Henry James and His Path to Individuation in 'The American'
I just read Henry James' novel, "The American".
I was inspired to read it by the Great Books suggested novels list. I looked it up on Amazon and it sounded fun and easier to read than the later James novels, and so it was. The style is wonderful, humorous, and vibrant. The prose is luxuriant and jewels up into a bon mot every few pages.
It starts with Christopher Newman, a charming character with a kind of flexible moral fibre that can take almost any kind of shock - except those shocks entailed by the plot of the novel.
Newman is very much a free American, and so he is attracted to the bondage of old European values as his path to individuality and wholeness. His attraction to Madame De Cintre has all the hallmarks of a shadow attraction - the inner feminine draws Newman into contact with his vengefulness, hatred, bitterness, narrowness, and evil side - in other words, his shadow. The solitude and loneliness of Newman's character at the end of the novel can be read as a kind of belated adolescence in him - he finally has come to grips with his shadow side as represented by the Bellegarde family.
The Jungian typology is quite convenient for explaining James' novel, because he plays the opposites of European and American with an open hand about his mixed feelings for both sides of the Atlantic. The charged polarities of emotion represent a sort of gateway for the reader into the authorial consciousness itself, which for me is the deepest and most satisfying experience of reading Henry James.
(James is just a wonderful man - the experience of his living consciousness through the text is ineffable. I do not feel I know him yet, but I should want to, and I intend to read "Daisy Miller", "What Maisie Knew", "Turn of the Screw" and "Portrait of a Lady" to discover more about him.)
But back to "The American".
It is as if by externalizing his European-ness and American-ness, Henry James becomes something larger than both. The effort at becoming aware is tangible by the number of times James reverted to the material of the novel in his long career.
Henry James sought perhaps that intoxicating liberty from culture that came from transcending experiencing itself, and instead, it seems, fell into entrapment in the gravity well of Great Britain's culture. Anglophilic became British. Plain-spoken became ornate. The image of the American unconsciously became something more universal through Henry James' conscious rejection of American moeurs.