The American

Henry James The American

The very first place in Paris that Christopher Newman, the tourist-hero of Henry James’s 1876-7 novel The American, visits when he arrives is a fine restaurant.

Newman is every bit the prototypical American that his name, with its allusion to the famous Genovese explorer and the world he discovered, suggests. The book opens in the Louvre, where Newman sprawls on a divan in the great salon carré, home to the Mona Lisa, his Baedeker’s guide by his side. He is digesting not only the pictures before him but also his previous evening’s meal at the café Anglais, which “some one had told him … was an experience not to be omitted.”

Baedeker’s sixth edition recommended the Café Anglais as “elegantly fitted up” as well as expensive and open late at night. It epitomized the sophistication of Paris cuisine, despite its name – which was chosen to commemorate the Peace of Amiens signed between Britain and France in 1802, the year the restaurant opened.  Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century, according to Baedeker’s, was “indisputably the cradle of high culinary art.” For an eager tourist like Newman, a visit to its dining establishments might take precedence even over seeing the Mona Lisa. By contrast, American food was reputed at the time for its roughness. Newman, who made his money in the west, is characterized by one French character as having “eaten roast dog in a gold-digger’s camp.”

James doesn’t relate what Newman ate at the café Anglais, but a menu from 1867, the year before the novel’s action takes place, reveals what was on offer at this historic restaurant. At the famous “Three Emperors Dinner,” held for King William I of Prussia, Tsar Alexander II of Russia and his son the Tsarevitch, and Prince Otto Von Bismark, the sixteen courses included soufflé a la reine (chicken soufflé with truffles), filets de soles à la Venitienne (a sauce made with white wine, butter, chervil, and tarragon), pâte chaud de cailles (quail), homards à la Parisienne (lobster poached, glazed, stuffed and served with more truffle), canetons à la rouennaise (bloody duck), asperges en branche (asparagus), Châteaux d’Yquem and Château Latour. Many of these dishes and wines can be found on  fine Parisian menus today. The menu also included one dish not to be found today: ortolans sur canapé, or roasted songbirds on toast. The hunting of these little wild birds, which are eaten heads and bones included, is now forbidden for reasons of conservation. However, eating clubs still gather to enjoy the illicit delicacy, and François Mitterand supposedly enjoyed two ortolans for his final meal (along with 30 marennes oysters, foie gras and capon, washed down with Sauternes and Bourdeaux).

Three Emperors Dinner menu, framed at La Tour d'Argent
Three Emperors Dinner menu. Framed and displayed at La Tour d’Argent

James’s Christopher Newman, who has traveled to Europe for pleasure, would no doubt have tried the ortolan given the chance. An up-by-the-boostraps character, Newman has been working since he was twelve years old. When the novel opens he is thirty-six, a veteran of the Civil War, and a self-made millionaire. His entire life has been devoted to the cause of making money. Now for the first time he seeks to enjoy it. He arrives in Paris knowing only one word of French: combien (how much). Soon his vocabulary expands.

Food is the metaphor for the sensual indulgence Newman seeks in France. “A man shouldn’t send away his plate till he has eaten his fill,” counsels a friend from home, Tom Tristram, whom Newman encounters in Paris. Tristram steers Newman away from the Louvre declaring “hang it, I don’t care for pictures,” and takes him to a “most characteristically Parisian” café across the street on the Rue de Rivoli. Baedeker’s sixth edition recommended cafés as a place to be “visited by the stranger who desires to see Parisian life in all its phases. An hour or two may be pleasantly spent in sitting at one of the small tables with which the pavements in front of the cafés on the Boulevards are covered on summer evenings, and watching the passing throng.” Tristram has spent far more than an hour or two at Paris’s cafés. Newman soon observes that his friend’s only aspirations are “to ply his rosy gullet with truffles and champagne.”

The opposite extreme American reaction to the pleasures of Europe is represented by a Unitarian minister, Mr. Babcock, who becomes Newman’s travelling companion for a few months. Babcock has been sent on the Grand Tour by his Boston-area congregation in order to experience the sublimity of classical art and architecture, and thus further develop his moral sense. Babcock has a weak stomach and lives chiefly on hominy and Graham bread, a whole-grain formula concocted by diet faddist Sylvester Graham, whose name survives in the Graham cracker. Discovering that his American staples are not popular abroad, Babcock carries a sack of hominy along with him on his travels and induces the kitchens at the hotels he visits to prepare his abstemious gruel at early hours. Babcock despises the late European dinner-hour as “unscrupulous and impure,” and is troubled by Newman’s indulgent habits. Finally he breaks with Newman whom he judges an “unregulated epicure.”

Although Newman discovers the truth of the French proverb l’appetit vient en mangeant – or roughly, the appetite grows with eating – he is saved from following his friend Tristram into a life of unregulated epicureanism by the sad discovery that French gastronomy too often arrives with a side helping of emotional frigidity or even morbidity. An excellent meal at the home of his French fiancée is served at the end of a “cold corridor” that hints at the dissolution of the engagement. When his closest friend in France is fatally wounded in a duel, he is revolted to watch the dying man’s friends enjoy sumptuous meals during the death watch. Profoundly affected by the spectacle of wasted life, Newman cannot eat, even when his dying friend urges him on. Ultimately Newman must leave Paris and its fine restaurants, never to return.

Since moving to Paris, I’ve often pondered the question: why can’t we enjoy the pleasures of Paris at home?  So many Americans come to the city and fall in love with the cafés, the boulangeries, the patisseries, and the brasseries. If they love the French life in Paris, why can’t they bring it back with them? Why isn’t every city filled with great places to eat? Henry James’s The American suggests one answer: a long-held belief that taking such sensual pleasure in the quotidian must cause some injury to the soul and body. Paris is for vacation only. After working hard and deferring pleasure, like Newman, one is permitted to indulge for a while, but only until it’s time to return home. Good food must be followed by abstemious diets that will restore the body to health and the soul to discipline. When my allotted year in Paris expires, I am sure that I will return home with a pledge to lay off the wine, the sweets, and the butter. It’s too bad that all that self-denial is really just denial of the morbidity that awaits us all, pleasures or no.

Author: Rachel Hope Cleves

Professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Author of Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014), and The Reign of Terror in America (2009). My new book about the notorious writer, Norman Douglas, will be out in October 2020. Now working on a project titled "Good Food, Bad Sex."

5 thoughts

    1. Thank you Andrea. I thought The American was a great read if a really odd book: half comedy of manners, half improbable gothic novel, all capped off with a terrible ending. You can really see how James developed as a writer from it.

  1. I hadn’t read this one…so will have to hunt it up.
    I sometimes mention to Americans that I lived in France for donkeys’ years…and they almost inevitably tell me how wonderful Paris mustbe/is…closely followed by Provence.
    Is there something in the literary background that conditions this response?

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