THE EUROPEANS: Henry James, James Ivory, "And That Nice Mr. Emerson"

By Hirsh, Allen | Literature/Film Quarterly, April 1, 1983 | Go to article overview

THE EUROPEANS: Henry James, James Ivory, "And That Nice Mr. Emerson"


Hirsh, Allen, Literature/Film Quarterly


THE EUROPEANS: Henry James, James Ivory, "And That Nice Mr. Emerson"

James Ivory's adaptation of The Europeans (1979) is distinguished in that it is one of the few American films to deal with American attitudes of the 1840s. Ivory depends primarily upon his source, the 1878 novel by Henry James, 1 but the film also comments upon New England Transcendentalism. Although it would be more appropriate to view The Europeans, film and novel, as another stage in the development of James's international theme, Ivory's defense of the European cousins stems largely from his portrayal of the hostile nature of the Puritan descendants who shelter them. Therefore, there are really two levels operating within his work: 1940s New England life invaded from overseas and the austerity of New England's liberation from its darker ages.

The viewer watches the Americans and the Europeans square off over their differences, but there is also a squaring off between the realist in James and the romantic air in the Concord that his sophisticated visitors experience. AU the while the hometowners are unaware of their own backwardness, a backwardness rooted in Emersonian transcendentalism.

In this period, Emersonian transcendentalism represented comforting and inspiring progress, an undeniable break from the past, a natural evolution of Unitarianism, and a giant leap from the belief that man was born steeped in sin. Unitarianism had decided that man could not perfect saintliness in this Ufe, but it was the transcendentalists who broke from tradition and suggested that a new sainthood could be achieved. The new thinking inspired by Emerson as a call to action came as a relief to the new generation of Puritan descendants who continued to maintain a staunchly moral base. Therefore, the significant element in Emerson's philosophy became not its liberation as much as its retention of past zealousness. It is this earnestness that provides the barricade against the sophisticated invaders in the novel and the film.

In this age, when nature was no longer a threat and disease had been tempered by advances in medicine, only distinctly different lifestyles could threaten the Concordites who may have read "The American Scholar" literally, if one judges the reception they gave the Europeans. These Americans had indeed become romantic over their potential, but their cousins were Jamesian Americans who had experienced Europe, perhaps the greatest of all illusions. What strikes the viewer then, whether or not one understands the New England mind, is the discourse that develops from the meeting of these opposites and the overall issue of American provinciality.

The Baroness Eugenia Münster and her brother, Felix Young, are in Boston to meet their mother's half-brother and his two daughters, Gertrude and Charlotte Wentworth. The mother had run off to Europe, married, had two children, and, until her death, was no longer mentioned in the Concord area she had abandoned. Her children, the thirty-three year old Eugenia and the somewhat younger Felix, are free to exchange nationalities, not really having one. Their upbringing has eluded the static leap from Puritanism to Unitarianism to Transcendentalism. Having been brought up in an environment in which seriousness was not a stage but an integral part of one's personality, the European cousins completely lack the moral earnestness of the Americans. Eugenia is slightly more entrenched than Felix, however, since she has made an unfortunate marriage, so-called "morganatic," to the brother of the ruler of a small German duchy known as Silberstadt-Schreckenstein. She carries with her a signed letter which she has only to mail for an instant annulment by a more than willing brother-in-law. Thus Eugenia and Felix have come to America to seek their fortune, not an ignoble purpose since Eugenia, with her charm and sophistication, has much to offer on the proper market.

Inevitably, comedy collides with the social and cultural presentation of the times in terms of the threat these aliens pose. …

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