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Authors: Henry James

The American

BOOK: The American



Henry James was born in 1843 in Washington Place, New York, of Scottish and Irish ancestry. His father was a prominent theologian and philosopher and his elder brother, William, was also famous as a philosopher. He attended schools in New York and later in London, Paris and Geneva, entering the law School at Harvard in 1862. In 1864 he began to contribute reviews and short stories to American journals. In 1875, after two prior visits to Europe, he settled for a year in Paris, where he met Flaubert, Turgenev and other literary figures. However, the next year he moved to London, where he became so popular in society that in the winter of 1878-9 he confessed to accepting 107 invitations. In 1898 he left London and went to live at Lamb House, Rye, Sussex. Henry James became naturalized in 1915, was awarded the O.M., and died in 1916.

In addition to many short stories, plays and books of criticism, autobiography and travel he wrote some twenty novels, the first published in book form being
Roderick Hudson
(1875). They include
The Europeans, Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, The Princess Casamassima, The Tragic Muse, The Spoils of Poynton, The Awkward Age, The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors
The Golden Bowl.

William Spengemann, Professor of English at Dartmouth College, is the author of five books, most recently
A New World of Words: Redefining Early American Literature
(Yale, 1994), as well as the editor of two other volumes of Penguin Classics: Herman Melville’s
and the anthology
Nineteenth-Century American Poetry.


Henry James

Edited with an Introduction by



Published by the Penguin Group

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The American
first published 1876-7

Published in the Penguin American Library 1981

Reprinted in Penguin Classics 1986

40  39  38  37  36  35  34  33

Introduction and Notes copyright © Viking Penguin Inc., 1981

All rights reserved


James, Henry, 1843-1916.

The American.

Bibliography: p.

I. Spengemann, William C. II. Title. III. Series.

PS2116.A6    1981    813’.4    81-10714

ISBN: 978-1-101-65132-2    AACR2

Printed and bound in the United States of America
Set in Linotron Caslon

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Introduction by William Spengemann

Suggestions for Further Reading

A Note on the Text




ver since
The American
first appeared in print, over a hundred years ago, readers have been trying to decide what, if anything, is American about the novel. It has been said, more than once, that simply by calling his book
The American
James committed a definitively American act—that no Frenchman, for example, would think of writing a novel called
Le Français.
James himself seems to have lent some credence to this notion when he said, “It is hard to imagine two or three Englishmen, two or three Frenchmen, two or three Germans comparing notes and strongly differing as to the impression made upon the civilized world by the collective body of their countrymen…. We are the only people with whom such a question can be in the least what the French call an actuality.” Perhaps so. But it is equally hard to imagine an American writing a play about a Frenchman and calling it
The Foreigner
, whereas it was the younger Dumas’s unflattering portrait of the American heroine in a melodrama called
that provoked James’s treatment of Christopher Newman. Nor is Dumas the only European ever to have essayed a definition of the American character. On the contrary, the genre was invented by
—Crèvecoeur, de Tocqueville, Santayana. And as for those knots of Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Germans who are so indifferent to their own collective impact on the civilized
world: have they ever tired of measuring the impression that Americans have made upon civilization? The American has never been an exclusively American subject, neither in Columbus’s day nor, certainly, in ours.

James’s novel is clearly American in the most common sense of that term, having been written by an American When applied to literature, however, the word
has always connoted something more than nationality of authorship. At least, categorical statements of the sort that American literature seems to invite—that it is democratic, or idealistic, or realistic, or romantic, or whatever—cannot possibly include every book ever written by an American. In fact, such statements normally apply only to a very small and select group of American writings—works like
Huckleberry Finn
Leaves of Grass
, whose eccentricities of language and form seem to distinguish them from European, and especially from English, writings.
The American
, however, is notably deficient in these stylistic and structural symptoms of literary American-ness. With nothing but this novel to go on, the reader would have no way of knowing that James was not an Englishman. For that matter, even the nationality of its author can be called into question, since the “American” who wrote it was raised in what he himself called the old “English” America, had already spent a good deal of his life abroad, and had just moved to Europe, where he would spend the rest of his life, eventually renouncing his American citizenship to become a British subject.

Perhaps the American-ness of
The American
resides in its argument: the moral triumph of American good nature over European treachery. To be sure, that was James’s original idea for the novel, as he remembered it some thirty years later. “I found myself,” James recalled,

considering…the situation, in another country and an aristocratic society, of some robust but insidiously
beguiled and betrayed, some cruelly wronged, compatriot: the point being in especial that he should suffer at the hands of persons pretending to represent the highest possible civilization and to be of an order in every way superior to his own. What would he “do” in that predicament?…He would hold his revenge and cherish it and feel its sweetness, and then in the very act of forcing it home would sacrifice it in disgust,…and he would obey, in doing so, one of the large and easy impulses
characteristic of his type.

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