Christopher Newman's Haircloth Shirt: Worldly Asceticism, Conversion, and Auto-Machia in the American

By Lewis, Pericles | Studies in the Novel, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Christopher Newman's Haircloth Shirt: Worldly Asceticism, Conversion, and Auto-Machia in the American


Lewis, Pericles, Studies in the Novel


Henry James's The American (1876-77) presents itself almost as allegory. The hero's surname, Newman, suggests a modern Pilgrim's Progress. He inherits his Christian name, Christopher, from the man who, as Mlle. Nioche puts it, "invented America" (American 520); she refers to Columbus as Newman's "patron saint," and the American resonances of the name Christopher should not blind us to its religious significance: the bearer of Christ. It is another, more modern faith that Christopher Newman feels himself appointed to bear back across the sea. This Protestant, hard-working, democratic new man strays into an old world of Catholicism, leisure, and aristocracy; the Paris that Newman encounters even has some of the qualities of Bunyan's City of Destruction. Peter Brooks has traced James's "melodrama of consciousness" (Melodramatic 57; see also "The Turn" 46) to the popular theatre and the novels of Balzac, yet James also draws on the American Puritan tradition of auto-machia, or "war within the self' (Bercovitch 15-25). The moral struggles he describes, however secular the terms in which the characters may phrase them, retain the flavor and the seriousness of religious struggle. Through his revision of the traditional Protestant motifs of conversion and auto-machia in The American, James prefigures many of the insights of Max Weber and shows the inheritance of Protestant values by the modern American ethic. This spiritual dimension of James's first major novel gestures both backward to the influence of a Protestant tradition and forward to James's influence on the modernist understanding of the divided or fragmented self.

The novel's "romantic" plot depends for its effect on a conflict between the values of the modern, post-Protestant, American Newman and his feudal, Catholic, European rivals, the Bellegardes (Preface, American NYE xiv). Read as a late descendant of Protestant allegory, the novel relies on and reinforces anti-Catholic stereotypes: Catholicism represents old rituals, hyperconsciousness of rank, an unhealthy otherworldliness, casuistic reasoning, devious conduct, and mistreatment of women. (1) Some of the prejudices that James will attribute to Waymarsh in The Ambassadors seem already operative in The American's representation of Catholicism:

   The Catholic Church, for Waymarsh--that was to say the enemy, the
   monster of bulging eyes and far-reaching quivering groping
   tentacles--was exactly society, exactly the multiplication of
   shibboleths, exactly the discrimination of types and tones, exactly
   the wicked old Rows of Chester, rank with feudalism; exactly in
   short Europe. (Ambassadors, 1:41)

Some such equation between Europe and the Roman Catholic Church shapes the moral landscape of The American as well, and the novel can easily be read as the story of how a Protestant American runs afoul of that institution and makes as good a retreat as he can.

Yet, beneath the surface conflict with the whore of Babylon, The American reveals dissension within the breast of its confident hero, specifically in his figuration as Benjamin Franklin, modeling the American values of self-reliance, ingenuity, and enlightened self-interest. If James's references to Franklin seem generally approving, however, his portrait of Newman suggests conflicts underlying the Franklinian worldview. (2) In particular, behind his facade of "contemporaneous optimism," Newman suffers from some of the self-doubt characteristic of his (and Franklin's) Puritan forebears (American 793). The persistence of the theological themes of conversion and auto-machia in the novel points to the origins of Henry James's interest in the double consciousness or divided self of the modern subject. A reading of The American in terms of religious experience suggests, then, that one of the distinctive characteristics of the modern self--its division against itself--involves a renewed attention to a problem that was central to a much earlier American religious tradition. …

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