A former student at Texas A&M University—no one is called an alumnus there—wrote yesterday upon reading A Commonplace Blog’s name in the Wall Street Journal. After greetings and regards, he remarked upon the coincidence of having only just finished rereading Henry James’s American, which he remembered disliking intensely when I had assigned it to him in a course on the American novel several years ago.
A coincidence indeed: I too had been leafing through The American the other day. While compiling a list of veterans’ books, I had thought to include it, but James’s third novel lay too far afield of my subject—even though it may be the best novel ever written about an American combat veteran.
Everybody knows the story. Christopher Newman, thirty-six, is a “powerful specimen of an American.” He has made a “pile of money,” although he never says how—James, who lived on an inheritance from his grandfather, never lifts the veil on the sources of great American fortunes. Newman has come to Europe “to forget the confounded thing, to look about [him], to see the world, to have a good time, to improve [his] mind, and, if the fancy takes [him], to marry a wife.” In due course he meets the girl for him; he realizes that “he should like to have her always before him. . . .” She returns his feelings, but alas her family does not. They are an ancient French family, royalist in politics and related by blood to the Bourbons, and in the end they find it impossible to reconcile themselves to a “commercial person.”
Although his narrative sympathies were with the American, James preferred to dwell among those who looked down upon American commerce. He had decided to settle in Europe. “My work lies there,” he explained later in defending the decision—
Christopher Newman embodies the moral qualities that James most admired in his countrymen. He understands that the Bellegardes don’t think he is as good as they, but he knows better: “[H]is sense of human equality was not an aggressive taste or an aesthetic theory, but something as natural and organic as a physical appetite which had never been put on a scanty allowance, and consequently was innocent of ungraceful eagerness.” The Europeans and even the Europeanized Americans believe that he is ignorant of the “social scale,” but he isn’t—he merely chooses to ignore it.
Valentin de Bellegarde, the family’s youngest son, recognizes what lies behind Newman’s social attitude: “Being an American, it was impossible you should remain what you were born. . . .” With his place on the social scale preassigned by birth, Valentin is not so fortunate: “What I envy you is your liberty,” he observes, “your wide range, your freedom to come and go, your not having a lot of people, who take themselves awfully seriously, expecting something of you.”
But Valentin has no idea where such freedom comes from. He thinks it has something to do with business success: “[Y]ou strike me, somehow, as a man who stands at his ease, who looks at things from a height. I fancy you going about the world like a man travelling on a railroad in which he owns a large amount of stock.” But though it is true that business is deeply ingrained into his personal habits—he is uncomfortable when he is idle—it is also true that a life of business has left Newman at loose ends:
But he also understood that money-making and bargain-driving are the fruits of liberty, not its seed. Newman derives his “freedom to come and go” from a different category of experience. In the Louvre as the novel opens, he meets an old American acquaintance—Mr Tristram, now settled in Paris, who might as well have been speaking for James himself. Newman reminds him that they met eight or nine years before—that is, shortly after the American Civil War. “You were in the army,” he adds. “Oh no, not I,” Tristram replies: “But you were.” Newman admits that he was. “You came out all right?” Tristram asks. “I came out with my legs and arms,” Newman says—“and with satisfaction.”
The afterthought is ambiguous. Does he mean that he was gratified? That he had received the settlement of a debt, the redress of an insult? That he’d had enough? Newman is not given to talkative confession. James must supply his explanation, in narrative voice, a few pages later:
Among the pursuits of peace is literature. Although he relocated to Europe, James understood that it would be impossible to describe a “powerful specimen of an American” without describing the powerful impact of the Civil War. The American suggests that the veterans of the war would be the builders of the postwar American future, the proprietors of the American century to come. As Madame de Bellegarde says upon meeting Newman,
 Henry James, November 25th, 1881, The Notebooks, ed. F. O. Matthiessen and Kenneth B. Murdock (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), p. 24.