The text reprinted in this volume is based on an examination of the five printed versions of The American (first published in 1877) which appeared in James's lifetime, and it is preceded by his "Preface to the New York Edition" (1907). The textual history of the novel is traced in A Note on the Text; a list of substantive variants and emendations; a facsimile manuscript page showing James's method of revision; and a list of the installments of the novel as they appeared in The Atlantic. "Backgrounds and Sources" includes relevant extracts from correspondence, reviews, and articles by James and others, and from his Notebooks and Hawthorne. "Contemporary Reception" of the novel is illustrated by twenty-one American and English reviews. "Twentieth-Century Criticism" is represented in essays by Leon Edel, Oscar Cargill, Irving Howe, Richard Poirier, Royal A. Gettmann, and James W. Tuttleton. A Selected Bibliography is included for further study.
I wonder what it would be like reading this as an American? Hmmm....
The title refers to an American, Newman, a fabulously wealthy businessman living in Paris and mixing with the French elite in the 1870s. He falls in love with Claire de Cintre, a young widow born of the Bellegarde's, an aristocratic old French family. He courts and becomes engaged to her before her mother and brother intervene to try to stop the marriage to a mere mercantilist, wealthy though he may be.
And one striking thing is how incredibly wealthy he is- he has apparently made so much money that he can live a life of leisure indefinitely.
One complaint is that the book starts with Newman in Paris, and gives very little backstory. It explains that he is of a very calm and pleasant disposition, which is actually quite important to the plot at the end, but it doesn't really explain why he is like that, which would have been more interesting.
Anyway, the book moves slowly, with long bouts of dialogue. James turns a phrase well, and there are some good descriptions of scenery, but generally I think this book deserves to have been dropped from the canon. Lots of great new books get written every year, and though we shouldn't stop reading Steinbeck just yet, I think James can be consigned to a little corner of obscure writers that were once famous.