The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.XII. Henry James
§ 3. Americans in His Stories
Altogether his theme turned out to be quite as much American character as European setting. We must not forget how predominantly his novels, and how frequently his short stories, have for their subject Americans,—Americans abroad, or even Americans at home seen in the light of foreign observation. In this connection the novels in particular may be divided into three groups, falling chronologically into three periods. In the first period, extending from Roderick Hudson to The Bostonians, 1875 to 1885, the leading characters are invariably Americans, though the scene is half the time abroad. In the second period, from The Princess Casamassima to The Sacred Fount, 1885 to 1901, the novels confine themselves rather strictly to English society. In the third period, from The Wings of the Dove to the novels left unfinished at the author’s death, 1902 to 1917, James returned to his engrossing, and by far his most interesting, theme of Americans in Paris or Venice or London. Not a very original contribution to literature is the American scene itself—the New York of Washington Square (1881), the Boston of The Europeans (1878) and The Bostonians; and none of these novels was included by James in the New York Edition. His American settings are but palely conceived; and his figures do not find here the proper background to bring them out and set off their special character. But the crusading Americans—variegated types, comic and romantic—with the foreign settings in which they so perfectly find themselves, these make up a local province as distinct in colour and feature as those of Cable and Bret Harte, —a province quite as American, in its way, and for the artist quite as much of a trouvaille, or lucky strike.
These Americans abroad fall naturally into two classes. The first are treated in the mildly comic vein, as examples of American crudeness or simplicity. Such are the unhappy Ruck family of The Pension Beaurepas,—poor Mr. Ruck who had come abroad in hopes of regaining health and escaping financial worries, and his ladies whose interest in the old world is confined to the shops where money can be spent. Perhaps we might refer to this class Christopher Newman, the self-possessed and efficient American business man, hero of The American (1877); though in his case the comedy of character is by no means broad, and is strictly subordinate to the larger comedy of social contrast. In general, these people are treated not unkindly; and there is the one famous instance of Daisy Miller, in which the fresh little American girl is so tenderly handled as to set tears flowing—a most unusual proceeding with James. Generally the Americans emerge from the international comedy with the reader’s esteem for sterling virtues not always exhibited by the more sophisticated Europeans. In the later group of stories in particular, the American character, presented with no hint of comic bias, actually shines with the lustre of a superior spiritual fineness. This is what Rebecca West has in mind in her somewhat impatient reference to James’s characters as American old maids, or words to that effect.