Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The pursuits of peace

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—

and with this vast new world, je n’ai que faire. One can’t do both—one must choose. No European writer is called upon to assume that terrible burden, and it seems hard that I should be. The burden is necessarily greater for an American—for he must deal, more or less, even if only by implication, with Europe; whereas no European is obliged to deal in the least with America.[1]But a Europeanized American writer must also deal with America. Living in Paris near the Place Vendôme, James wrote The American as his farewell letter to the United States.

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:You think of me as a fellow who has had no idea in life but to make money and drive sharp bargains. That’s a fair description of me, but it is not the whole story. A man ought to care for something else, though I don’t know exactly what.The tour of Europe—the acquisition of culture and perhaps a European wife—is an attempt to answer the question what. If James was unclear about what an American businessman does at the office during working hours, he nevertheless understood the promise and limitations of a business life.

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:Newman had come out of the war with a brevet of brigadier-general, an honour which in this case—without invidious comparisons—had lighted upon shoulders amply competent to bear it. But though he could manage a fight, when need was, Newman heartily disliked the business; his four years in the army had left him with an angry, bitter sense of the waste of precious things—life and time and money and “smartness” and the early freshness of purpose; and he had addressed himself to the pursuits of peace with passionate zest and energy.Everything that Newman has become can be traced back to his combat experience in the Civil War. He had received the satisfaction of knowing that the pursuits of peace are finer than those of war, but also of knowing that they are founded upon the readiness to pursue war. Although James himself never fought in the war—he was prevented by an old and “obscure hurt”—he was only three days away from his eighteenth birthday when Fort Sumter was bombarded by forces of the Confederacy. He came of age during the war; he saw that it had changed America, as it changed Christopher Newman, forever.

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,What is that about your having founded a city some ten years ago in the great West, a city which contains to-day half a million of inhabitants? Isn’t it half a million, messieurs? You are exclusive proprietor of this flourishing settlement, and are consequently fabulously rich, and you would be richer still if you didn’t grant lands and houses free of rent to all new-comers who will pledge themselves never to smoke cigars. At this game, in three years, we are told, you are going to be made president of America.Well, perhaps not Newman—but several other veterans. James understood, as no other American novelist has, that the United States military is not merely one institution among many, but a constituent part of the American story. His third novel is a celebration of the men who serve, and who guard the pursuits of peace.

[1] Henry James, November 25th, 1881, The Notebooks, ed. F. O. Matthiessen and Kenneth B. Murdock (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), p. 24.


R/T said...

I enjoyed your posting on James's novel, and I very much admire your cogent assessment: "[ . . .] the pursuits of peace are finer than those of war [. . . because] they are founded upon the readiness to pursue war." As a 24 year veteran of the military, I understand that relationship between "pursuits of peace" and "readiness to pursue war," and I worry that too many Americans do not understand it. I applaud your perceptive acknowledgement of that relationship. Thank you for your perception posting.