The American in 1875

I got a bad cold about two weeks ago, which still nags in the form of morning sniffles. I mention this not as introduction to discussing the condition of my sinus passageways, but to explain why I finally visited Lund Stadsbibliotek and opened a library account here. You see, when you are nursing a cold, there is little to do besides watch movies or peruse the internet, or – can you imagine – read. I only brought two paperbacks with me from the U.S. that I’d long since finished, and I was overdue for a new read.

Lund offers a sizable selection of English-language works, and the first to catch my eye was Henry James’ The American. Expectedly, the title alone was enough to pique my interest. One can only be “the American” if one is outside of America or in a foreign place, and as “the American” here in Sweden I wanted to see what James had to say on the matter. His succinct title also signifies a prime importance of this singular man and his tale – he wasn’t any old American, he was “the” American – a notion that I find particularly agreeable. But by checking out the book, I also simply wanted to read more of Henry James.

Portrait of a Lady had been one of my favorites as a teenager, and in college I enjoyed reading the much shorter Daisy Miller. Henry James based many of his novels around Americans traveling in Europe, and drew substantial inspiration for such works from his own time abroad. Writing during the height of the Victorian Age, James was acutely interested in social class stratification and the resulting interplay between European aristocrats and their “more commercial” American counterparts. Of course, James must have been aware that an aristocracy still existed in America at that time (mostly in New England and the South), as battles within the social hierarchy between “new” and “old” elites (arguably) continued until the Great Depression, but such distinctions were to James’ credit more profound in Europe.

The American is a tale like many of James’ works, focusing on a wealthy American businessman traveling in France. At its heart the novel details the Yankee’s utterly harrowing inability, despite his wealth and impeccable comportment, to gain the acceptance of an old Parisian family whose daughter he seeks in marriage. The crux of their disapproval rests ironically upon the protagonist’s successes as a prototypical self-made man.

Had Christopher Newman “noble lineage” comparable to the Bellegardes, which in practice would have required him to assume haughty airs and not work a day in his life, he would instead have been the perfect spousal candidate. In this sense, one could read the novel as an indictment of Europe and its confoundingly rigid, outdated (or so James argues) social customs. Indeed, given the bleak ending in which the bride-to-be, devastated by her mother’s refusal of Newman, fatalistically joins a convent to the horror of all parties, it is difficult to read James’ message as otherwise.

Of course, now in 2011 we’ve long ridden Europe of traditional aristocracies and the American way has prevailed. The determinants of social capital exist worldwide as ever, but the multimillionaire tycoon has replaced the aristocratic Count or Lord at the top of the food chain. I suppose that’s an improvement, although to Occupy Wall Street it’s clearly not. I’ll say more later on my thoughts as “the American” in Sweden.


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