Monday, November 29, 2010

The American (published in 1877) - First published in serialized form, and then as a book, by Henry James

Henry James was one of the greatest literary figures of the 19th century and his works are considered mini masterpieces of the time. He was born in New York City in to a wealthy and intellectual family. Young James was tutored in the many learning centers of Europe and also studied at the Harvard Law School for some time. But he liked his literary pursuits to the study of law. James preferred living in Europe than in America and even renounced his American Citizenship for its refusal to enter in to World War I. He was a regular contributor to literary magazines and started his first novel “Watch and Ward” in his early twenties. His masterpieces like “Daisy Miller” and “Portrait of a Lady” quickly followed. His protagonist are complex individuals battling personal and provincial prejudices and many a time bring about the complexities of American and European lives. Henry James died at the age of 65 and his ashes are interred at Cambridge, Massachusetts.
This novel chronicles the travails of Christopher Newman, a gauche but rich American who travels through Europe. Newman is indeed the son of the new world, America, brash, hard working unlike the aristocrats in Europe who are very class conscious. Newman on his travel encounters many people, like Noemie Nioche, Tom Tristam and Lizzie Trisatam who give their perspective of Europe. He is introduced to beautiful Claire Clintre, a French noblewoman who has left her abusive husband. Newman falls in love with Claire and she also gives him his heart. But the Claire's mother,Madame de Bellegarde, and her older brother, Urbain de Bellegarde are against the match because of the working class origins of Newman. They never make it a secret that they are interested in his money.



Claire's younger brother Valentin de Bellegarde respects Newman for his ethics and becomes good friends with him. He also falls in love with Noemie and is challenged to a duel by another admirer. Valentin is mortally injured in the duel and in his dying moments reveals that his mother and brother had murdered his father. Meanwhile Newman tries his best to ingratiate with Claire's family and is constantly rebuffed.
When her mother and brother forbid her match with Newman, Claire takes the veil and joins a convent to become a nun. This is the last straw for Newman and he plans to take revenge against Madame de Bellegarde and her son, Urbain. He obtains written evidence of their complicity in the murder of Claire's father and plans to get them convicted. But Newman is torn in to two. One side he yearns for revenge and on the other side he sees the futility of such an action. But in the end he tears the evidence and still walks away with doubts about his actions.
The American epitomizes the new world of USA where men are honest and truthful compared to the deceit and discriminatory attitude of the Europeans. It is said that James wrote the Americans to counter the Alexander Dumas's novel L'√Čtrang√®re, which portrayed Americans as crude gold diggers. But I find the ending to be very confusing and not defined. It is a romantic novel with lot of philosophy about right and wrong and filial responsibility thrown in. In today's age, such pure virginal relationships may be non existent, but the Victorian consciousness of the Author cannot be contested. So I would still say the American is a good read.

The American (published in 1877) - First published in serialized form, and then as a book, by Henry James

No comments: