The American and the Clan

Johan Lundberg


The Henry James novel The American (1877) is analyzed on the basis of a conflict between the two
forms of liberty, which Isaiah Berlin in the end of the 1950s designated as negative and positive. The
concept of negative freedom is in this interpretation of the novel connected to a contrast between the
state and the clan. With starting point in Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order (2011),
and Mark S Weiner in The Rule of the Clan (2013), modern rule of law is in the analysis of the novel
regarded as something radically different from clan society.
Based on an understanding of the modern state as a guarantee for individual autonomy and liberty, in
Berlin’s negative meaning, James depicts in The American, the problems of maintaining liberty, in the
negative sense, in a community organised around the clan.
In the novel, the American protagonist Christopher Newman with his lack of prejudices represent for
his French fiancée Claire de Cintréa possible way to freedom. What Newman does, is to offer Claire the
opportunity to move from the French aristocracy to the economically strong American
bourgeoisie—from a kind of feudalism to capitalism. The proposed move coincides with the
developmental curve of the novel, which with respect to Claire runs from clan to state.
In striking contrast to Newman’s optimized sort of freedom, where neither any internalized norms nor
any economic limitations prohibit the protagonist from acting in the way that he desires, Claire is the
daughter of a family that represents the old world, with all its limitations and restrictions on negative
liberty. In a highly concrete manner she is prohibited from acting as she wants. This is emphasized in
the question of who to marry.
The analysis connects Claire’s family to the ultramontanists and legitimists circles of 19th century
Parisian aristocracy. The terms refer to the ultra-conservative and fiercely anti-liberal movements that,
after the French revolution, turned against the modern state power that allegedly forced on the French Catholics secular values.
Legitimism and ultramontanism are in the novel intimately connected to maintaining an organisation
around the clan. In contrast to the clan, rule of law, democracy and individual freedom is seen as
consequences of the framework of the modern, liberal state.

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