Henry James was the first novelist to write on the theme of the American versus the European with any degree of greatness. Almost all of his major novels may be approached as a study of the social theme of the American in Europe in which James contrasts the active life of the American with the mannered life of the European aristocracy. Embodied in this contrast is the moral theme in which the moral innocence of the American is contrasted with the knowledge and experience (and evil) of the European.
In its most general terms, i.e., in terms which will apply to almost any Jamesian novel, the contrasts are seen as follows:
knowledge or experience
form and ceremony
The above list could be extended to include other virtues or qualities but this list, or even half this list will suffice to demonstrate James’ theme or idea in the use of this American-European contrast.
The reader should also remember that James uses these ideas with a great deal of flexibility. It does not always mean that every European will have exactly these qualities or that every American will. In fact, some of the more admirable characters are indeed Europeans who possess many of these qualities and in turn reject others. Because a European might possess urbanity and knowledge and experience does not necessarily mean that he is artificial and evil. And quite the contrary, many Americans come with natural spontaneity and are not necessarily honest and admirable. For example, Tom Tristram possesses most of the qualities assigned to the American character but he is not a particularly admirable character. Likewise, Valentin de Bellegarde possesses urbanity and adheres to forms, ceremonies and rituals, but he is nevertheless a rather admirable character.
In The American, the character who represents the American in the best sense of the word is, of course, Christopher Newman. The representative of the European in the worse sense of the word is the Bellegarde family.
When Newman arrives in Europe, he possesses an innocence simply because he has had to spend his earlier life making his fortune. He does not yet possess knowledge and experience in the world, especially in the European emphasis on the correct form and ceremony. But equally important, he is too innocent to see through the machinations of Mademoiselle Nioche and her father.
One of the great differences that is emphasized is the difference between the American’s utility and the European’s insistence upon form and ceremony. Early in the novel, Mrs. Tristram tells Newman that he is to do what he thinks right when confronted with any situation. But people like Urbain de Bellegarde know ahead of time what type of form and ceremony they will employ in any given situation. The American then acts spontaneously while the European has formalized certain rituals so that they will never have to confront an unknown situation. Thus, there is a sense of sincerity in the American’s actions while the European is more characterized by a sense of extreme urbanity. Urbain de Bellegarde’s first name is used to suggest his urbanity, and throughout the novel, we never see Urbain perform a spontaneous act — he is the epitome of the perfect and correct form. As Newman reacts spontaneously to the music of Mozart, Urbain de Bellegarde’s reaction was formulated years ago. It will not change. Consequently, there is something false in his reaction while Newman’s reaction strikes one as honest and sincere.
Furthermore, the American is a man of action. He has worked or he doesn’t mind working. He is not afraid of labor. The European aristocracy have been bred to view work as vulgar. They are people of inaction. Valentin’s great complaint is that there is nothing he is allowed to do. Because of the family, he cannot go into business or practice any trade. He must remain inactive while the American can enter into any type of pursuit.
The American’s sense of spontaneity, sincerity and action leads him into natural actions. He seems to represent nature itself. On the other hand, the European’s emphasis on form, ceremony, ritual and urbanity seems to suggest the artificial. It represents art as an opposing entity to nature.
Finally, these qualities lead to the ultimate quality of honesty vs. evil. When all of the American’s qualities are replaced by all of the European’s qualities, then we find that form and ritual are more important than honesty. Thus, the Bellegardes can actually murder out of a sense of adherence to form. James is not emphasizing that one should have all of one and not any of the other. The ideal person is the one who can retain all of the American’s innocence and honesty, and yet gain the European’s experience and knowledge. Valentin de Bellegarde is then great because he has the knowledge and experience, he has the form and ceremony and ritual, but he is not artificial because he reacts to things with sincerity and naturalness. Newman is becoming great because he has retained all of his American qualities but has learned a great deal about form and ritual and urbanity and has also gained a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience without losing his native virtues. Claire de Cintre’s potential greatness is that she, like Valentin, possesses the commendable European qualities and shows a good inclination toward gaining or appreciating the American virtues.