Page:The Cambridge History of American Literature, v3.djvu/117

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99
Americans Abroad

character. But the crusading Americans—variegated types, comic and romantic—with the foreign settings in which they so perfectly find themselves, these make up a local province as distinct in colour and feature as those of Cable[1] and Bret Harte,[2] —a province quite as American, in its way, and for the artist quite as much of a trouvaille, or lucky strike.

These Americans abroad fall naturally into two classes. The first are treated in the mildly comic vein, as examples of American crudeness or simplicity. Such are the unhappy Ruck family of The Pension Beaurepas,—poor Mr. Ruck who had come abroad in hopes of regaining health and escaping financial worries, and his ladies whose interest in the old world is confined to the shops where money can be spent. Perhaps we might refer to this class Christopher Newman, the self-possessed and efficient American business man, hero of The American (1877); though in his case the comedy of character is by no means broad, and is strictly subordinate to the larger comedy of social contrast. In general, these people are treated not unkindly; and there is the one famous instance of Daisy Miller, in which the fresh little American girl is so tenderly handled as to set tears flowing—a most unusual proceeding with James. Generally the Americans emerge from the international comedy with the reader's esteem for sterling virtues not always exhibited by the more sophisticated Europeans. In the later group of stories in particular, the American character, presented with no hint of comic bias, actually shines with the lustre of a superior spiritual fineness. This is what Rebecca West has in mind in her somewhat impatient reference to James s characters as American old maids, or words to that effect.

And here we have the very heart of his Americanism, if we may make bold to call it that. There is something in James's estimate of spiritual values so fine, so immaterial, so indifferent to success or happiness or whatever merely practical issues, as to suggest nothing so much as the transcendentalism of Emerson, the otherworldliness of Hawthorne. There is here a psychology not of Scott or Thackeray, not even of George Eliot, still less of any conceivable Continental novelist; and one can hardly refer it to any but a New England origin.

  1. See Book III, Chap. VI
  2. Ibid