The American

Literary significance & criticism

When James came to revise the book in 1907 for inclusion in the New York Edition of his fiction, he realized how fanciful much of the plot was. He made enormous revisions in the book to try to make all the goings-on more believable, but he was still forced to confess in his preface that The American remained more of a traditional romance rather than a realistic novel.

Most critics have regretted the New York Edition revisions as unfortunate marrings of the novel's original exuberance and charm. The earlier version of the book has normally been used in modern editions. Critics generally concede that the second half of the novel suffers from improbability, but still find the book a vivid and attractive example of James' early style. More recently, some pundits have taken Newman to task as an obnoxious and even imperialistic westerner. But James' hero still finds many supporters, among critics and readers in general.

The American generally flows well and is easily accessible to today's reader, more so than some of James's later novels. Newman's friendship with Valentin de Bellegarde is particularly well-drawn, and the descriptions of upper-class Parisian life are vivid. The modern reader may be somewhat taken aback, however, that in a lengthy novel primarily about courtship and marriage, James totally ignores the theme of sexual attraction. Newman seems to see Claire de Cintre only in terms of her elegance and suitability as a consort for a rich and accomplished man like himself. As for Claire, we learn nothing about what transpired between her and her first (much older) husband, nor is anything significant revealed about her feelings for Newman. Only the mercenary Mademoiselle Nioche is presented as a sexual being, and this only in the most oblique and negative terms. Even by Victorian standards, James's reticence on sexual matters is striking.

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