The plot summary alone should alert the reader to the split in the book. The first half of the novel - Newman's courtship of Claire and his efforts to ingratiate himself with her family - is a witty and perceptive treatment of the clash between Newman's brash and assertive American nature and the haughty, traditionalist views of the French aristocracy. This portion of the novel delights most readers with its humor and grace.
Unfortunately, the second half of the book descends into dubious and sometimes laughable melodrama, with the duel, the convent, and the deep dark family secret. James still writes with vigor and a sure eye for detail, especially in Valentin's death scene. But many readers have found it impossible to take all the plot material seriously.
The American was popular as one of the first international novels contrasting the rising and forceful New World and the cultured but sinful Old World. James originally conceived the novel as a reply to Alexandre Dumas, fils' play L'Étrangère, which presented Americans as crude and disreputable. While Newman is occasionally too forward or cocksure, his honesty and optimism offer a much more favorable view of America's potential.