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The Way an American Stood

At the climax of The Golden Bowl, after Maggie has repositioned herself beside her husband and her father beside his wife (for reasons gestured toward there, it’s less benign than it sounds), and just when she’s decided to ensure that repositioning is permanent, the novel turns. Her decision comes in the midst of a long conversation with her father, Adam Verver, and the turn is toward an understanding of him—or rather, an understanding that to her he is inscrutable and extraordinary. It turns this way because her decision is impossible without his action, without his ability to do what he decides. The important recognition isn’t that he does this, however, but that this is what he has always done because it is who he is. In her terms, just before she is to step up to sacrifice him, he throws himself on the altar, sacrificing himself for her sake. There is no better assertion, however, that sacrifice is a relative term than the long description of him near the end of their conversation. That description is both particular and representative—it is intended to be representative, in fact, of a certain type of American prominent in the world.

Herbert Hoover, 1899 His glasses still fixed on her, his hands in his pockets, his hat pushed back, his legs a little apart, he seemed to plant or to square himself for a kind of assurance it had occurred to him he might as well treat her to, in default of other things, before they changed their subject. It had the effect for her of a reminder—a reminder of all he was, of all he had done, of all, above and beyond his being her perfect little father, she might take him as representing, take him as having quite eminently, in the eyes of two hemispheres, been capable of, and as therefore wishing, not—was it?—illegitimately, to call her attention to. The ‘successful’ beneficent person, the beautiful bountiful original dauntlessly wilful great citizen, the consummate collector and infallible high authority he had been and still was—these things struck her on the spot as making up for him in a wonderful way a character she must take into account in dealing with him either for pity or for envy. He positively, under the impression, seemed to loom larger than life for her, so that she saw him during these moments in a light of recognition which had had its brightness for her at many an hour of the past, but which had never been so intense and so almost admonitory. His very quietness was part of it now, as always part of everything, of his success, his originality, his modesty, his exquisite public perversity, his inscrutable incalculable energy; and this quality perhaps it might be—all the more too as the result, for the present occasion, of an admirable traceable effort—that placed him in her eyes as no precious work of art probably had ever been placed in his own. There was a long moment, absolutely, during which her impression rose and rose, even as that of the typical charmed gazer, in the still museum, before the named and dated object, the pride of the catalogue, that time has polished and consecrated. Extraordinary in particular was the number of the different ways in which he thus affected her as showing. He was strong—that was the great thing. He was sure—sure for himself always, whatever his idea: the expression of that in him had somehow never appeared more identical with his proved taste for the rare and the true. But what stood out beyond everything was that he was always marvellously young—which couldn’t but crown at this juncture his whole appeal to her imagination. Before she knew it she was lifted aloft by the consciousness that he was simply a great and deep and high little man, and that to love him with tenderness was not to be distinguished a whit from loving him with pride. It came to her, all strangely, as a sudden, an immense relief. The sense that he wasn’t a failure, and could never be, purged their predicament of every meanness—made it as if they had really emerged, in their transmuted union, to smile almost without pain. It was like a new confidence, and after another instant she knew even still better why. Wasn’t it because now also, on his side, he was thinking of her as his daughter, was trying her, during these mute seconds, as the child of his blood? Oh then if she wasn’t with her little conscious passion the child of any weakness, what was she but strong enough too? It swelled in her fairly; it raised her higher, higher: she wasn’t in that case a failure either—hadn’t been, but the contrary; his strength was her strength, her pride was his, and they were decent and competent together. This was all in the answer she finally made him.

Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir at Yellowstone The only movement in the paragraph is Adam Verver’s settling to stand, casually—not unlike Teddy Roosevelt standing with John Muir at Yellowstone National Park (right)—so casually!—and to look a certain way. By that stance the narrator calls him capable, full of energy, undaunted—will is matched with utility. His fullness (if that’s what it should be called) even spills over into the language itself: “Beautiful bountiful original dauntlessly wilful great citizen,” as if Verver’s presence, his presentation can only be represented by an exuberance of adjectives. As it runs over onto language, it spills into Maggie, too, until his presence becomes hers. She sees she is something else as much because of as under his gaze.

It is a remarkable power not only to exude action—to see the world as if anything is possible, and to show for that matter to the world that you see this way, and for the world to know it by looking—but also then to insist by your very stance that others may embrace that sense of possibility as their own. It is this stance that is most representative in Adam Verver of a sense of an American national character. Significantly, it’s a character embodied by the wealthy at least as much because they are wealthy as because they are Americans. As such Adam Verver is more Andrew Carnegie—or to be generous, Herbert Hoover in China—than he is innocents abroad. Some part of him, however, is always innocence abroad, even in spite of the fact that his own worldliness is impermeable to every other character in the novel, even to Maggie, who is most empowered by him. There’s some question, too, whether Verver’s power is indeed transferable to anyone but her: the Prince, for example, though he benefits from Verver’s wealth, finds him mysterious throughout the novel. What’s clear, though, is that for James, Americanness is less the power to do anything than it is to see that anything can be done, to insist that the world is less constraining than the world seems to be, and to seek to convert others to be the same. Caspar Goodwood’s plea to Isabel throughout Portrait of a Lady, but particularly in the garden scene at the end, when they kiss, is exactly this insistence that she can act; though it’s been a long time since I read The American, I remember Christopher Newman’s presence throughout the novel as being essentially similar. Where Goodwood and Newman differ from Verver is that they are naifs; though there is some ambiguity about Verver’s knowledge of his wife’s affair, it’s fairly clear, certainly to Maggie, that the state of his ignorance is immaterial: the source of his power (his purse) makes all things possible, and it is that which affects his casual attitude to the world. (To that end, Gore Vidal’s emphasis on the rope around Charlotte’s neck is the right one, as is his insistence on the power of ownership.)

It still remains, however, for Maggie to acknowledge the power that Verver has given her.

‘I believe in you more than any one.’

‘Than any one at all?’

She hesitated for all it might mean; but there was—oh a thousand times!—no doubt of it. ‘Than any one at all.’ She kept nothing of it back now, met his eyes over it, let him have the whole of it; after which she went on: ‘And that’s the way, I think, you believe in me.’

He looked at her a minute longer, but his tone at last was right. ‘About the way—yes.’

It’s not much for action or conflict, but it’s everything: this is the novel’s climax. On their testaments of belief, they part having said what was needed. What matters is that each is conscious of the other’s power—neither needs to look out for the other again. In short order after this, Verver acts, packing Charlotte off for America, and the novel ends.