I created this annotated bibliography of critical articles that engage with The American by Henry James in November 2006. The teacher who assigned this to me in grad school is long retired, and I thought the summaries may be helpful to people who are doing research on the novel or author.
Italia, Paul G. “Henry James’s The American: The House of Bellegarde and the House of Atreus.” CLA Journal 42:3 (1999): 364-69.
Italia focuses on a theme in The American that, in his own words, “seems at first glance tenuous,” – the connection between the Bellegardes of James and the House of Atreus of Greek mythology (364). Focusing only on the events surrounding the collapse of both family lines, Italia outlines the relationship between Valentin and Claire, paralleling them with Orestes and Electra, respectively. Clytemnestra (Madame de Bellegarde), Aegisthus (Urbain), and Cassandra (Mrs. Bread) all find convincing places in Italia’s interpretation as well, but issues arise in relation to Newman. Initially, Italia tentatively suggests that Newman is equivalent to Euripides’ Pylades in that his status as “outsider allows him to participate” in the drama (366). However, Newman’s role as protagonist proves troublesome and no mythological equivalent is ultimately revealed. Italia concludes that “the Atreus myth resonated with [James]” more than with his audience and because of that the myth must be considered in order to fully appreciate the “power” of Newman’s final renunciation (367).
Lewis, Pericles. “Christopher Newman’s Haircloth Shirt: Worldly Asceticism, Conversion, and Auto-Machia in The American.” Studies in the Novel 37.3 (2005): 308-28.
Lewis focuses in on the theme of the American Puritan “auto-machia” or “war within the self” that Newman experiences in The American (308). This “spiritual dimension” of the novel “gestures both backward to the influence of a Protestant tradition and forward to James’ influence on the modernist understanding of the divided self” (308). Lewis reads the novel not only as a clash of cultures, but also as a clash of religion wherein “a Protestant American [Newman] runs afoul of [the Roman Catholic Church] and makes as good a retreat as he can” (309). The “auto-machia,” Lewis explains, is particularly significant if one is to compare The American to a Protestant conversion narrative. After the conversion experience the “elect” must then “maintain continued self-doubt in order not to be … falsely assuming” that s/he has been saved (323). Newman may lack an overtly religious side, but he does have “faith in capitalism, a sense that fulfilling his calling as a man of business is a religious duty,” which leads Lewis to equate him, at length, with Benjamin Franklin. Citing the end of the original edition of The American for added perspective on Newman, Lewis asks if Newman, “as a representative American, belongs among the chosen people,” in this secular conversion narrative (323). Lewis’ use of biographical criticism throughout the article eventually leads to a connection between Newman’s “war within the self,” also referred to as “Self Civil War” within the article, and the American civil war in which two of James’ brothers served (325).
Mitchell, Lee Clark. “A Marriage of Opposites: Oxymorons, Ethics, and James’s The American.” The Henry James Review 19.1 (1998): 1-16.
Mitchell discusses the frequent use of oxymoron in The American and the way in which “James reveals the consequences that ensue – for characters, novelists, and readers alike – when the poles collapse” (1). The main focus of the article is on Newman and Claire and the many contradictions that surround them in the narrative. Additionally, Mitchell notes the shift in narrator which, “in eliding the status of his thought, suggests that the narrator’s formulations are Newman’s own” (4). These early observations are expanded into a discussion of the self as it is represented in the novel. Further, the act of representing oneself to another is discussed as “a form of intellectual imperialism even carried out in provisional, neutral, self-reflective tones” (4). This is expanded into a discussion of individual characters’ self-possession within the novel, with the main focus again being on Claire and Newman. It is these two characters for whom the “poles collapse” with Claire’s vow of silence, and Newman’s horror at that silence, silence being the ultimate symbol of communication breakdown. The general discussion of oxymoronic descriptions is finally enlarged into the theory that the novel itself is a discourse on language and the barriers inherit therein, the conclusion being that “the major differences among characters has less to do with their cultural stock than their interpretive skills” (13).
Yoshii, Chiyo. “The American and the Romance of Modernity.” Papers on Language and Literature 33.2 (1997): 142-68. Gale Group. 26 Oct. 2006 <http://infotrac.galegroup.com/>. 1-11.
Yoshii argues against the shift in James’ narrative that many critics espouse (1). Rather than a “sudden change,” Yoshii argues that there is simply a “switch from one form of romantic vocabulary to another” (1). Yoshii notes that most critics feel that the “point of turning from a realistic novel toward a romance” occurs when “Newman’s engagement to Claire is abruptly cancelled” (1). Instead, Yoshii argues that the novel is a romance throughout, and that the character at the center of that romance shifts from Newman to Mme. Nioche. The characters are foils insomuch as they both attempt to “discard their identity” and to disguise themselves as “whom them aspire to be” (2). This theme, which Yoshii identifies as essentially a romantic one, recurs throughout the narrative. For Newman, it is the identity of the nobility that he wishes to adopt, and he temporarily gains access to it through his monetary value alone. By maintaining a lavish apartment and buying copious amounts of artwork Newman “effectively displays his purchasing power” and “establishes himself as a powerful American counterpart of the French aristocracy” (2). Mme. Nioche, on the other hand, sells her identity as a lady to the outside world, effectively becoming a “merchant … of illusions who appropriates and trades in her idealized image” (3). Yoshii’s main argument for the novel being a romance throughout is the way in which both Newman and Mme. Nioche actively distance themselves from reality. Additionally, Yoshii notes that even after Newman’s plot takes a turn toward realism, Nioche’s romantic subplot is untouched. Yoshii theorizes that James wanted to show that society is “Janus-like, with completely different faces,” wherein a man like Newman fails, and a woman like Mme. Nioche, who is compared with courtesans, ultimately succeeds, at least in her own estimation (8). By layering these two contradictory stories, Yoshii concludes, James is “simultaneously repudiating and espousing modern myth,” and conveys the “ever-changing, protean nature of early capitalist society” (9).