The American

The American

The American

The American

Excerpt

In September 1913 an American lady wrote to Henry James on behalf of a "young man from Texas" who needed guidance into the study of James' fiction. (The young man was Stark Young, who became a man of letters in his own right.) James was seventy, famous, in his own way an Olympian. Yet he replied promptly, with graciousness and good humor. He sent two introductory reading lists, noting in both cases the order in which the books were to be read. The second list, he wrote, was the "more advanced"; and it went thus -- 1. The American, 2. The Tragic Muse, 3. The Wings of the Dove, 4. The Ambassadors, and 5. The Golden Bowl. Further, he insisted that all the novels should be read only as revised for the New York Edition of his fiction. Nowadays, we are not at all surprised that at this stage in his life James should have preferred the final version of The American. (It was first serialized, 1876-1877, in The Atlantic Monthly; then published in Boston in 1877; slightly revised for an English edition of 1879; drastically revised for inclusion in the New York Edition in 1907.) For in the New York Edition, James strove to give his earlier fiction a finish which would make it consistent with the image of his life work which he had long struggled to set for himself.

We tend to be a little surprised, however, that James should have put The American on an "advanced" list -- especially in the light of the results, on the whole unfortunate, which came from his attempt to make it somehow consonant with the manner of his later fiction. We had nonetheless best begin with his advice. If we do so, we shall find that The American is indeed the best introduciton to the "advanced" James, one of his masterpieces. But in looking closely at the kind of mastery it exhibits, we shall be forced to gainsay James a little, and decide that the earlier version of The American is distinctly superior to the later. In the earlier version, here reprinted, James advances into the first full treatment of his great international theme; and his tech-

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