The American, 1877 and Washington Square, 1880
Hello. Please welcome Henry James to the blog. Or don’t. He isn’t particularly welcome. I have read one short story, one novella and four full length novels by the fellow and I don’t care for him. The short story, Daisy Miller, was very pretty good, but everything else fell flat. I am not going to list the defects of James’ prose style now, because everything I have read by him contains the same flaws. I plan on working up a post on his many shortcomings to avoid the tedium of detailing them in every post. Dude wrote a lot of novels. You don’t need to read the same screed eight times. Today I will discuss two of his earliest novels and detail the flaws that are specific to them.
Henry James was American but spent much of his life living overseas. He was very concerned with culture clashes between Americans and Europeans. The titular American is a chap called Christopher Newman, a wealthy industrialist who ventures to the Continent in search of culture and a wife. Christopher Newman. Get it? He’s a new type of man that stale European bluebloods have not encountered. And you can tell he’s a good guy, because Christ appears in his name. I rolled my eyes when I first encountered this name. So heavy-handed, Henry. Our American hero is earnest, hard-working and self-assured. He has the excessive confidence of a tall, rich, American man.
The story opens in the Louvre with an entertaining scene in which poor Newman is duped into buying a poor copy of a painting by a pretty, opportunistic French mademoiselle. I was ready for wily Noemi to tempt him into a life of idleness and dissolution. Get in there and corrupt his Puritanical morals, girl. Sadly, Christ-opher is incorruptible. Instead, another character gets involved with her and pure, innocent Christopher is shocked when she becomes the mistress of a rich man. How dare she attempt to escape poverty! Before this scenario transpires Chris has befriended Noemi’s father and the two of them discussed her sexual purity for absolutely no reason. Sensing Christopher’s high-minded morality, the father tries to ingratiate himself by stating that he would kill his daughter if she ever ruined herself. When Chris hears about her ruination, he turns up at the father’s door like “Well…you better go kill her now.” Seriously. He is disappointed that the father doesn’t murder his daughter. Really.
Elsewhere in the novel, James attempts to update the Gothic novel for the late Victorian Era. In Gothic romances a young villager falls in love with the pure maiden who lives in the castle. Her evil wardens mistreat her and conspire against him. Against all odds, he persists, rescues her, and turns out to be the long-lost son of some nobleman. The angels of heaven descend to bless their holy matrimony. Newman stands in for the plucky villager. He came to Europe in search of a wife and he has very high standards. Chris spouts off copious entitled piffle about his search for an ideal wife. He sees this paragon as a reward due to him for his hard work. What is the point of the wealth he has accumulated if he doesn’t have “a beautiful woman perched on the pile, like a statue on a monument. She must be as good as she is beautiful, and as clever as she is good. I can give my wife a good deal, so I am not afraid to ask a good deal myself. […] I want to possess, in a word, the best article in the market.” Did you just throw up in your mouth a little? I did. I know that Henry James is taking a jibe here at the American obsession with money. The very words Newman chooses are redolent of Capitalism. But, we must remember that he is the hero. He is portrayed as a good and pure Christian who deserves the fantasy wife he seeks even though he only seeks her as a symbol of “victory over circumstances.”
Christopher soon encounters the exact embodiment of his fantasy, his “dream realized,” in the person of Claire de Cintre, a widow and member of an aristocratic French family. Unfortunately, the last three quarters of the novel center on this romance and it is not a very convincing one. Claire is quite boring. James does not make his reader fall in love with her. However, in true Gothic style, Christopher is willing to brave the contempt of her evil relatives in his attempts to win her hand. It’s all quite dull. Ultimately, she is too good and pure to disobey her mother. She becomes a nun. Newman returns to America in despair and remains in despair forever.
If The American has a silly and dramatic plot, and it does, Washington Square veers hard in the other direction. He examines how the scenario of the maiden wishing to marry an unsuitable man would play out in contemporary New York with no drama, just realism. Our male lead is Dr. Sloper, an eminent physician and misogynist. His wife dies, leaving him with a daughter whom he does not respect. Dr. Sloper thinks very highly of his own intellect and does not esteem Catherine’s intellect at all. Probably, if he had given her more credit from the outset, she would have accomplished more intellectually and developed more common sense.
A fortune hunter named Morris Townsend starts sniffing around Catherine, who is a bit of an old maid. Dr. Sloper does not believe that anyone could love Catherine for her own merit and forbids her to marry him. Poor Catherine somehow has some self-esteem despite being raised by such a pig of a father. She wishes to marry Morris. Dr. Sloper is right about Morris, but express his reservations in an honest conversation. He is too much of a misogynist for that. Instead he sees the question of her marriage as a competition between himself and the man who wishes for her hand. Who has more influence? Who will she obey? Catherine has never defied him before, and he believes that his paternal sway over this meek and humble girl will reign triumphant. In a way he wins, the two never marry because he threatens to disinherit her if she marries him. Catherine is happy to be well off with Morris, but Morris only wants her if she comes with a giant dowry.
The scuffle between the Morris, Dr. Sloper and Catherine does not end in a marriage. Instead Catherine loses respect for her father, because of his disrespectful and manipulative treatment of her. After the doctor’s death, an impoverished Townsend shows up at spinster Catherine’s door and expresses his regret. He should have taken her when he had the chance. Would she like to go out for oysters? No she would not. She is perfectly happy with her needlework and charity work and doesn’t need him.
On the surface, Washington Square sounds like an interesting reexamination of the well-worn archetype of the defiant daughter. There are some good bits of dialogue. I did take some pleasure in James’ subversion of the dramatic and romanticized elements of these stories into prosaic, everyday reality. However, prosaic reality isn’t all that fun or interesting. The characters are dull and flat. I didn’t care much whom Catherine married. It’s not a long book, but it still seemed bogged down in minutiae.
You might like The American or Washington Square if:
- you are writing your Ph.D. on Henry James for some reason.
You might not like The American or Washington Square if:
- see above. I think I covered it.
Final Thoughts: These books are just plain bad.