It’s remarkable, given the propensity of American officials, journalists and academics to refer to other nations and cultures as immature and underdeveloped, how frequently and consistently Americans themselves are described as children, by both foreign authors and American writers themselves. “We have not grown up enough to accept that America has never been innocent at all,” the novelist Steve Erikson wrote in 1995 in an essay about American rage. In Henry James’s The Ambassadors (1903), a character says of his American relatives, “They’re children; they play at life!”
James’s novel follows the middle-aged Lambert Strether as he is sent to Paris from Woollett, Massachusetts in order to retrieve Chad Newsome, the wayward son of his fiancée and heir to the family fortune. Woollett is a town that suffers from a paucity of opinions, the veneration of material success, the suspicion of foreigners and the conviction that the local way of seeing things is the only and the best. Strether, however, quickly leaves Woollett behind, so much so that he bungles his assignment. Far from being an American ambassador, whose mission is to convince Chad to abandon his French mistress, return home and resume his proper American role and identity, Strether becomes a double agent, an advocate for that mistress and for the precious freedom and insight Chad has acquired abroad.
In James’s work, Americans are transformed by travel to Europe (which is as far abroad as they ever go). They arrive burdened by ignorance and often wealth, and inevitably they make life-changing mistakes. The characters who learn to “see” the world as it is become adults. In one of the most memorable exchanges in The Ambassadors, Strether bursts out at a young American artist: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had?” Strether is speaking out of regret for his own missed life, the life he might have led if he had had the courage to settle abroad himself. The knowledge acquired by Strether and other Jamesian travelers is precious, and it always comes at a steep price: In The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer loses her freedom; in The Wings of the Dove, Milly Theale loses her life. Strether sacrifices his own engagement back home and the chance of a new attachment in Europe. Yet these characters are changed so utterly that their lost innocence is what becomes foreign to them, impossible to pine for, irrelevant.
Suzy Hansen is the anti-James. Her Notes on a Foreign Country, published last summer, is a remarkably glum account of being an expatriate, unlikely to inspire many young Americans to head out into the world. Hansen’s years abroad in the 21st century “were not a joyous romp of self-discovery and romance, the kind we see in movies,” she writes early on in the book; instead, they “were more of a shattering and a shame, and even now, I still don’t know myself.”
In 2007, Hansen, then a 29-year-old reporter at the New York Observer, was awarded a fellowship for young Americans wanting to undertake research projects abroad. She decided to move to Istanbul, partly because James Baldwin, her favorite writer, had lived there in the Sixties. Once in Turkey, however, she bumped up against her own ignorance about American interventionism. To Hansen’s great confusion and discomfiture, Turkish friends kept mentioning the ways in which the U.S. had shaped their country’s politics, military and economy.