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New World Contracts, Old World Bonds, and the Problem with Money

ENGL 383.301
instructor(s):
TR 3-4:30

"A large fortune means freedom, and I'm afraid of that. It's such a fine thing, and one should make such a good use of it. If one shouldn't, one would be ashamed. And one must keep thinking; it's a constant effort. I'm not sure it's not a greater happiness to be powerless." Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady.

This course will examine Henry James's consideration of the American awareness of money-the freedom it facilitates and stratagems that acquiring it seems to inspire. For James, this awareness of money becomes most clear when the American goes to Europe. Sometimes the American tends to think, somewhat comically, that because he has conquered in the New World by making his fortune, he will conquer the Old World. Alternatively, the American-in-Europe tends to think, somewhat romantically, that in Europe he will find the "sacred fire" of a precious beauty that is not to be found in the United States. We will watch James's Americans, buoyed with the confidence they have gleaned from success in a commercial republic, take in an Old World ethos of fineness and finesse in human relationships. In short, we will be watching James ponder how the Old World and the New can fit together.

We will first look at the contract theory of government in Hobbes's Leviathan and Locke's Second Treatise of Government. Then we will look at the critique of Enlightenment confidence in rationality in Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. Finally, we will look at de Tocqueville's Democracy in America for a sifting of the strengths and weaknesses of the new American Republic. When we turn to James, we will read The American, The Europeans, Portrait of a Lady, and The Ambassadors. For James, "American" means "energetic, candid, confident, bold" but also "crude, puritanical, narrowly practical, and naïve," while "European" means "fine, subtle, gracious, reflective" but also "conniving, duplicitous, and luxuriously amoral." In weighing the strengths and weaknesses of these two moral provenances, James wonders if American sensitivity to the problem of money inevitably reduces "culture" to a guidebook's jumble of asterisked items or inevitably inflates Old World refinement as the only source of beauty.