The American was author Henry James’ third novel. Originally published in serial form in 1876 through 1877, he revised it for publication into book form in 1907. The novels hero and main protagonist is Christopher Newman. Newman is the consummate American. He is tall and athletic, temperate and a self made man.
Christopher Newman is named for the explorer Christopher Columbus and his last name suggests he is a man of the New World. Reversing the steps of his namesake, Newman travels from the New World to the Old World. In Europe he finds an odd and unknown world, filled with strange customs and habits. At 42, Newman is hoping to find a woman to be his wife and complete his life. He has also come to Europe to encounter the finer things in life and to benefit from its long cultural traditions. Yet Newman is curious about, but unimpressed by, the complex and obscure French social system. This attitude causes him trouble later. Yet, his morals and his honesty mark him as an adult and self-aware.
In Europe, Newman finds himself maltreated and deceived by an aristocratic French family. Yet he comes into possession of their deadly secrets. But then he destroys the evidence of their sins and when he unceremoniously returns to the United States, he abandons not only his revenge but also the entire awkward world of the European upper classes and their nasty politics. In this, Newman is a symbolic figure, because he is out of his element. The novel’s title “The American” is Newman’s own title, mirroring the hereditary titles of the Old World peers. The narrator’s assertion that Newman is the superlative American also sets him against the description of Newman as a hesitant American nationalist. Newman is American by temperament and origin, but not automatically by unthinking dogma. Newman personifies the paradox of James as an American, with the most striking attribute that is a belief in the liberty of the individual. Such self-definition can be compared to the Bellegarde family doctrine of family honor above all, and in particular above the luxury of any individual’s autonomy.
At times, Newman seems to be kind of folk-hero, nature’s own nobleman. Newman’s directness in questioning and impulses to expose the inherent hypocrisy of any human activity drives him. That Europe suffers from an over-abundance of culture, and then Newman’s wandering will allow the naturalized Europeans to ponder on the state of their native lands. The book is far from direct on this point. Near the end of his excursion, Newman reflects how good it was for him to see societies based on something besides wealth. The American’s desire for riches, represented by Newman, is ultimately a desire for the comfort and pleasure and ease of life that wealth brings. But in the America of Newman’s era there was no Louvre, no monuments, no ancient churches, no sophisticated symphonies or rich old vintages. But it is only when Newman renounces his desires in the end that he is free to return to America and to pursue his happiness.