America vs Europe: Cultural Identities in Henry James' Fiction
Asist. univ. drd. Sorina CHIPER
Universitatea “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” Iasi
One of the hottest issues of current academic debates is, undoubtedly, that of cultural identity. In a world of change and transformation, bent on reshaping, transpassing or eliminating boundaries, the need to define or assert one’s identity is increasingly brought to the fore.
This concern for identity is not specific to postmodernism. At the turn of the previous century Henry James, the “Master” of Modernism, was himself preoccupied with identity. In fact, one could rank Henry James within the long tradition in the American literature that dealt with the topic of identity. Such a tradition has existed in Europe as well, but whereas in the European literature the focus has mostly been on personal identity, in the United States identity has usually been defined in relation to a group or a specific sub-culture.
For James, the essential principle of fiction was contrast. A large part of his novels and short stories define contrast at the level of the clash of two cultures: that of Europe and that of America. On a smaller scale, this clash involves the opposition of innocence to experience, of the ordinary American life to the extraordinary European life, of material gains to spiritual assets, and the opposition between the shallow present and the rich, deep past.
This confrontation between Europe and America is at the core of James’ whole literary activity. Much of his fiction involves characters from both continents, who travel a lot and experience the cultural feeling of otherness. James travelled a lot himself, and obtained a British citizenship, at the end of his life. As he himself confessed, his ambition was to “write in such a way that it would be impossible to the outsider to say whether I am at a given moment an American writing in England or an Englishman writing about America” (Bradbury: 1993, 213).
This simultaneous mirroring of British and American realities, which James called the “international theme,” was tackled by Mark Twain before him, in a jocose way, in Innocents Abroad, for instance, and by writers such as Hawthorne, Melville and Howells. With James, the effects of the encounter between Americans and the Europeans lead to dramatic, if not to tragic consequences, and effect a change in the characetrs. In this article I will analyse the cultural interferences between Europe and America in Daisy Miller and The Ambassadors, and how they affect the characters.
Published in 1879, Daisy Miller has stirred various opinions among the public and the critics. Some saw in the story the seeds of disrespect for American maidenhood whereas others interpreted the title character as the idealisation of American charm. Personally, I tend to see Daisy as the embodiment of innocence and unprejudiced behaviour, of genuine and spontaneous reactions and of sincere interaction with the world around her. Like the feminine character in “Four Meetings,” she has “the great American disease – the appetite, morbid and monstruous, for colour, form, for the picturesque and the romantic at any price” (James: 1967, 47-48)
Written in James’ first period of creation, much before he perfected the use of point of view as a successful realist narrative technique, this short novel is composed around a simple plot: Winterbourne, the “central intelligence,” to use James’ term, meets Daisy in Vevey, Switzerland, where he is with his aunt, Mrs Costello. The girl strikes him as looking extremely honest, fresh, sociable, charming, unsophisticated. She is travelling through Europe with an unvigilant mother, a
spoiled brother and a courier. Mr Miller is back in America, tending probably to the family’s business – the source that finances their stay in Europe. Daisy’s behaviour is misunderstood and disapproved of in Europe, especially among the circle of expatriate Americans. She dies of a fever in Rome and Winterbourne is left with the frustration of having misunderstood her.
Then main characters, Daisy and Winterbourne, are representatives of two types of Americans living in Europe: Daisy stands for the genuine American girl, whereas Winterbourne represents the Europenised Americans. The latter’s identity is ambiguous in that although they are Americans by birth, they have adopted the European ways and internalized European patterns of thought. They interpret Daisy’s behaviour through the lenses of European prejudice and disbelief in the possibility of innocence. They are scandalised by her “reckless” acts and Mrs Costello regards the Millers as “horribly common,” the sort of Americans that one does one’s duty just ignoring” (James: 1964, 17). Europe is seen as a stiff system with clear norms of what is appropriate and what is not. As Winterbourne points out to Daisy, “American flirting is a purely American silliness; it has – in its ineptitude of innocence – no place in this system.” (James: 1964, 56).
Although the title draws attention to Daisy Miller, the novel is actually Winterbourne’s story, a quest for innocence and the revelation of the pitfalls of uprooted identity. Winterbourne is the victim of his European education in Geneva – the city of a rigidly conventional style of living marked by Puritan distrust of spontaneity and naturalness. His aunt, the most reliable social authority that he knows, even warns him not to meddle with “little American girls that are uncultivated” because he has lived “too long out of the country,” so he is “sure to make some geat mistake” (James: 1964, 19)
Daisy and Winterbourne visit the Chateau de Chillon together. For Winterbourne, the trip is a departure from the dictates of property, but it is done with customary prudence. From the beginning, Winterbourne appears temperamentally doomed to swing in constant vacillation between opposing drives. His return to Geneva, after the outing to Chillon, marks, symbolically, a return to conformity.
In Rome, in the presence of Daisy’s critics, he defends her ardently, in an effort to strengthen his own faltering belief in her. Yet he cannot help questioning Daisy’s morality. Her behavious remains opaque to Winterbourne until the end of the story even if, at a given point, he believes in the existance of illumination. When he sees Daisy and Giovanelli – a handsome but low-class furtune-hunter Italian – in the Colosseum, close to midnight, he reaches the conclusion that “She was a young lady about the shades of whose perversity a foolish puzzled gentlemen need no longer trouble his head of his heart” (James: 1964, 68). Thus, incapable of embracing values larger than those of his adopted parochial society, he capitulates to the code of Geneva and his quest ends in a Puritan repudiation of innocence.
Winterbourne’s belief in Daisy’s depravity will be dramaticaly shaken when, after her funeral, he learns from Giovanelli that she was the most innocent young lady, with no intention to marry him. Her death prompts him to re-evaluate the situation and to derive new meanings out of his past experiences and attitude to Daisy. What he learns is that she “would have appreciated one’s esteem” and that he was indeed, as intimated earlier, “booked to make a mistake” (James:1964, 74). Furthermore, he discovers that the cause of his lack of discrimination is his uprootedness: having lived too long abroad and having become a European acculturate, he could no longer distinguish what was personal from what was ethnical (national) in Daisy, nor could he discern the her innocence from vulgarity or immorality.
In the period of his literary maturity, James returned to the international theme in The Ambassadors, the novel which James himself considered to be a masterpiece – “quite the best, ‘all round,’ of all my productions” (James: 1986, 35). The plot, again, is disappointingly poor. Lamberth Strether, a middle-aged American from Woolett is sent as an “ambassador” to Europe by Mrs Newsome to rescue her son Chad from what she believes to be the traps of Europe: loose manners, immoral women and dubious places. The contact with the European civilisation, with the monuments and treasures of art, draws out his vague regret about his past, about the loss of his wife and child. When he meets Chad he is bewildered by the changes in his appearance and manners. On Chad’s insistance, he agrees to postpone the trip back home and to meet Madame de Vionnet and her daughter. The impression that the former makes on him persuades him of her positive influence on Chad. To Strether, Madame de Vionnet is the embodiment of European identity, defined by style, social etiquette, intelligence and aesthetic sensitivity. But corruption is also present under the shape of questionable morality.
In a letter to an American friend, James made some interesting observations with respect to what it means to be an American: “We are Americans born – il faut en prendre son parti. I look upon it as a great blessing, and I think that to be an American is an excellent preparation for culture. We have exquisite qualities as a race, and it seems to me that we are ahead of the European races in the fact that, more than either of them, we can deal freely with forms of civilisation not our own, can pick and choose and assimilate and in short (aesthetically, etc) gain our propriety wherever we find it. We must of course have something of our own – something distinctive and homogeneous – and I take it that we shall find it in our moral consciousness, in our unprecedented spiritual brightness and vigor” (Ford: 1993, 232).
These typically American features, as well as the process of selective cultural assimilation, are displayed by Strether, the main character in the novel. Strether’s personality has been shaped by Puritan beliefs. Yet since personality is a state of becoming rather than of being, it is continuously refashioned and enriched.
In phenomenological terms, the novel concentrates on Strether’s gradual transformation from an American tinged by the stereotypes and prejudices of the “natural attitude” to an individual who, through experience, acquires knowledge about the world and about the others and who, through the practice of epoche, seizes the essence of his pure self and develops a personal way of judging. Unlike Waymarsh and Jim Pocock, the successful American businessmen who are blind and irresponsive to the salient features of European civilisation, Strether has an eye for the splendor of civilisation, the beautiful people and the magnificent interiors that he comes upon in the French capital. He engages phenomenologically with the new Umwelt that he is in and learns that there are more things in Paris than had been dreamt of in the philosophy of Woollett.
Strether’s experience in Paris allows him to fulfill and internalise his sense of curiosity, spiritual freedom, the ability to enjoy whatever the present moment has to offer, to “live all you can” because “it’s mistake not to.“ (James: 1986, 215). Strether, therefore, is capable of detaching himself from his Puritan inheritance and of broadening his sense of the self by assimilating the teachings of his European experience.
Whereas in the case of Winterbourne the years spent in Europe had the effect of uprooting him, of alienating him from his “Americanness,” Strether manages to achieve a synthesis of America and Europe. He can diagnose the prejudices that have been passed to him and that have filled the vessel of his consciuosness and he can replace them with the impressions gained from his European experience.
Recent theories of culture argue that the values that define one’s identity can be classified as core values and as shifting values. This distinction is useful in understanding Strether’s retun to the States: the Puritan principles are the basis of his identity, which remains stable and transparent through the alterations in his personality. Irrespective of how many European values he has assimilated, he has a pivotal self on which he falls back. At the end of the novel his conclusions are not at the extreme end of his preconceived ideas brought from New England. He rediscovers his heritage by “unthinking it” and then stepping back to examine it without the emotional charge of personal involvement. The “typical tale” of Paris is not the one imagined in Woollett but one arrived at through interpretation, doubting and reinterpretation. He reaches a vision broad, deep and generous enough to account for the city’s contradictions just as, after having initialy idealised and transformed Madame de Vionnet into mythological, hsitorical and literary figures, he admits that she is a compedium of images (both lover and mother, both young and old, both unique and common).
The personal vision that Strether develops combines the viewpoints and axiologic systems of Paris and Woollett in a strong assertion of individuality in the face of the stereotypical. Marianne Hirsch argues thar “by insisting on Chad’s duty toward Madame de Vionnet, Strether imposes an American value on the Parisian scene and succedes in convincing the Parisians of it. Yet by believing in the value of their relationship Strether adopts a Parisian point of view against that of Woollett“ (Hirsch: 1981, 29). The solution to the international conflict, which Strether experienced as personal drama, is thus a “sublime consensus” – a fusion, a transcendence of national differences.
To conclude, James’ preference to place Americans in an European context involves a process of holding the realist mirror to European and American realities. This process identifies common European features such as a cultivated mind, an artistic education and refined knowledge of the ways of the world. The Americans, on the other hand, are defined as innocent but also ignorant and pray to Puritan limitations. Europe, too, has its prejudices stemming from age-old norms of what is appropriate and what is not. James emphasises the fact that identity is a process of rejecting and taking on shifting values, while preserving the core values which, in the case of American identity, are ingenuity, curiosity and sincerity. Whereas in the case of Winterbourne the adoption of European values blinds him to his core American values, which leads to his uprootedness, Strether accomplishes an organic synthesis of European and American values and the hybrid matrix of values and principles that he develops helps him preserve a sense of unitary self.
Bradbury, Malcolm, Ruland, Richard From Puritanism to Postmodernism. A History of American Literature. London: Penguin Books, 1993.
Ford, Boris Penguin Guide to Literature: American Literature. London: Penguin Books, 1993.
Hirsch, Marianne. Beyond the Single Vision. Henry James, Michel Butor. Ywe Johnson. New York&South Carolina: French Literature Publication Company, 1981.
James, Henry The Ambassadors. Midlesex &Others: Penguin Books, 1986.
---------------- The Portable Henry James. Zabel, Morton Dauwen (ed.). New York: The Viking Press, 1967.
---------------- Selected Fiction. Edel, Leon (ed.). New York: Dutton &Co, 1964.