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12 October 2023

Americans don’t belong in Europe

Henry James showed how the New World is incapable of understanding the Old World.

By Justin Smith-Ruiu

I would like to propose a moratorium, for perhaps the next century or so, on all writing about France by Americans. Before it goes into effect, however, I hope you’ll permit me to squeeze in some closing words.

France is nice enough, I suppose, though I must acknowledge that this country, where I have lived for the past ten years, is mostly wasted on me. When it comes to both haute couture and to haute cuisine, I seem to have a lobe of my brain missing: I don’t even detect the virtues of the cultural products that draw so many foreigners to this place, let alone share in the appreciation of them. I don’t drink alcohol (so, no red wine, no “p’tit calva” for my “digestion”), I don’t eat meat (no charcuterie or steak tartare), I avoid empty carbs (no baguette or patisseries). Even when the ingredients suit my exigent diet, I still really do not enjoy wiling away the hours in a commensal spirit. My life in Paris often seems like a constant struggle to avoid getting trapped in one of those interminable lunches to which the people I know here seem happy to sacrifice such a great portion of their days. I’ve just got too much to do, and am perfectly content with the raw carrots and almonds in my backpack.

I fear I see myself in the memorable character of the Unitarian minister in Henry James’s The American (1877), whose church has paid for his trip through Europe to see the great art museums, and who loves these dearly. The problem is that the minister also has a special diet: he can only eat graham crackers and hominy, “A regimen to which he was so much attached that his tour seemed to him destined to be blighted when, on landing on the Continent, he found that these delicacies did not flourish under the table d’hôte system.” He visits the American Agency in Paris and purchases an enormous sack of the dried and nixtamalised kernels of corn, and carries it with him from country to country, “show[ing] extreme serenity and fortitude in the somewhat delicate position of having his hominy prepared for him and served at anomalous hours, at the hotels he successively visited”.

In admitting my great likeness to that fussy Unitarian, with his profoundly American, indeed his pre-Columbian, diet, I realise I’ve confessed a great sacrilege, and most of you will have already become determined to despise me. I might win back at least a portion of your affection when I add that, like the minister, I also love all the fine art on display, as well as the bookshops, the language, the army of mounted skeletons at the comparative anatomy gallery in the Jardin des Plantes. These things count a lot for me; in fact, I suspect they count for quite a bit more for me than some vapid tourist’s trip to the Eiffel Tower or souvenir box of macarons counts for him or her.  

Continued receipt of my salary happens to be conditional on my remaining in this place: I’ve got to go to the Left Bank to teach in the morning. So I have some solid reasons to be here, even though I know that as long as I am here I am going to be floating on the surface of a civilisation that I don’t really understand, and to which I cannot possibly assimilate.

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Is it worth it, to live like this? That remains an open question, one that I feel I may have been better prepared to answer if I had begun reading the formidable Jamesian oeuvre earlier in life.

James himself is only adding to what was already a venerable tradition in literature: the tragic and comic mutual misunderstandings that ensue whenever Americans go abroad. One might argue even that this theme is born in Europe in the early age of exploration, around the 15th century, long before the United States existed. In its initial phase the tragicomedy derives from the fate of Europeans in the untamed New World. But barely had our new American republic been established (with no small help from many brave French volunteers), than certain familiar bidirectional stereotypes became fixed, as if for all time.

Thus, in Balzac’s wonderful 1842 novel, La Rabouilleuse (sometimes incongruously translated as The Black Sheep), the young Philippe Bridau first appears as an honourable soldier in Napoleon’s army. He refuses to serve after the Bourbon Restoration, and with few other prospects at home determines to set out for Champ d’Asile, a French Bonapartist settlement in Texas that was founded in 1818 and lasted for less than a year. Philippe soon returns home to his mother, broke and broken, morally corrupted, practically animalised. “His misfortunes in Texas,” Balzac writes, “his stay in New York, a place where speculation and individualism are raised to the highest degree, where the brutality of interests crosses over into cynicism, where a man, essentially isolated, finds himself constrained to advance by force and at every moment to make himself the judge of his own case, where politeness does not exist: in sum, every least event of this voyage triggered in Philippe the bad habits of a roughneck, he had grown brutal, with a taste for drinking and smoking, informal, impolite – the poverty and physical suffering had made him depraved.”

That’s what America will do to you. But what happens when we move in the other direction, when, say, the children or grandchildren of the other boorish frontiersman Philippe must have encountered in 1818 end up making their fortunes in copper washtubs, or railroads, or whatever it takes, and get it into their heads that they might then use the fortune to go and set themselves up, as wealthy “commercial persons”, in Europe? Something like this is the situation of Christopher Newman, the titular American of James’s 1877 novel, and perhaps the author’s most perfectly wrought character. That seemingly neutral phrase, “commercial person”, is the one latched upon, with seething condescension, by the decadent aristocratic Bellegarde family, as a solid reason why Newman must not marry their girl, the recently widowed Claire de Cintré. Newman for his part barely knows what an aristocrat is. He cannot understand any social fact that requires several generations to become a fact. He’s made his fortune, he’s tall and robust, and he wants in.

[See also: Europe’s east-west divide is widening]

The themes of The American are revisited, with greater subtlety, in what is perhaps James’s most perfect novel, The Portrait of a Lady of 1881. This work appears in the middle of his “American” period, which includes The American and such other works as The Bostonians (1886), his hilarious send-up of New England feminism and of the 19th-century flashpoints of our country’s never-ending culture wars. Yet Portrait also seems to share much with, perhaps to prophecy, James’s more experimental “modernist” period, which features such sinuous masterpieces as The Wings of the Dove (1902) and The Golden Bowl (1904). It has far less of a feel of social satire about it, and more of the quality both, looking forward, of a Joycean reverie, and, looking backward, of a Gothic tale inspired by Poe or Hoffmann. But unlike the great storytellers of this latter genre, the horror of Portrait unfolds from what James reveals of the inner lives of his all-too-ordinary characters (ordinary in their morally unexceptional natures, if not in their social stations). 

So Portrait is not funny, and it speaks to how quintessentially Jamesian this novel would prove to be that we do not ordinarily think of him now, in spite of the hilarity of The American, The Bostonians and other works, as a particularly humorous novelist. That said, there is one scene in Portrait that makes me laugh whenever I revisit it, no doubt in part because what it describes is so painfully familiar to me. It concerns Miss Isabel Archer’s first encounter with the American expatriate community of Paris, and the judgement she wastes no time in making of its denizens:

“She made up her mind that their lives were, though luxurious, inane, and incurred some disfavour by expressing this view on bright Sunday afternoons, when the American absentees were engaged in calling on each other. Though her listeners passed for people kept exemplarily genial by their cooks and dressmakers, two or three of them thought her cleverness, which was generally admitted, inferior to that of the new theatrical pieces. ‘You all live here this way, but what does it lead to?’ she was pleased to ask. ‘It doesn’t seem to lead to anything, and I should think you’d get very tired of it.’”

Of these same inane idlers, James’s omniscient narrator suggests that their great failure, as Americans, is to have dared “playing tricks with our natural mission”. To be sure, if you just wait it out you may come to see your mission differently. American residents of Paris, I find, will often seek to hasten this transformation through regular incantations, through proud insistence on the superiority of their chosen form of life and all the distractions it provides. And so it also seems to Miss Archer, when she encounters one Mr Luce and his wife in their adoptive city. Here is James’s account of the Luces’s quotidian routines:

“He passed an hour (in fine weather) in a chair in the Champs Elysées, and he dined uncommonly well, at his own table, seated above a waxed floor which it was Mrs Luce’s happiness to believe had a finer polish than any other in the French capital. Occasionally he dined with a friend or two at the Café Anglais, where his talent for ordering a dinner was a source of felicity to his companions and an object of admiration even to the head-waiter of the establishment. These were his only known pastimes, but they had beguiled his hours for upwards of half a century, and they doubtless justified his frequent declaration that there was no place like Paris.”

“There’s no place like Paris.” This, or some variation of it, is what I often hear, to my enduring confusion, from other foreigners, many of them American, who are delighted by things that appear to me to have no true merit. Can anyone explain what is preferable in a commercial system that has you paying separately and successively, at several little shops, for your fruits, then your cheese, then your wine, then your meat, and so on? Was it not a great innovation when someone realised you could take care of all these needs in one single store? Do we not rightly call such stores “supermarkets”? This is a trivial example, but it gets to the heart of the perverse conjuration of love that James analyses so well. It is as if Americans are determined on a priori grounds to love this place, and will fix upon practically anything that happens here and speak of it as if it were a reason for that love. But the causal sequence in fact moves the other way: far from loving Paris because of what happens here, they love whatever happens in Paris because they already love Paris unconditionally.

Not all of James’s American characters in Europe are inane to the same degree as the Luces. The ones who have just arrived, and are here with some narrow and precise aim, are by the same token clueless about their surroundings, and for that same reason still pure of American heart, even to the point of seeing the inhabitants of the country they are merely passing through as themselves the “foreigners”. Thus Caspar Goodwood, the manly New England industrialist who pursues Isabel even after her marriage to the rotten Gilbert Osmond:

“[Caspar Goodwood] desired to go immediately to Rome; he would have liked to go alone, in the night-train. He hated the European railway-carriages, in which one sat for hours in a vise, knee to knee and nose to nose with a foreigner to whom one presently found one’s self objecting with all the added vehemence of one’s wish to have the window open; and if they were worse at night even than by day, at least at night one could sleep and dream of an American saloon-car.”

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James’s greatest villain is surely the same Mr Osmond, who radiates all the evil of a supernatural being out of a Gothic horror tale, simply by living the life of a dull, small-minded, petty man. Osmond, like the effete and harmless Edward Rosier of Paris, who is also in love with Isabel but seeks to marry Osmond’s daughter Pansy simply to be closer to her stepmother, are both Americans, technically. But they have lived in Europe for so long as to show little evidence of it. Both have dedicated their lives to collecting little bibelots and other decorative objects for their homes that, they believe, may serve as visible testimony to their impeccable taste, which for them has effectively crowded out morality, ambition and (at least in Osmond’s case) even love as the supreme good of a human life. They are as stunted in their own way as Tennessee Williams’s Laura Wingfield, hiding from life as she obsessively polishes the figurines in her glass menagerie. But the situation of these men is even more tragic, as they lack the self-awareness even to know how deadening their adopted form of life really is. They simply think they are being good simulacra of Europeans.

These men are of a different species than Caspar Goodwood, who is as heartily American as his counterpart Lord Warburton is perfectly British (also in love with Isabel, of course). We might draw a comparison to orangutans, and say that for Henry James the American male comes in two different varieties, flanged and unflanged, and Goodwood is plainly of the former sort. He is a further incarnation of Christopher Newman: both men are optimistic, strapping and clueless American doofuses who have no idea, upon pushing their way into European high society, how little they know about its codes, its barriers, its limitations.

James himself confessed that such American men as these are a mystery to him, as he could never truly understand their lack of any complexly layered interiority. But this incomprehension itself yields up the most vibrant, comical and fascinating characters in James’s entire body of work. For James, “What would it be like to be a proud American industrialist?” is a philosophical question, almost like wondering what it would be like to be a bat, and we sense his puzzlement and fascination every time one of these men enters the scene. They belong squarely to James’s “American period”, and can have no place in his “modern period”, which concerns itself with the inner lives of its subtle and complicated, rigorously European or Europeanised subjects. It is at the moment James shifts to interiority as his greatest concern that he correspondingly ceases to engage with America, and Americanness, as a problem. He grows bolder, more experimental, anticipates Proust and Joyce. But he also loses what is most compelling about him: his concern to understand his own country, which does seem to have thrust itself into world history in much the same way Caspar Goodwood thrust himself, in the novel’s scandalous crescendo, upon Mrs Isabel Osmond: by knowing what it wants, and not thinking too much beyond that.

There are two other significant American men in Portrait, a father and son, who are also Isabel’s uncle and cousin. Daniel Touchett is a wealthy banker who took up residence in England half a lifetime ago. He is honourable, he is bemused by the turns his life is taken, and uninterested in assimilating himself to English society. He particularly appreciates the ability his nationality gives him to remain perpetually outside the class system that structures and limits the lives even, or perhaps especially, of the high-ranking likes of Lord Warburton. His sick and feeble son Ralph convinces his father at his deathbed to will half of his fortune to the orphaned and penniless Isabel, who has recently come to stay with them in England. Ralph’s own death delivers the novel’s greatest moment of pathos, as he is in some sense his cousin’s true love; or rather, he represents one form of love, mostly de-sexed and sentimental, alongside Goodwood’s other form, which is highly sexed, and passionate. Ralph was born in America but grew up in England, and he is good, but weak, unlike the Americans who have spent most of their lives on the continent, and are both physically and morally stunted. Ralph is also unlike the Americans who arrive on the continent later in life with their fortunes and names made in the New World, who are good and strong.

Thus we have the exhaustive taxonomy of the types of Ms Isabel Archer’s six principal men, all of whom love her or are in love with her, or are in some ambiguous combination of these states. This is indeed the only appropriate feeling one might have towards Isabel, and I admit that I, like Harold Bloom before me, am a little bit in love with her myself.

Isabel remains as uncorrupted by Europe as she always was unassimilable to the empty-headed entrepreneurial spirit of America. Or at least she is not directly corrupted by Europe, even if certain of its inhabitants will end up cramping her style most ruthlessly. It is not that James thinks women are particularly resistant to the forces that ruined Osmond and Rosier, and indeed it is the sinister Madame Merle, born in Baltimore but displaced already in childhood, who, like some demonic trafficker of souls, first delivers Isabel to Osmond. Isabel for her part represents the best of Americanness, and of femininity: openness to the world, a desire to learn more and experience more that is nonetheless not driven by ambition or social jockeying, love of freedom not as a jingoistic pretext for trampling others, but as the highest ideal of a life well-lived.

And what of England? May an American live in England? As the Touchetts show, that country is certainly not as corrosive of the American character as France or Italy, even if the best an American might hope for there is a life of bemused detachment.

For James, after some short stints in Paris, where he was scandalised by the explicitness of Émile Zola’s “naturalistic” approach to literature, he soon settled in the country from which many American writers, from Poe to Melville, had been much concerned to affirm their literary independence. He lived there more or less continuously from 1875, and became a British citizen one year before his death in 1916. James was sometimes criticised for a basic failure to capture British character and lifeways with any real authenticity, but I suspect that this is because, by the time he moved away from his American period, he was no longer terribly interested in national character studies. In The Golden Bowl, for example, other than a few low stereotypes James invokes to describe the “race” of the Italian aristocrat at the centre of the novel, the characters could for the most part be from anywhere. He is now mostly interested in the pure phenomenology of human experience, and if he is still using subjects from the English upper classes alongside their wealthy transatlantic friends, this seems to me mostly the result of habit.

For years now my closest friend has been a born-and-raised Londoner living in New York, who cannot leave that place to return home without losing his salary. He and I are thus in nearly opposite, but plainly parallel, predicaments. Henry James is among our favourite topics of discussion. On my friend’s view, James’s novels “basically start with American virtue needing protection from European decadence, and end with him believing only British civilised values can blunt the impact of American money”, about which he concludes: “Anyway that didn’t work out.” I’m not sure I agree, but this disagreement may come down to the opposing geographical foci of our respective longings. I think James is fascinated, like I am, by aspects of the American character he cannot understand. That fascination yields his most compelling work, but it is not a defence. It is a confrontation with a mystery, and the mystery is deepened for him by an awareness of himself as both inside and outside the place: as American, but queer (in at least the old sense of this term, and perhaps the new one as well).

Where in the world should an American writer sit himself down? James clearly saw England as the only appropriate place, as he could not have produced the body of work he did without taking some distance from his own country, while he also probably knew that other, more extreme forms of expatriation would diminish him in the same way they diminished Rosier and Osmond.

I used to think expatriation was necessary for bringing about the right cast of mind to get the right kind of work done. I don’t know how other places in the world might, over time, have corroborated or refuted that idea. I can say, however, that although I have been prolific in these past ten years, and although this distance has been useful for me in gaining a clearer view of my homeland, today I find the predicament of the American in Paris, and a fortiori of the American writer in Paris, to be a ridiculous one, and untenable for me in the long run. I think it’s time to go home, and I have Henry James largely to thank for bringing me to see that.

[See also: Yanis Varoufakis: The Democrats are helping to elect Trump]

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