagines that since he possesses a high amount of dollars and of practical qualities, there is no limit to his purchasing power. Unfortunately, he soon realizes that the remarkable talents that have enabled him to make money—enough to buy Paris if Paris is for sale—are of little use in the great city. Paris indeed demands an emotional maturity that our hero, so far exclusively occupied with practical matters, has had no time to acquire. “It’s as if I were as simple as a little child, and as if a little child might take me by the hand and lead me about,”2 he tells his friend Tristram as he walks in the Louvre on the day of his arrival. Significantly enough, the Louvre is for Newman, as it had been for James, the symbolical entrance to the world of Art, culture, refinement and leisure.3 It is on the great circular divan in the centre of the Salon Carré that we first catch sight of Newman, the “superlative American.” His countenance, James tells us,

  • 4 The American, p. 24.

had that paucity of detail which is yet not emptiness, that blankness which is not simplicity, that look of being committed to nothing in particular, of standing in a posture of general hospitality to the chances of life, of being very much at one’s own disposal, characteristic of American faces of the clear strain.4

  • 5 Ibid., p. 23.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 32.

3The way the American reacts to the treasures of art not only indicates that he cannot be taken as an expert in aesthetic matters but also determines the tone of the novel and shows that James’s stance to him is ironical. Newman has, we are told, “sat down with an aesthetic headache,” and for him Raphael, Titian and Rubens are “a new kind of arithmetic.”5 We are further told that he has often admired the copy much more than the original and that Veronese’s marriage-feast of Cana “satisfied his conception, which was strenuous, of what a splendid banquet should be.”6 He wants to buy a copy from Noémie Nioche because he finds the young lady, rather than the Madonna she copies, uncommonly taking. Once he has bought it, he feels the joy and pride of a Maecenas:

  • 7 Ibid., p. 32.

Suddenly he was aware of the prime throb of the mania of the “collector.” He had taken the first step—why should he not go on? It was only twenty minutes before that he had bought the first picture of his life, and now he was already thinking of art-patronage as a pursuit that might float even so heavy a weight as himself.7

  • 8 Constance Rourke rightly notes that Newman’s is “the comic belligerent tone that had spread throug (...)
  • 9 The American, p. 24.
  • 10 Ibid., p. 104.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 38.

4The comic opening chapter of the book sheds light on Newman’s blindness to the complicated aspects of civilization and culture. The hasty, business-like way in which he rushes on Art foreshadows his failure with Madame de Cintré who, like Meredith’s Renée in Beauchamp’s Career, is the “woman of art,” the quintessence of a refined and civilized world. To this American with his “comic belligerent tone,”8 and his look of “being committed to nothing in particular,”9 who comes from San Franscisco, from the vague, wide “West,” who has, in Valentin de Bellegarde’s words, the air of “being imperturbably, being irremovably and indestructibly… at home in the world,”10 James opposes the contracted world of the Bellegardes, which is not France, not even Paris, but the high-walled world of the Faubourg Saint-Germain:” I know my house—I know my friends—I don’t know Paris, “Madame de Bellegarde answers Newman when he asks her if she likes the town. In order to make his New Man enter the traditional world of the Bellegardes James had to inflate the personality of his American. He had to endow him with a kind of magic power, to make him a Noble Savage, a Prince of business haloed with his legend, with his “tale of the Western world” dealing with “he deeps and the shallows, the ebb and the flow, of great financial tides.”11

5Two characters will serve Newman as guides to this closed world which, in his craving for “the best,” the American hopes to enter and into which he will even try to marry. His first guide, Mrs. Tristram, is a compatriot; the second, Valentin de Bellegarde, belongs to the French clan. If Mr. Tristram is “a child” his wife is not. Brought up, like Euphemia Cleve, in a Parisian convent she has been prevented by her plain face from marrying her own Richard de Mauves, but she has not entirely lost her early aspirations. Her French education has left its mark on her and has given her a touch of European sophistication, which makes her an adequate link between the two worlds:

  • 12 Ibid., p. 44.

Her observation, acutely exercised here, had suggested to her that a woman’s social service resides not in what she is but in what she appears, and that in the labyrinth of appearances she may always make others lose their clue if she only keeps her own.12

  • 13 Ibid., p. 50.
  • 14 Ibid., p. 40.

6Without her Newman would soon lose his way in the “labyrinth of appearances,” and she immediately sees in him an opportunity for exercising her dormant talents. She likes him because, unlike her husband, he is not a fool and has qualities that largely compensate for his robust innocence. Besides, his Americanness “flatters her latent patriotism.”13 But curiosity is also one of her motives, the curiosity so typical of James’s observers who want to solve the riddles in the lives of other people for want of relief and colour in their own. This also makes her an adequate link from a mere compositional point of view: she asks Newman many questions about himself, and by answering them he satisfies both the reader’s curiosity and her own. So we hear that what Newman expects of Europe is amusement and in everything the superlative: “I’ve 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 best people do.”14 Moreover he wants to marry, and his wife must be “the best article in the market”:

  • 15 Ibid., p. 52.

“Well, I want a great woman. I stick to that. That’s one thing I can treat myself to, and if it’s to be had I mean to have it. What else have I toiled and struggled for all these years? I’ve succeeded, and now what am I to do with my success? To make it perfect, as I see it, there must be a lovely being perched on the pile like some shining statue crowning some high monument. She must be as good as she’s beautiful and as clever as she’s good. I can give my wife many things, so I’m not afraid to ask certain others myself. She shall have everything a woman can desire; I shall not even object to her being too good for me. She may be cleverer and wiser than I can understand, and I shall only be the better pleased. I want, in a word, the best article in the market.”15

  • 16 Ibid., p. 55.
  • 17 Loc. cit.
  • 18 Ibid., p. 247.

7He finds Mrs. Tristram’s suggestion that he marry Claire de Cintré quite natural and does not even seem to suspect the difficulties involved in his entering the French aristocracy. For him this world is not opposed to his American way of life; it is merely its continuation. His marrying Claire de Cintré would be a sequel to his so far successful career, a part of the success and amusement he expects from Europe and for which he has paid in advance. He thinks of his future wife as of a precious jewel that would cost him all his fortune. The commercial terms he uses to refer to her show that he wants nothing less than to convert the money he acquired in manufacturing wash-tubs into this perfect receptacle of civilization. If Newman is unaware of the difficulties at hand, Mrs. Tristram cannot possibly have ignored them and we feel that her suggestion is not completely free from perversion. She obviously wants to get her own fun out of the spectacle of her Noble Savage lost among people “all mounted upon stilts a mile high and with pedigrees long in proportion.”16 She wants to see this citizen of the world mixing with the best preserved specimens of the old noblesse and see how he will deal with “such a prehistoric monster as a Legitimist or an Ultramontrane.”17 Interested as she is in the differences between the two worlds, she is “curious to see how far family discipline in a fine case like this does go,”18 and she confesses at the end that curiosity has not been the least of her motives:

  • 19 Ibid., p. 327.

“I should have been curious to see; it would have been very strange.”
“Was it from curiosity that you urged me to put myself forward?”
“A little,” she still more boldly answered. Newman gave her the one angry look he had been destined ever to give her, turned away and took up his hat. She watched him a moment and then said: “That sounds very cruel, but it’s less so than it sounds. Curiosity has a share in almost everything I do. I wanted very much to see, first, if such a union could actually come through; second, what would happen to it afterwards.”19

8The same curiosity prompts Valentin de Bellegarde, the other link between the two worlds, to help the American. When he first meets him in the house of his ancestors, which, we are told, dates from 1627, Valentin is immediately struck by the contrast this New Man offers to the antiquity of the Bellegardes. He is less concerned than Mrs. Tristram with the clash between family authority and individual freedom, and the solutions ultimately given to moral issues interest him less than the contrast of manners. Quick as he is to catch any suggestion offered him by the external world, the young Count immediately sees the comic side of the situation and thinks of playing the part of a museum guardian in order to hear his guest’s comments on the old bricks in which his own life is enclosed. The Louis-Quinze chimney piece and the tarnished gilding are certainly not, he thinks, Newman’s conception of the ideal home. Valentin’s intuition is indeed corroborated by what we hear further in the book about Newman’s idea of material ease, which is:

  • 20 Ibid., p. 87.

to inhabit very large rooms, have a great many of them, and be conscious in them of a number of patented mechanical devices, half of which he should never have occasion to use. The apartment should be clear and high and what he called open, and he had once said that he liked rooms best in which you should want to keep on your hat. For the rest he was satisfied with the assurance of any respectable person that everything was of the latest model.20

  • 21 Portraits of Places, p. 80.
  • 22 The American, p. 43.

9No wonder then that Tristram should find him the apartment of his dreams on the Boulevard Haussmann, which is indeed “of the latest model” and smells, as James said somewhere, “of the modern asphalt.”21 There is no picturesqueness, no mystery, no sense of contrast, nothing “European” in the “pompous sameness” of the chalk-coloured façades of this miniature America (the Tristrams also live there) constituted by the “broad avenues distributed by Baron Haussmann over the neighbourhood of the Arc de Triomphe.”22 How picturesque, by contrast, the old Bellegarde world is:

  • 23 Ibid., p. 119.

“We’re fit for a museum or a Balzac novel. My mother’s strange, my brother’s strange, and I verily believe I’m stranger than either. You’ll even find my sister a little strange. Old trees have crooked branches, old houses have queer cracks, old races have odd secrets. Remember that we’re eight hundred years old!”23

10Both Valentin and Newman are what circumstances have made them. Belonging to a younger generation Valentin feels the burden of the past and, when confronted with Newman’s freedom, is more aware of the restrictions imposed on him by his own world:

  • 24 Ibid., p. 103.

When I was twenty I looked round me and saw a world with everything ticketed ’ Don’t touch, ’ and the deuce of it was that the ticket seemed meant only for me. I couldn’t go into business, I couldn’t make money, because I was a Bellegarde. I couldn’t go into politics because I was a Bellegarde—the Bellegardes don’t recognise the Bonapartes. I couldn’t go into literature because I was a dunce. I couldn’t marry a rich girl because no Bellegarde had for ages married a roturière and it wasn’t urgent I should deviate.24

  • 25 Ibid., p. 101.
  • 26 Ibid., p. 50.

11Newman is so extravagantly different from all that Valentin has known so far that the latter is convinced that, just because of this enormous difference, they can get on together perfectly: “there’s such a thing, you know,” he tells the American, “as being—like fish and fowl—too different to quarrel.”25 He feels that Newman’s originality is his best chance of succeeding with his sister. Like Mrs. Tristram, who had told her friend: “when you’re embarrassed do as you think best and you’ll do very well,”26 Valentin advises him to be himself as hard as he can if he wants to succeed:

  • 27 Ibid., p. 118.

Your best chance for success will be precisely in affecting her as unusual, unexpected, original. Don’t try to be anyone else; be simply yourself as hard as ever you can, and harder perhaps indeed (if you understand) than you’ve ever been before. Something or other can’t fail to come out of that. I’m very curious to see what.27

  • 28 Ibid., p. 183.

12Although they do not know each other and belong to very different worlds, both Mrs. Tristram and Valentin de Bellegarde have an artistic sensibility and are endowed with a mixture of curiosity and sympathy that enables them to break through the limits of their restricted world and the contingencies of a particular culture. Their advice proves right since Claire de Cintré will tell Newman later: “Your being so different, which at first seemed a difficulty, a danger, began one day to seem to me a pleasure, a great pleasure. I was glad you were different.”28

  • 29 Selected Letters, p. 99.
  • 30 My italics.
  • 31 . The American, p. 58.

13Mrs. Tristram and Valentin are the two breaches in the otherwise impassable wall that separates the two worlds. The image of the wall is central to the novel. In a letter to W.D. Howells, who was then the editor of the Atlantic in which The American was being serialized and who seems to have suggested to James to alter the end of the novel, James explained that he could not possibly give the book a happy ending because his heroes were an impossible couple with an impossible problem to solve. The interest of the subject, he further wrote, is “its exemplification of one of those insuperable difficulties which present themselves in people’s lives and from which the only issue is by forfeiture—by losing something. It was cruelly hard for poor N. to lose, certainly: but que diable allait-il faire dans cette galère? We are each the product of circumstances and there are tall stone walls which fatally divide us. I have written my story from Newman’s side of the wall, and I understand so well how Mme de Cintré couldn’t really scramble over from her side!”29 Newman is partly responsible for his failure, but the note of determinism, which James clearly took from the French (“we are each the product o[circumstances and there are tall stone walls which fatally divide us”30) is unmistakable in the letter. The image of the wall continually recurs in the novel. When he calls on Mme de Cintré for the first time Newman is struck by the houses of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, which “present to the outer world a face as impassive and as suggestive of the concentration of privacy within as the blank walls of Eastern seraglios.”31 He then arrives at the house of the Bellegardes:

  • 32 Loc. cit

The house to which he had been directed had a dark, dusty, painted portal, which swung open in answer to his ring. It admitted him into a wide, gravelled court, surrounded on three sides with closed windows; here was a door-way facing the street, approached by three steps and surmounted by a tent-like canopy. The place was all in the shade; it answered to Newman’s conception of a convent.32

14Indeed when he later goes to the Convent of the Carmelites, where Claire has retired, he has to pass through the same succession of doors:

  • 33 Ibid., pp. 306-307.

He rang at the gate in the blank wall. It instantly opened and admitted him into a clean, cold-looking court, beyond which a dull, plain edifice met his view in the manner of some blank stiff party to a formal introduction. A robust lay sister with a cheerful complexion emerged from a porter’s lodge and, on his stating his errand, pointed to the open door of the chapel, an edifice which occupied the right side of the court and was preceded by a high flight of steps.33

15Here there is an obvious shift from light to darkness. Coming from one of the finest quarters of reconstructed Paris where the air of opulence seems to mock reality and make it even more exasperating for him Newman reaches a still deeper obscurity. The light gradually decreases until it is completely extinguished behind the screen where Claire has buried herself alive. In the dark interior of the chapel “he saw the scene divided by a large close iron screen into two unequal parts”:

  • 34 Ibid., p. 307.

That was the convent, the real convent, the place where she was. But he could see nothing; no light came through the crevices. He got up and approached the partition very gently trying to look through. Behind it was darkness, with no sign even of despair.34

16Feeling that he is actually going to lose Mme de Cintré, Newman decides to turn for help to the Duchess who had been so affable at the party of the Bellegardes. While speaking with her, however, he realizes that in spite of her being as urbane as if his marriage was still a possibility she will not lead him a single inch further:

  • 35 Ibid., p. 324.

The Duchess help him, that cold, stout, soft, artificial woman help him?—she who in the last twenty minutes had built up between them a wall of polite conversation in which she evidently flattered herself he would never find a gate?35

  • 36 Ibid., p. 339.

17Here is another wall: the wall of conventions, of manners, of form, behind which this Goddess of Society and all her disciples retire whenever they choose, like snails in their shells. After a tour in America Newman comes back to Paris and he wants to see again the convent of the Carmelites. But Claire is now in the rue d’Enfer, “a region of convents and prisons, of streets bordered by long dead walls and traversed by few frequenters.”36 There is no longer any light to mock reality; the house of the Carmelites is a “dull, plain edifice with a blank, high-shouldered defence all round”:

  • 37 Loc. cit.

From without he could see its upper windows, its steep roof and its chimneys. But these things revealed no symptons of human life; the place looked dumb, deaf, inanimate. The pale, dead, discoloured wall stretched beneath it far down the empty side-street—a vista without a human figure. He stood there a long time; there were no passers; he was free to gaze his fill. This seemed the goal of his journey; it was all he had come for.37

18In front of this ultimate wall, more impassable than all the others, Newman has no other alternative than to turn back, defeated.

  • 38 This is the view taken by Marie-Reine Gamier in Henry fames et la France. Mlle Gamier seems blind (...)

19The image of the wall has its roots in James’s own experience. He himself had known this sense of exclusion during his stay in Paris at the time when he was writing The American. It cannot be denied that he put a little of his own bitterness in the novel, but to consider it as a mere piece of personal vindictiveness against the French is certainly to take a very narrow view of the book.38 Besides Newman is allowed to enter the world of the Faubourg Saint-Germain that did not open its doors to James. But inside it he still bumps against the wall of form, decorum and conventions that encloses the French characters in stone rigidity and prevents him from getting at their hearts—when they happen to have one.

20What Newman finds behind the wall is a spectacle not unlike that offered him at the theatre. The social arrangement and the general atmosphere are different from all that he has known so far:

  • 39 The American, p. 108.

He felt as if he were at the play and as if his own speaking would be an interruption; sometimes he wished he had a book to follow the dialogue; he half expected to see a woman in a white cap and pink ribbons come and offer him one for two francs.39

  • 40 Ibid., p. 213.
  • 41 Ibid., p. 212.
  • 42 Ibid., p. 121.

21The celebrated conversation of the “big” Duchess, whom Urbain de Bellegarde calls “the greatest lady of France”40 has for our hero “the sound of an amusing passage in a play interpreted by a veteran comic actress.”41 Madame de Cintré herself notices that Newman sits in her drawing-room as if he were in an opera-box. When he one day tells her that he rejoices at finding her alone she replies: “But you’ve seemed before very well contented with your luck… You’ve sat and watched my visitors as comfortably as from a box at the opera. What have you thought of our poor performance?”42 James, who by that time knew the Théâtre Français by heart, shows great ability in reproducing the kind of artificial and nonsensical conversation that is likely to be heard in good society. Some of his portraits are openly comic such as that of the Duchess or that of Mme de la Rochefidèle, whose very name already calls for a smile and to whom Newman is introduced by Mme de Cintré:

  • 43 Ibid., pp. 159-160.

“I’ve been telling Madame de la Rochefidèle that you’re an American,” she said as he came up. “It interests her greatly. Her favourite uncle went over with the French troops to help you in your battles in the last century, and she has always, in consequence, wanted greatly to see one of your people. But she has never succeeded till to-night. You’re the first—to her knowledge—that she has ever looked at.”
Madame de la Rochefidèle had an aged cadaverous face, with a falling of the lower jaw which prevented her bringing her lips together and reduced her conversation to a series of impressive but inarticulate gutturals. She raised an antique eye-glass, elaborately mounted in chased silver, and looked at Newman from head to foot. Then she said something to which he listened deferentially but which conveyed to him no idea whatever.
“Madame de la Rochefidèle says she’s convinced that she must have seen Americans without knowing it,” Madame de Cintré explained. Newman thought it probable she had seen a great many things without knowing it.43

22As one of nature’s noblemen Newman does not pass unnoticed in this unnatural society. He himself always speaks terribly to the point and is unable to understand conversation for conversation’s sake. It is one of the “forms” of the old civilization that he does not possess:

  • 44 Ibid., p. 166.

He had little of the small change of conversation and rarely rose to reach down one of those ready-made forms and phrases that drape, whether fresh or frayed, the hooks and pegs of the general wardrobe of talk—that repository in which alone so many persons qualify for the discipline of society, as supernumerary actors prepare, amid a like provision, for the ordeal of the footlights.44

  • 45 Ibid., p. 213.
  • 46 Ibid., p. 210.

23Like a bear-leader the Marquis introduces him to people who seem to think that “the bear was a very fair imitation of humanity.” 45 The show, however, is on both sides: for Newman the people gathered there in his honour belong to a different race in which he cannot distinguish one face from the other: “Don’t all Chinamen—even great mandarins!—look very much the same to Occidentals?”46 he ironizes. His having sat with Western humorists has sharpened his mind so that he can depict the show with extreme vividness:

  • 47 Ibid., pp. 207-208.

They were elderly gentlemen with faces as marked and featured and filled-in, for some science of social topography, as, to Newman’s whimsical sense, any of the little towered and battered old towns, on high eminences, that his tour of several countries during the previous summer had shown him; they were adorned with strange insignia, cordons and ribbons and orders, as if the old cities were flying flags and streamers and hanging out shields for a celebration, and they approached with measured alertness while the Marquise presented them the good friend of the family who was to marry her daughter.47

  • 48 Ibid., p. 217.

24It is a celebration indeed, and James’s humorous treatment of it appears more clearly when he makes his hero associate this typical Old World scene with the most typical celebration of the New World: “even the Fourth of July of his childhood used to have an end.”48 James does not spare his hero; he shows that he is out of place in this society with its mysterious rites of which he does not understand the first word. Even the notion of “rank” is rather vague in his mind:

  • 49 Ibid., p. 95.

Newman had known rank but in the old days of the army—where it had not always amounted to very much either; and he had never seen it attributed to women, unless perhaps to two or three rather predominant wives of generals.49

  • 50 See above pp. 84-87.
  • 51 Oscar Cargill, The Novels of Henry James, p. 46. Cargill has shown that The American was a refutat (...)

25Like actors in an old play, all the people Newman encounters at the Bellegardes’ seem to conform to pre-established rules and particular conventions. Since he does not know the rules the American cannot conform to them, and the only other way open to him if he wants to be admitted into this closed society is to follow Valentin’s and Mrs. Tristram’s advice, i.e., be himself as hard as he can. I have shown elsewhere that James made light of Dumas’ conventional morality by writing The Siege of London in response to the Demi-Monde.50 Coming from the West like Newman Mrs. Headway conquers London by remaining almost exaggeratedly herself and by refusing to conform to the conventions of British high society. As free as Newman and carrying with her the same breath of fresh air, she is strongly set off against the contracted Parisian demi-monde. But the Siege of London is a light little tale, and when he wrote The American James certainly had more serious intentions in mind than to refute Dumas’ L’Etrangère or, as Oscar Cargill puts it, “to justify American ways against a European caricature of them.”51

26Oscar Cargill’s suggestion is interesting, however, because, by drawing attention to the influence of Dumas, Augier, and Feuillet on The American he reminds us of James’s attitude towards these writers in his criticism; he reproached them with moralizing without having any true moral sensibility: their morality, he said, was only a question of form, of pre-conceived behaviour to which their “good” characters stuck and from which their “bad” characters invariably departed. Consciously or not James imitated them when he created in Madame de Cintré one of those beautiful statues completely void inside which he so easily detected in the French literature and especially in the French theatre of his time. Deprived as she is of moral freedom and of personal determination she could have been created by a French playwright of the time. Newman had been warned by Mrs. Tristram that Claire de Cintré, though a widow, still had to submit to her family’s authority:

  • 52 The American, pp. 87-88.

“Isn’t she, as a married woman, her own mistress?”
“Legally yes, I suppose; but morally no. In France you may never say Nay to your mother, whatever she requires of you. She may be the most abominable old woman in the world and make your life a purgatory; but after all she’s ma mère, and you’ve no right to judge her. You’ve simply to obey. The thing has a fine side to it. Madame de Cintré bows her head and folds her wings.”
“Can’t she at least make her brother quit?”
“Her brother’s the chef de la famille, the head of the clan. With those people the family’s everything; you must act not for your own pleasure but for the advantage of your race and name.”52

  • 53 Contrary to Oscar Cargill’s remark (op. cit., p. 59) that she occupies a position between Mme de M (...)
  • 54 As Daniel Lerner suggests in his comparison between The American and Turgenev’s A Nest of Gentlefo (...)

27This again is a new kind of arithmetic for the American, who has never heard before of such a limitation to personal freedom. Claire de Cintré is indeed very different from James’s American heroines. 53 She has no moral freedom and when she refuses Newman at the end of the novel it is not as a result of her free choice as is Mme de Mauves’s similar dismissal of Longmore. The crisis does not take place within herself54 but without. She is not free to choose and this is precisely what differentiates her from such heroines as Euphemia de Mauves and Isabel Archer. Her elder sister, Gabrielle de Bergerac, who had eloped with Coquelin, had judged the Old World and chosen the New, thereby proving that she was only an American under a French disguise. Claire does not judge, nor even question, anything. We know nothing about what takes place in her mind nor about the springs of her behaviour. This renders her very unconvincing for the part James intended her to play in the novel. It is clear that he wanted the young woman to appear perfect not only to the American but also to the reader. Now, except for Mrs. Tristram who calls her so and for Valentin who calls her an angel, we must content ourselves with Newman’s judgment, which, after what we know of his taste, does not carry great weight:

  • 55 The American, p. 121.

She gave him, the charming woman, the sense of an elaborate education, of her having passed through mysterious ceremonies and processes of culture in her youth, of her having been fashioned and made flexible to certain deep social needs. All this, as I have noted, made her seem rare and precious—a very expensive article, as he would have said, and one which a man with an ambition to have everything about him of the best would taste of triumph in possessing. Yet looking at the matter with an eye to private felicity he asked himself where, in so exquisite a compound, nature and art showed their dividing-line. Where did the special intention separate from the habit of good manners? Where did fine urbanity end and fine sincerity begin?55

  • 56 Ibid., p. 60.

28Obviously, James wanted Claire de Cintré to be an image of perfection but since this image is conveyed mainly through Newman’s impression of her, it is subject to doubt. Indeed, what does perfection signify in Newman’s mouth? What does he call “a perfect work of art” and what is “rare and precious” if even Mlle Nioche’s bad copy of Murillo’s Madonna struck him as “wonderfully splendid and precious”?56 Even if James wanted to show that Newman was a better judge of human character than of artistic matters he should not have demanded of us to take his hero on trust. The “perfection” of Mme de Cintré is not sufficiently exemplified. Neither is her love for Newman. Claire may at the most want to be free from her family’s authority and as Newman is the one who proposes to rescue her she accepts him, especially since he is original and amuses her. But there is certainly nothing resembling passion in her reaction to the American. Newman himself neglects her since he forgets to take her with him to the Opera after he has been officially accepted as her prospective husband. Used to his strong-willed Anglo-Saxon heroines James was probably at a loss to depict a young woman who could be both passive and interesting. We see that she is passive but we must take James’s word for it that she is also interesting.

29Behind the “wall,” “the first act of the melodrama” (as Valentin calls his sister’s first marriage with a man she did not love) was performed before Newman’s arrival. The American now gradually discovers a world of fetishism and idolatry. An embodiment of the family’s authority, the implacable Madame de Bellegarde sits at one end of her salon which, with its candles and its images of worship bathed in the penumbra, is not unlike the interior of a church:

  • 57 Ibid., p. 130.

It was a vast high room, with elaborate and ponderous mouldings, painted a whitish grey, along the upper portion of the walls and the ceilings; with a great deal of faded and carefully-repaired tapestry in the doorways and chair-backs; with a Turkey carpet, in light colours, still soft and rich despite great antiquity, on the floor; and with portraits of each of Madame de Bellegarde’s children at the age of ten suspended against an old screen of red silk. The dimness was diminished, exactly enough for conversation, by half a dozen candles placed in odd corners and at a great distance apart. In a deep armchair near the fire sat an old lady in black.57

  • 58 Ibid., p. 269.
  • 59 Ibid., p. 112.

30This old lady in black is actually the priestess of a religion on the altar of which Claire—with her symbolical first name harmonizing with the white dress in which she usually appears—will be sacrificed. Unable to explain to Newman why she must dismiss him Madame de Cintré keeps repeating: “It’s like a religion”58 and he presently understands that she means the religion of the family. Family indeed is erected here into superstition, into religious idolatry. “A house like ours is inevitably one,”59 Valentin tells Newman. Everything has to be shared, the glory as well as the shame. The past has ensnared them in a gigantic cobweb which holds them together and from which they can no longer disengage themselves. Their family system is closely connected with the aristocratic system that has made them what they are. The “big” Duchess with her worshippers standing in semicircle around her is another priestess of the Old World:

  • 60 Ibid., p. 211.

This little group had divided as the Marquis came up, and he stepped forward and stood for an instant silent and obsequious, his flattened hat raised to his lips as Newman had seen gentlemen stand in churches as soon as they entered their pews. The lady indeed bore a very fair likeness to a revered effigy in some idolatrous shrine.60

  • 61 Ibid., p. 324.

31When he calls on her at the end he realizes that he is “asking favours of false gods and appealing to sympathy where he had no sympathy to give,”61 and, ashamed of having come to such extremity, he abruptly leaves her house. Valentin himself, light and frivolous though he is, is the worshipper of a fetish for which he lays down his life; he is

  • 62 Ibid., p. 105.

a devotee of something mysterious and sacred to which he occasionally alluded in terms more ecstatic even than those in which he spoke of the last pretty woman, and which was simply the beautiful though somewhat superannuated image of personal Honour.62

  • 63 Ibid., pp. 234-235.
  • 64 Ibid., p. 231.

32Having had words with a rival in Noémie Nioche’s opera box Valentin sends him a challenge, and Newman cannot persuade him not to fight. He revolts at the idea: “the exposure, the possible sacrifice, of so charming a life on the altar of a stupid tradition struck him as intolerably wrong.”63 We know for what stupid reason Valentin dies, but his family later gives out that he died for the Pope, having been drawn into a fight because the other fellow reflected on the Pope’s morals. For the American who knows that, in this particular case, the “Pope” was a worthless girl, the tradition to which Valentin’s life is sacrificed is disgusting. The girl not only was not worth it but she rejoiced at the fact because being the cause of a nobleman’s death would give her a push. While all this plays itself out before his eyes Newman feels confronted with “a vain and grotesque parade, poor, restricted, indirect as a salve to an insult or a righting of a wrong, and yet pretentious and pompous as an accommodation.”64 He has the same reaction when he hears that Claire will enter the convent instead of becoming his wife: for the first time he really feels, at the back of all those superstitions, the baleful power of Catholicism:

  • 65 Ibid., p. 273.

He had never let the fact of her religious faith trouble him; Catholicism was only a name to him, and to express a mistrust of her forms of worship would have implied that he had other and finer ones to offer: which was as little possible as might be. If such flawless white flowers as that could bloom in Catholic soil they but attested its richness. But it was one thing to be a Catholic and another to turn nun—on your hands! There was something lugubriously comical in the way Newman’s thoroughly contemporaneous optimism was confronted with this dusky old-world expedient. To see a woman made for him and for motherhood to his children juggled away in this tragic travesty—it was a thing to rub one’s eyes over, a nightmare, an extravagance, a hoax.65

  • 66 Ibid., p. 307.

33James clearly shares Newman’s opinion and sides with him against the French. It is James, not his hero, who speaks of a “dusky old-world expedient” and who calls Claire’s Carmelite dress a “tragic travesty.” As the novel draws to its close the impression of masquerading increases, and Catholicism becomes more and more clearly associated with idolatry. Newman finds in the people who attend the mass in the convent of the Carmelites “a perverse effect of studied submission.”66 He holds the priest and the two altar-boys responsible for the wrong he has suffered and associates their mysterious rites with idolatrous practices:

  • 67 Loc. cit.

Newman watched their genuflexions and gyrations with a grim, still enmity; they seemed prompters and abettors of the wrong he had suffered; they were mouthing and droning out their triumph. The priest’s long, dismal intonings acted upon his nerves and deepened his wrath; there was something defiant in his inintelligible drawl—as if it had been meant for his very own swindled self.67

  • 68 Ibid., p. 308. James must have been impressed by the ending of Balzac’s La Duchesse de Langeais, i (...)
  • 69 The American, p. 276.
  • 70 Ibid., p 282.
  • 71 Ibid., p 251.

34The whole feeling culminates in the chant of the Carmelite nuns which suddenly rises from the depths of the chapel and keeps on “mechanical and monotonous, with dismal repetitions and despairing cadences.”68 This “horrible,” “hideous” chant (obviously not an aesthetic but a moral judgment) is really for Newman the quintessence of Catholicism at its worst since “of all the nuns in Christendom,” as Mrs. Tristram had told him,“the Carmelites are the worst. They’re so unnatural that you may say they’re really not human.”69 One after the other Newman unmasks the false gods of the Old World. He finds nothing but fear under the pretence of obedience, nothing but lightness under the pretence of heroism, nothing but submission to family authority under the pretence of religious faith, and Catholicism, based on authority, spreads its wide net over all the lies and all the pretences, concealing them under its incomparable “form” and “style.” Significantly James makes the Bellegardes belong to the more conservative wing of Catholicism, Ultramontanism, which proclaimed the infallibility of the Pope even before it was defined in 1870 by the Vatican Council. “Are you of this awful faith?” Newman asks Mrs. Bread, the only honest creature in this corrupt world. And she answers: “No indeed, sir; I’m a good Church of England woman—very Low.”70 All the others, in spite of their British origin, are Catholics and Madame de Bellegarde herself is the daughter of an English Catholic peer. Even M. Ledoux, one of Valentin’s witnesses in the duel, is a great Catholic and a good illustration of the crooked and equivocal ways of his religion. He “appeared to think the use of pistols at thirty paces a very perfect arrangement, provided, should one get hit, one might promptly see the priest…. Savoir-vivre—knowing how to live— was his strong point, in which he included knowing how to die.”71 All through the novel Catholicism is implicitly condemned. James opposes the “pagan” and immoral Church of Rome to the moral and spiritual values which his American has inherited from the Reformation. The authority of the family is only an epitome of the authority of the Pope, and the caste system of the Bellegardes a continuation of the social tyranny of the Middle Ages. Catholicism and feudalism are closely linked together. Like Fossy, Fleurières, the little village with its beautiful name where the Bellegardes have their château, also possesses a feudal castle. The past with its evil power has been materially and symbolically absorbed into the present:

  • 72 Ibid., p 262.

The petit bourg lay at the base of a 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 that dropped along the hill to enclose the clustered houses defensively, had been absorbed into the very substance of the village.72

35The church itself is simply “the former chapel of the castle.” Like Coquelin in Gabrielle de Bergerac Newman feels uneasy when he looks at the castle of the Bellegardes:

  • 73 Ibid., p. 274.

When he reached the gate, however, a singular feeling took possession of him—a feeling which, strange as it may seem, had its source in his unfathomable good-nature. He stood there a while, looking through the bars at the large time-stained face beyond and wondering to what special misdeed it was that the dark old dwelling with the flowery name had given convenient occasion. It had given occasion, first and last, to tyrannies and sufferings enough, Newman said to himself; it was an evil-looking place to live in.73

  • 74 Ibid., p. 317.

36But whereas there had been nothing in Gabrielle de Bergerac to sustain Coquelin’s intuition that there was evil hidden under the external perfection of the ruins of Fossy, James here shows that his hero’s suspicions are perfectly justified: Fleurières is indeed directly connected with evil. Something has been done, Valentin confides to his friend on his death-bed, and we know through Mrs. Bread that it is nothing less than Madame de Bellegarde’s murder of her husband (the way she kills him by refusing to give him his potion and by keeping her dreadful eyes on him is one of the extravagances of the book). It is not by mere accident that James makes the château of the Bellegardes date from the reign of Henry III, the champion of Catholicism and the murderer of the Duke of Guise. Blood was shed in the past and it goes on being shed in the present. For all their taste and self-possession, Madame de Bellegarde and her son Urbain are criminals with blood on their hands. They are perfect illustrations of social tyranny with its mixture of urbanity—as suggested by the elder son’s name—and of cruelty. It is even as though the greatest perfection of manners only concealed the most shameless cynicism. The way in which the old Marquise succeeds in controlling herself when Newman tells her that he is in possession of a document that proves her misdeed, impresses the American beyond measure. Her coldness affects him as consummate and he cannot help admiring her grand manner and her superior style: “It’s a great pity you’ve made me your enemy,” he tells her, “I should have been one of your greatest admirers.”74

  • 75 Ibid., p. 102.

37In his innocent good faith Newman does not realize until further events enlighten him that he is in a world of masquerading and make-believe. Like Euphemia Cleve, he naively imagines that the best manners are the guarantee of an ideal morality. The Bellegardes quite baffle him and he is not mature enough to understand a world in which the young people themselves have “very aged hearts” and “morals the most grizzled and wrinkled.”75 Fortunately, if Newman is blind to forms he has a strong natural intuition and a nose for detecting a good character and recognizing a bad one. His aversion for Urbain de Bellegarde is purely intuitive and only later does it prove justified:

  • 76 Ibid., p. 153.

The Marquis was as disagreeable to him as some queer, rare, possibly dangerous biped, perturbingly akin to humanity, in one of the cages of a “show.” He had never been a man of strong personal aversions; his nerves had not been at the mercy of the mystical qualities of his neighbours. But here was a figure in respect to which he was irresistibly in opposition; a figure of forms and phrases and postures; a figure of possible impertinences and treacheries.76

38Such historical products as the Bellegardes with successive layers of varnish deposited on their hearts by centuries of tradition would have been too difficult for Newman to understand had he not witnessed on a lower level the whole process by which the human heart gradually conceals itself behind “forms and phrases and postures.” Using again one of the devices of the stage James has therefore imagined a sub-plot running parallel with the main story. The Nioches play an important part in the novel in that they help Newman—and the reader—to understand the more complex world of the Bellegardes. They are to them what Mlle Nioche’s Madonna is to Murillo’s: mere imitations. They have the same varnish, though more apparent and the same hypocrisy though easier to unmask. Newman’s first meeting with Noémie Nioche at the Louvre throws more light on his true nature than any description could do. Completely at a loss in the world of art he takes for art what is only a very bad imitation of it, and for an artist a girl who is only waiting for the opportunity to exercise her talent in a more appropriate field than painting. But if he is fooled by her in the field of art he is not at all blind to her dubious character. He already detects in her the duality that will take on such refined and elaborate forms in the higher spheres:

  • 77 Ibid., p. 68.

Her face was a rare mixture of youth and maturity, and beneath her clear, charming forehead her searching little smile seemed to contain a world of ambiguous intentions.77

39M. Nioche himself, though at the antipodes of Urbain de Bellegarde, loves conversation, is urbane, has a clear mind and ready-made solutions:

  • 78 Ibid., p. 63.

As a Frenchman—quite apart from Newman’s napoleons— M. Nioche loved conversation, and even in his decay his urbanity had not declined. As a Frenchman too he could give a clear account of things, and—still as a Frenchman— when his knowledge was at fault he could supply its lapses with the most convenient and ingenious hypotheses.78

  • 79 Ibid., p. 26.
  • 80 Ibid., p. 222.
  • 81 Ibid., p. 240.
  • 82 Ibid., p. 141.
  • 83 Ibid., p. 200.

40The Nioches are also actors in the play. The very first time he speaks with Noémie Nioche the American is struck by her remarkable aptitude “for playing a part at short notice.”79 Like her Madonna she is an imitation of “the best” and apes the manners of high society. M. Nioche fetches her every day from the Louvre and she follows him with the obedience of a well-bred jeune fille but we know—and so does Newman—that her behaviour is merely formal. We hear from Valentin that she abuses the old man in the most shameless way and from Newman that “she cares no more for her father than for her door-mat.”80 Claire de Cintré’s words “I’m afraid of my mother”81 ironically echo M. Nioche’s “I’m afraid of her,”82 i.e., his daugher. James probably remembered Balzac when he created Mlle Nioche and her shabby father. Following in the steps of Goriot’s daughters Noémie refuses to become a bourgeoise by telling Newman that she cannot paint, thereby losing the dowry that would have enabled her to marry an honest young man. She has pitched her ambitions higher and nothing can make her change her course. She is immoral and unscrupulous and she does not hesitate to use Valentin’s dead body as a stepping-stone to reach the top of the social ladder more easily. The young man, who had admired her for being “capable of seeing a man strangled without changing colour”83 did not know that his perspicacity would prove justified beyond his expectations. Newman witnesses Noémie Nioche’s ascension but, having known her from the start, he is not fooled by her lady-like aspect when he meets her in Hyde Park strolling in the company of Lord Deepmere, whom the Bellegardes themselves would have been glad to accept as a husband for Mme de Cintré. Significantly enough, Noémie Nioche’s immorality increases as her manners improve. We learn from scraps of her conversation in Hyde Park that if she has not caused any more deaths after that of Valentin she has broken other hearts, and we realize that she now treats her little dog better than her more and more dejected father. Noémie Nioche is particularly interesting as a contrasting value to Claire de Cintré. If this does not always appear very clearly, it is due to James’s unsatisfactory treatment of the latter. When we compare those two feminine figures we think of the words of Richard de Mauves’s grandmother to Euphemia Cleve: a young woman in France she had said, must either be a dévote or an opportunist, must either submit to external rules or play the game of life. Noémie Nioche has chosen the second course and she plays the game of life with an intrepidity that even Newman, disgusted as he is by her moral character, cannot help admiring. Mme de Cintré, on the other hand, is too weak to play the game and she therefore submits to her family and retires from the world. Noémie is repeatedly referred to as “a free spirit,” and there is an ironical undertone in James’s use of the adjective. The freedom he himself conceives of is a very different thing from Mlle Nioche’s, which means immorality and not moral independence.

41The contrasting values embodied by Madame de Cintré and Noémie Nioche provoke different and illuminating reactions in Valentin and Newman. Newman is not “artistic” but he has a sense of character which the young Count, with all his shrewdness and vivacity of mind, does not possess. If the American fails to appreciate the treasures of art, he does not fail to appreciate those of nature and can recognize a beautiful character whenever he sees one. This accounts for his admiration for Claire de Cintré and his contempt for Noémie Nioche. Valentin, on the other hand, though he loves his sister and calls her an angel, is far more interested in Noémie Nioche, who is definitely not an angel but whom he finds more picturesque, a judgment that reminds us of the French writers with their eye for visible and plastic beauty:

  • 84 Ibid., p. 200.

She’s as perfect as you please, and as hard and clear-cut as some little figure of a sea-nymph on an antique intaglio; and I warrant she hasn’t a grain more true sensibility than if she were scooped out of a big amethyst. You can’t scratch her even with a diamond.84

  • 85 Ibid., p. 147.

42Valentin’s very vocabulary brings to mind Emaux et Camées; with her perfect beauty without a heart and her pure form without moral sensibility, Noémie Nioche could indeed have been chiselled by Gautier himself. The young Count finds her extremely intelligent and a remarkable subject for the artist, which leaves Newman “at once puzzled, impressed and vaguely scandalised by his friend’s investment of such a subject with so much of the dignity of demonstration,”85 just as James, writing on Balzac about the same time reproached him for finding duplicity more picturesque than honesty and a coquette more interesting than a bourgeoise. Mlle Nioche is really a sister of Balzac’s courtesans, and Valentin admires her because she wants to make something of her life. He does not question the means she uses to reach her aim:

  • 86 Ibid., p. 147.

“She has taken the measure of life, and she has determined to be something—to succeed at any cost…. She knows her Paris. She’s one of fifty thousand, so far as her impatiences and appetites go, but I’m sure she has an exceptional number of ideas.”
Newman raised his strong eyebrows. “Are you also sure they’re really good ones?”
“Ah, ’ good, good ’!” cried Valentin: “you people are too wonderful with your goodness. Good for what, please—?”86

43Like the French artists with whom James often discussed at the time when he was writing The American Valentin draws a clear line between art and morality. Genius is its own justification and morality need not interfere with it. If Noémie Nioche succeeds in making of her life a real work of art why should she also be moral? As for her “scantiness,” Valentin refutes Newman’s argument by telling him that in his country nothing is too scant for a subject, they can turn into art almost everything:

  • 87 Ibid., p. 148.

“Why, my dear fellow, we all here in Paris want to make as much as possible out of everything. That’s how we differ, I conceive, from the people of your country: the objects of your exploitation appear to be fewer, and above all of fewer kinds. I don’t mind telling you,” he declared in the same tone, “that I don’t see the end of what I might be capable of making out of this.”
“Of ’ this ’—?”
“Of the relation of Monsieur Nioche to his daughter, and of the relation of his daughter to—well, to as many other persons as you like!”87

  • 88 In the discussion Theodora advocates the moral against the aesthetic point of view: “We praise nov (...)
  • 89 The American, p. 110.

44This is indeed what Balzac did in most of his novels and what Theodora, one of the interlocutors who discuss Daniel Deronda in James’s essay, calls “creeping into the small corners of the mind.”88 True, Valentin does not mind opening the “greater chambers of human character.” His curiosity is of the head more than of the heart, and he can remain completely outside the little dramas which he watches with extreme intellectual satisfaction. At one point in the novel Newman accompanies him to Mme Dandelard’s, an Italian woman married to a Frenchman who had proved a brute and who had taken to beating her; she has obtained a legal separation and lives in an hôtel garni where she is not unwilling to show her blue spots to visitors of her choice. Valentin makes no secret of the fact that it is for him a “pleasure of the mind”89 to see this woman’s drama play itself out. Newman’s reaction is quite different: he is sorry for the poor woman and asks Valentin why he does not tell his sister to call on Mme Dandelard and see if she cannot be of some help, which, of course, provokes the young Frenchman’s hilarity. Newman had had the same attitude towards Mlle Nioche; while Valentin only saw the girl’s plastic beauty and had no other idea than to make her his mistress, Newman had thought of what would happen if she did not marry immediately, and he had proposed to give her enough money to marry properly. With his intellectual vivacity and acuteness, Valentin sees artistic possibilities in the scantiest subject but his interest is only skin-deep. Newman, on the contrary, is blind to the artistic possibilities and almost insensible to visible beauty, but immediately goes behind the surface and tries to discover the truth of character and the moral beauty. Both fail because they only see one aspect of reality. Blind to the moral life and to the richness of character, Valentin falls a victim to Noémie Nioche’s very immorality; insensible to form, Newman is never really accepted in a world where it is all important. Each is aware of the shortcomings of the other: Newman foresees Valentin’s misfortunes and Valentin is sceptical as to the outcome of Newman’s attempt with his family. But if both are wrong Valentin is obviously the more wrong of the two: when all is said Newman is disappointed in his loss but the experience has enlarged his inner life and made him richer; Valentin’s life, on the other hand, is irremediably gone and he gains nothing in death, except the vindication of his “honour.”

  • 90 Isadore Traschen in “An American in Paris” (American Literature. XXVI [1954-55], 67-77) shows how (...)
  • 91 See above, pp. 14-15.
  • 92 See above, p. 14.

45James’s concern with the international theme and with the contrast of manners has generally caused his critics to overlook a more interesting relation between The American and its creator. Actually the conflict of manners between Newman and the Bellegardes only serves to illustrate a problem that had always loomed large in James’s mind and that had just been revived by his contact with the French writers. Strange as this may appear at first sight, The American is another variation on the theme of Art. James certainly regretted having had so little contact with the natives during his stay in Paris, but this by no means accounts for his aggressivity towards the French. To accuse him of distorting the French characters implies a complete blindness to the caricatural aspect of his novel as a whole. The world James wanted to contrast with his free and uprooted American Barbarian could only be the most restricted, the most conservative, the most Catholic French society. The revisions he introduced for the New York Edition sufficiently indicate that he wanted to accentuate rather than tone down the contrasting elements.90 James’s general disappointment with the French appears from the letter to his brother quoted above91 and written one month after the serialization of The American had begun to appear in the Atlantic Monthly. If the tone of the letter cannot be said to be enthusiastic and if James implies in it that he knew the Frenchmen on the stage better than the real ones, there is less vindictiveness in it than “a long encroaching weariness and satiety with the French mind,”92 and we understand that the wall symbolizing the impossibility to meet in The American refers, in James’s life, to literary contacts far more than to personal ones. It is the wall between two different attitudes towards art, the wall between the externality of the French and the moral theorizing of the Anglo-Saxons, the thick black line that the French novelists (whom James did meet in Paris) drew between art and morality.

46These two attitudes are embodied in Newman on the one hand and in the French characters (especially Valentin de Bellegarde) on the other. The only exception is Madame de Cintré who was intended as a possible fusion of the two and who should have been an ideal character had James not failed in representing her. Full of colour and life though he is, Newman is a composite figure made out of heterogeneous elements drawn from the popular tradition and with more national than individual features. He exists in a vacuum and could not possibly have found his counterpart in real life. As a character, he is far inferior to Mr. Ruck, the tragicomic overworked business-man of The Pension Beaurepas or to Howells’s Silas Lapham. With his enormous smile, his enormous good sense and his enormous blunders Newman has lost human proportions and has become a myth; he is:

  • 93 The American, p. 49.

the great Western Barbarian, stepping forth in his innocence and might, gazing a while at this poor corrupt old world and then swooping down on it.93

47As heavy as a three-decker, Newman really reminds us of the “loose and baggy monsters” full of life but without form to which James so often alludes in his criticism.

  • 94 James’s concern for realism was also probably the reason why he made his Bellegardes half French h (...)

48Contrary to him, the French characters are hard and concise and each has only one single definite feature. Urbain de Bellegarde and his mother are almost filiform and drawn with extraordinary precision. Noémie Nioche has neither the sheer vitality of Millicent Henning nor the fantasy of the Princess Casamassima, which kept those two characters from being completely immoral. Each of the French characters, with the exception of Mme de Cintré, is one-featured as only caricatures are. All through the novel we feel that James was still trying to disengage himself from the influence of George Sand and from romanticism. Stimulated by Flaubert and his cénacle, he endeavoured to be a realist94 but never quite succeeded. Later on he discovered the possibilities of indirectness and suggestion, a way of conveying reality more appropriate to his particular turn of mind. James had only to develop the latent values contained in Gabrielle de Bergerac and the duality contained in the castle of Fossy to create his Bellegardes, a product of Time and History in whom manners and evil coexist. They never fall below a standard of high correctness and taste; they turn to the Pope to know how to think and to Madame de Bellegarde to know how to behave. This severe discipline and submission to “authority” accounts for their external perfection. The same central authority exists in all fields of French life. The French writers also have their Academy and each literary school has its leader. Unfortunately, the perfection of “form” is achieved at the cost of moral freedom. In the novel James clearly demonstrates that the “form” of the French characters is never sustained by a corresponding substance: there is no filial love in Claire de Cintré’s submission to her mother just as there is no religious feeling in the Bellegardes’ fidelity to the Pope, and Valentin’s adoration of the Blessed Virgin is ironically enough contradicted by his preference for non-virgins in real life. The same is true on the lower level of the Nioches. The whole social system itself is based on practically nothing, and nothing justifies the privileges which its members enjoy. Its stupidity is disclosed when young Madame de Bellegarde, the other “free spirit” of the novel, confides to Newman that her most ardent dream is to go to the student’s ball in the Latin Quarter:

  • 95 The American, p. 226.

Newman gave a loud laugh. It seemed to him hardly worth while to be the wife of the Marquis de Bellegarde, a daughter of the crusaders, heiress of six centuries of glories and traditions, only to have centred one’s aspirations upon the sight of fifty young ladies kicking off the hats of a hundred young men. It struck him as a theme for the moralist, but he had no time to moralise.95

49Indeed, while the young Marquise is talking to Newman in this extravagant way, Valentin is signing his death sentence by engaging to fight about Noémie Nioche. He takes form so seriously that he is ready to sacrifice his life for it, and form significantly takes away his life as it takes away that of Flaubert’s novels. At the time when he was writing The American James was completely immersed in the problems of form and morality. That is why the novel, for all the sheer vitality and vigorous humour that run through each of its pages, is exaggeratedly serious and heavy. James is torn asunder between admiration and irritation. He wants at the same time to imitate the realism of the French and to reject their excessive and exclusive concern for form. He places his characters in carefully described settings à la Balzac, but he makes Newman—his own “bourgeois”—triumph over the French and the values they represent. Of all the works James ever wrote The American is the one in which he is least removed from the reality he wants to convey, and this accounts for the fact that when he was preparing the New York Edition it struck him as the most unsatisfactory of his long novels.

50The letters James wrote at the time as well as his articles on Balzac and Flaubert, collected in French Poets and Novelists, show that this question of form and life recurs as a leitmotiv in his criticism of the French. Again and again he comes back to it, contrasting the French concern for plastic beauty and the Anglo-Saxon concern for moral beauty, showing that if the French have a greater perfection of form and a greater artistic sense, the Anglo-Saxons have a greater sense of psychology and of character. In “Daniel Deronda: A Conversation” Constantius is the one who, like James, tries to find a golden mean between Pulcheria’s aesthetic and Theodora’s moral point of view. He comes to the conclusion that if both views are important the latter ultimately prevails and that art without life is a poor affair. In The American James clearly demonstrates the truth of this assertion.


1 “Daniel Deronda: A Conversation” in Selected Literary Criticism, p. 47.

2 The American, pp. 39-40. The quotations are from the Chiltern Library edition (London, 1949).

3 A Small Boy and Others, pp. 361-366.

4 The American, p. 24.

5 Ibid., p. 23.

6 Ibid., p. 32.

7 Ibid., p. 32.

8 Constance Rourke rightly notes that Newman’s is “the comic belligerent tone that had spread through the assertive nationalism of the Yankee fables.”American Humour. A Study of the National Character (New York, 1931), p. 197.

9 The American, p. 24.

10 Ibid., p. 104.

11 Ibid., p. 38.

12 Ibid., p. 44.

13 Ibid., p. 50.

14 Ibid., p. 40.

15 Ibid., p. 52.

16 Ibid., p. 55.

17 Loc. cit.

18 Ibid., p. 247.

19 Ibid., p. 327.

20 Ibid., p. 87.

21 Portraits of Places, p. 80.

22 The American, p. 43.

23 Ibid., p. 119.

24 Ibid., p. 103.

25 Ibid., p. 101.

26 Ibid., p. 50.

27 Ibid., p. 118.

28 Ibid., p. 183.

29 Selected Letters, p. 99.

30 My italics.

31 . The American, p. 58.

32 Loc. cit

33 Ibid., pp. 306-307.

34 Ibid., p. 307.

35 Ibid., p. 324.

36 Ibid., p. 339.

37 Loc. cit.

38 This is the view taken by Marie-Reine Gamier in Henry fames et la France. Mlle Gamier seems blind to the irony James directs at his American by making him an impossible match for Claire de Cintré, who, as he wrote in the above-quoted letter “couldn’t really scramble over from her side.”

39 The American, p. 108.

40 Ibid., p. 213.

41 Ibid., p. 212.

42 Ibid., p. 121.

43 Ibid., pp. 159-160.

44 Ibid., p. 166.

45 Ibid., p. 213.

46 Ibid., p. 210.

47 Ibid., pp. 207-208.

48 Ibid., p. 217.

49 Ibid., p. 95.

50 See above pp. 84-87.

51 Oscar Cargill, The Novels of Henry James, p. 46. Cargill has shown that The American was a refutation of Dumas the Younger’s L’Etrangère (seen by James in February 1876) in an article entitled “The First International Novel,” PMLA, LXXIII (Sept. 1958), 418-425.

52 The American, pp. 87-88.

53 Contrary to Oscar Cargill’s remark (op. cit., p. 59) that she occupies a position between Mme de Mauves and Mrs. Ambient.

54 As Daniel Lerner suggests in his comparison between The American and Turgenev’s A Nest of Gentlefolks (Slavonic and East European Review, XIX, 44).

55 The American, p. 121.

56 Ibid., p. 60.

57 Ibid., p. 130.

58 Ibid., p. 269.

59 Ibid., p. 112.

60 Ibid., p. 211.

61 Ibid., p. 324.

62 Ibid., p. 105.

63 Ibid., pp. 234-235.

64 Ibid., p. 231.

65 Ibid., p. 273.

66 Ibid., p. 307.

67 Loc. cit.

68 Ibid., p. 308. James must have been impressed by the ending of Balzac’s La Duchesse de Langeais, in which Montriveau, like Newman, tries to recognize the duchess’s voice among those of the other Carmelite nuns.

69 The American, p. 276.

70 Ibid., p 282.

71 Ibid., p 251.

72 Ibid., p 262.

73 Ibid., p. 274.

74 Ibid., p. 317.

75 Ibid., p. 102.

76 Ibid., p. 153.

77 Ibid., p. 68.

78 Ibid., p. 63.

79 Ibid., p. 26.

80 Ibid., p. 222.

81 Ibid., p. 240.

82 Ibid., p. 141.

83 Ibid., p. 200.

84 Ibid., p. 200.

85 Ibid., p. 147.

86 Ibid., p. 147.

87 Ibid., p. 148.

88 In the discussion Theodora advocates the moral against the aesthetic point of view: “We praise novelists for wandering and creeping so into the small corners of the mind. That is what we praise Balzac for when he gets down upon all fours to crawl through Le Père Goriot or Les Parents Pauvres. But I must say I think it a finer thing to unlock with as firm a hand as George Eliot some of the greater chambers of human character.” Selected Literary Criticism, p. 40.

89 The American, p. 110.

90 Isadore Traschen in “An American in Paris” (American Literature. XXVI [1954-55], 67-77) shows how James emphasized and elabored on certain aspects of Newman’s innocence and barbarism, whereas Max H. Schulz in “The Bellegardes’ Feud with Christopher Newman: A Study of H.J.’s Revision of The American” (American Literature, XXVIII [1955-56], 42-55) shows that the novelist widened the gap between the two worlds by making the Belle-gardes still more wicked and intolerant.

91 See above, pp. 14-15.

92 See above, p. 14.

93 The American, p. 49.

94 James’s concern for realism was also probably the reason why he made his Bellegardes half French half English. This solved the problem of the language and explained possible mistakes due to his insufficient knowledge of the French nobility. But he made a greater mistake by giving such a mixed basis to obviously caricatural types.

95 The American, p. 226.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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