Book reviews

Henry James’ The American (Reader’s Digest, 2007; originally published 1877)

Striking episode of passive euthanasia in a classic tale of American vs. European culture

Instead of watching a debate by useless and criminal Democrats, I chose to read, from the perspective of useless and criminal Democrats, a work of dead white male literature.  Alternatively, in the words of educated people (pro-life Catholic Republicans, for example, who will vote for President Trump), I chose to read a masterpiece from the nineteenth century.

Henry James may have written this novel in 1877, but the narrative is as captivating today as it was then.  Moreover, contemporary readers can apply some aspects of this nineteenth-century novel to their lives today.

The passive euthanasia episode in chapter 22 is certainly one of those aspects.  Admittedly, today’s euthanasia supporters would not care about the act of killing the patriarch of the Bellegarde family.  Today’s pro-lifers, in contrast, will see this episode as one of the earliest fictional accounts of a family eager to see one of its members die, especially if that family member is no longer considered a human being but an obstacle to progress within aristocratic society.

Christopher Newman (as James calls him, the “hero” of the novel) is himself a second “aspect” which would captivate contemporary, especially male, readers.  Newman is a typical guy: secure in having worked hard in his commercial interests, basking in his millions, and quiet.  Newman is not a European chatterbox, which is to say, an effete male character.  He takes time before he utters something.  He is comfortable with his body as the numerous references to “his legs outstretched” testify (a significant characteristic identified on the first page and throughout the novel).  More importantly, even though he plots revenge against the Bellegarde family for frustrating his goal to marry one of their own, Newman displays his genuine manhood by being able to forgive them and renounce his vengeance—all this done without overt religious principles.

Twenty-first century men will like Christopher.  He’s what every man wants to be: rich, a man of virtue, a person of integrity, and faithful to his fiancée.

In fact, Newman’s struggle to overcome his hatred of the Bellegarde family without reference to Christian principles of forgiveness shames the Bellegarde family, who are ostensibly Roman Catholic.  Since the novel is set in late nineteenth-century Paris, the reader becomes aware very quickly that these are not practicing Catholics, but people who pretend to have faith because that is what is expected of them to maintain their positions in French society.

Kinda like Nancy Pelosi, who purports to be Catholic, yet is leader of the meanest people on Capitol Hill.

But I digress.

Since this is a Henry James novel, be prepared to read and re-read sentences.  This style of nineteenth-century writing is complex with high register diction.  How, for example, does a contemporary reader used to dashing off usually mindless tweets of no more than 280 characters handle something like this?

“Gallant, expansive, amusing, more pleased himself with the effect he produced than those (even when they were well pleased) for whom he produced it; a master of all the distinctively social virtues and a votary of all agreeable sensations; a devotee of something mysterious and sacred to which he occasionally alluded in terms more ecstatic even than those in which he spoke of the last pretty woman, and which was simply the beautiful though somewhat superannuated image of honour; he was irresistibly entertaining and enlivening; and he formed a character to which Newman was as capable of doing justice when he had once been placed in contact with it, as he was unlikely, in musing upon the possible mixtures of our human ingredients, mentally to have foreshadowed it.” (128; italics in original)

This one sentence of 128 words could frustrate any contemporary reader; it could also yield linguistic delights for those who dare to get beyond their usually mindless tweets of no more than 280 characters.

Fortunately, since James is a master writer, we can rely on his innate respect for syntax to guide us to the deep meanings behind difficult phrases and clauses such as the above.

In short, reading this novel is much more fruitful than wasting hours watching useless and criminal Democrats vying to be the candidate of a party which consists of losers as arrogant as the Bellegarde family.

Who would have “thunk” dead white male literature could teach us so much?

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