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181 THE DISCRIMINATION OF STOICISMS IN THE AMERICAN Steven H. Jobe* When Henry James composed the preface for the New York Edition of The American, he began with a recollection of the anxieties of serializing a novel that he had then only begun to write: It started on its course while much was still unwritten, and there again come back to me, with this remembrance, the frequent hauntings and alarms of that comparatively early time; the habit of wondering what would happen if anything should 'happen,' if one should break one's arm by an accident or make a long illness or suffer, in body, mind, fortune , any other visitation involving a loss of time.1 Aside from what it reveals about James' early habits of serial composition , the remark is noteworthy because it strikes in a minor autobiographical key a thematic note that can be heard throughout the novel. Whatever else it is, The American is a novel preoccupied with questions of human happiness and fulfillment; it explores at length and in the context of "the international situation" a broad and philosophical theme that was of abiding interest to James, the problem of learning how to live in the world even as the prospect of happiness is threatened, diminished, or destroyed by adverse circumstances. James himself testified to the centrality of this theme when he had to defend the novel against dissatisfied readers who preferred a happy ending for Christopher Newman and Claire de Cintré. "No, the interest of the subject was, for me, (without my being at all a pessimist) its exemplification of one of those insuperable difficulties which present themselves in people's lives and from which the only issue is by forfeiture—by losing something," he wrote to William Dean Howells in 1877. 2 Had James been in the habit of affixing epigraphs to his works, he would have found a suitable one for The American in Hume's Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals: "He is happy, whose circumstances suit his temper; but he is more excellent, who can suit his temper to any circumstances."3 What The American presents is the experience through which Christopher Newman becomes not happy but "more excellent," and in so doing it offers for the purposes of comparison and contrast a host of other characters who reflect varying equations of temper, circumstances, and happiness—the "terrible algebra" of life, as James termed it in one of his letters.4 "Steven H. Jobe is a Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This article is his first scholarly publication. 182Steven H. Jobe "We are each the product of circumstances and there are tall stone walls which fatally divide us," James went on to remark to Howells.5 He did not clarify how circumstances contribute to character, but a well-known passage in The Portrait ofa Lady sheds light on his apparent understanding of the relation. In contrast to Madame Merle's opinion that man's "shell," his "whole envelope of circumstances," helps to constitute and to convey his true character, Isabel Archer asserts, "I don't know whether I succeed in expressing myself, but I know that nothing else expresses me. Nothing that belongs to me is any measure of me; everything's on the contrary a limit, a barrier, and a perfectly arbitrary one."6 A similar conception of the formative yet limiting influence of "circumstances" guides James' characterizations throughout The American. Mrs. Tristram, married to a fool, is decidedly not happy, and "the truth is that circumstances had done much to cultivate in . . . [her] a marked tendency to irony" (p. 539).7 Valentin de Bellegarde, consigned to an idle life by birth, rank, intelligence, and fortune—"Everything is to hinder me," he tells Newman (p. 607)—considers emigrating to America because "it would look as if I were a strong man, a first-rate man, a man who dominated circumstances" (p. 741). His brother Urbain, a confirmed Legitimist, cannot but be dour and acerbic so long as he is forced to live in Bonapartist France. Claire de Cintré, according to Valentin, "has arranged her circumstances so as to be happy...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 181-193
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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