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  • The Portrait of a Lady:“No intention of deamericanising”
  • Sandra A. Zagarell

This reading of The Portrait of a Lady runs counter to the widespread understanding of James’s novel as an encounter between Isabel Archer’s American naïveté and the Old World of Europe. 1 As indicated by my subtitle, which I borrow from a description of Daniel Touchett, I will approach Portrait as a novel that is primarily about Americans. While on one level this is self-evident—all the major characters except Lord Warburton are American and there are only a few other non-Americans in the book—I suggest something that has not been evident: that Portrait explores a version of the question that Hector de Crevecoeur had posed, “What is an American?,” by placing its (privileged) Americans in Europe.

“Europe” is thus essential to Portrait but not quite in the ways in which it is usually thought to be. France, Italy, and, to a lesser extent, England, are settings, not environments—none, not even England, is developed with much depth 2 —but they are indispensible to the characters and to the novel. For many of the American characters “Europe” plays roles quite similar to those it actually played for many upper middle class and wealthy postbellum Americans. It is a “world” to which they had ready access, one where their money went far, and where they could enjoy historic sights, acquire polish (and superb antiques at low prices), and, more generally, increase their cultural prestige. Portrait’s Europe is, in short, a kind of analogue to the Wild West. While the vast and supposedly virgin land available to the postbellum pioneers who migrated west offered them the chance to re-create themselves as successful farmers and ranchers, many of the Americans in Portrait live in Europe to shore up or raise their standing, whether culturally and socially, or, as in the case of Daniel Touchett, financially.

Put somewhat differently, many of Portrait’s characters use “Europe” in very American ways. It allows them to live out what Portrait presents as a major American [End Page 23] ethos, that of self-creation, or, to use the phrase Michael Gorra has recently popularized as way of characterizing Isabel Archer’s early objective, of self-fashioning. 3 They are loosened from the social and cultural arrangements that, even in America, delimit who they are and how they can live (who could Serena Merle have been if she had grown up near the Brooklyn navy-yard?), free to take advantage of what Europe offers to shape themselves more or less as they want to be.

Europe also functions as a laboratory for the novel, which uses the Old World to magnify what is American about many of its characters. Clearing the diegetic plane of American socio-cultural structures allows Portrait to lay bare American traits that define the Lydia Touchetts, Gilbert Osmonds, and Edward Roisers even when they live “abroad.” One element of their self-fashioning is profound materialism: Merle, Osmond, Mr. and Mrs. Luces, Daniel and Lydia Touchett have elegant European quarters or homes; all the Americans except Lydia Touchett and Isabel are avid collectors of artifacts and art. American materialism also takes a discursive form. Characters rely on a species of misplaced concreteness, an assumption that they can use ready-to-hand synecdoches to capture the essence of a person, a country, a culture, as in Isabel’s early declaration that she wants to see “‘specimens’: it was a word that played a considerable part in her vocabulary; she had given [Ralph] to understand that she wished to see English society illustrated by eminent cases” (78).

Such self-fashioning is the subject of a companion piece to this essay, “Americans, Abroad.” 4 My main focus in “No intention of deamericanising” is Portrait’s radical dismantling of what was regarded as a foundation of American life—gender. Like the British, Americans viewed gender as completely natural. And both construed gender in national terms. Indeed Americans often conflated normative notions of gender with “America” itself. (“[L]et [an American] write like a man, for then he will be sure to write like an American,” proclaimed Herman Melville in...