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CHRISTOPHER NEWMAN AND THE ARTISTIC AMERICAN VIEW OF LIFE K. G. Probert* In his Preface to the New York Edition of The American, Henry James for the most part dismisses the romance as an inferior literary mode and the book itself as a failed novel. Careful examination reveals, however, that The American is a sophisticated literary romance whose allusions to traditional romance types function in a coherent discussion of James' perennial subject, the international theme, and a condemnation of American Gilded Age acquisitiveness. The terms with which James distinguishes novels and romances are familiar to students of American criticism. The latter deal with "liberated" experience, "experience disengaged, disembroiled, disencumbered, exempt from the conditions that we usually know to attach to it. . . .'n In language that implies disapprobation, he chooses to argue that the experience represented in The American is "the disconnected and uncontrolled experience—uncontrolled by our general sense of the way things happen'—which romance alone more or less successfully palms off on us."2 By the time James revised the novel and wrote the Preface he was concerned primarily with properly motivated action and with what has come to be regarded as the typically Jamesian fiction of very fine distinctions . He therefore concentrates in his theoretical statement on the problem of unmotivated action, which he states is typical of romance. Referring to The American specifically, he declares that a real family like the Bellegardes would not act the way he forces them to in his story. He implies that he would have been satisfied that he had rescued the novel from the realm of romance if he had clearly motivated Claire and he had dealt Newman a rebuff that did not violate common-sensical notions of how an impoverished aristocratic French family would have reacted to his fortune.3 Throughout his extensive discussion of the typical romance experience and its lack of motivation, however, James does not so much as mention the romance motifs and conventions that he himself built into The American: the trappings of gothic romance, and the theme of rescue, complete with elements ??fin amour and religiosity, which clearly derives from medieval chivalric romance. Little imagination is required to view Newman as the shining knight who attempts to rescue a beautiful maiden (Claire) from the clutches of the keepers of beauty (the Bellegardes). The *K. G. Probert is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Regina. He has previously published an article on F. Scott Fitzgerald in English Studies in Canada. 204K. G. Probert attempt fails, but Claire voluntarily leaves the "stoutly guarded Hôtel de Bellegarde"4 and, in an action recalling that of Guenivere and other storied ladies, takes the veil instead of bringing dishonor upon herself and her family. The hero's surname suggests an identification with one form of the chivalric romance hero, the innocent knight or "new" man, who acts in troubled situations as a fresh force on the side of justice. Claire's name belongs to a romance character, and the arranger of the attempted love affair, Mrs. Tristram, bears a name that evokes stories of great affairs of the heart. Other critics have noticed the presence of stock romance motifs but tend to mistake their function and take them at face value. George Knox, for example, views the story as an ironically patterned quest romance, complete with the archetypal pattern of agon, pathos, and anagnorisis.5 And Elsa Nettels regards Newman's .story as one in which the "romance hero s adventure is internalized; that is the traditional hero's ordeal and triumph become a drama of enlightenment and moral growth. "6 For these critics, The American is the story of a modern, nineteenth-century romance hero's adventures. On the level of archetypal plot, this may be true, but the book's allusions to gothic and chivalric romance function primarily as a sophisticated vocabulary with which James can execute his critique of Christopher Newman's characteristically American imagination . In order to determine the function of the romance elements in The American, it is necessary first to distinguish between those for which James (or his narrator) is solely responsible and those which derive from the attitudes...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 203-215
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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