The Ambassadors’ Plot

The American abroad, from James to Highsmith and Ozick.

By Ryan Ruby

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

The Rue Mosnier with Flags (detail), by Édouard Manet, 1878. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

 The Rue Mosnier with Flags (detail), by Édouard Manet, 1878. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

“Ah,” Miss Gostrey sighed, “the name of the good American is as easily given as taken away! What is it, to begin with, to be one?”

—Henry James, The Ambassadors

At the beginning of the twentieth century Henry James returned to the international theme, the subject that he had made his own and had made him famous. James was not the first novelist to send Americans back to Europe to see what would happen when New World manners and morals came into contact and conflict with those of the Old World, nor would he be the last. But to this day no other author is as closely associated with the figure of the American abroad as James is. James’ early studies in contrast—The American, “An International Episode,” Daisy Miller, and especially The Portrait of a Lady—would prove to be as essential to the process of defining what it means to be an American as Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Emerson’s “Self Reliance,” and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.  

But in the years between Isabel Archer’s arrival at Gardencourt in the last chapter of The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and Lambert Strether’s arrival at Chester in the first chapter of The Ambassadors (1903)—sometimes known as James’ “middle period”—the author turned his attention to other things, including an ill-fated attempt to write for the theater. During that time America’s place in the world was undergoing a dramatic change. Having already skimmed off the northern provinces of Mexico, cleansed the West of its aboriginal inhabitants, and connected the Atlantic to the Pacific by rail, James’ native country had begun to look overseas for new places to apply the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

In 1893 the United States participated in the overthrow of the monarchy of Hawaii, which it officially annexed in 1898. That year it also went to war with Spain under dubious pretenses and came away with new territories in Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. When the Filipinos—who no more wanted to be a colony of the U.S. than of Spain—declared their independence, they were “benevolently assimilated” (in President William McKinley’s words) by the American military in a war that would last for another three years and leave at least fifty thousand Filipino soldiers and civilians dead.

James was appalled by these events. In protest, he joined the Anti-Imperialist League, an organization that sought to defeat “any person or party that stands for the subjection of any people.” Its members—a group that included James’ brother William, Mark Twain, John Dewey, Jane Addams, and Andrew Carnegie—regarded imperialism as not only immoral but un-American. The League’s platform held that the current “delirium of conquest” was a betrayal of the “fundamental principles and noblest ideals” of a republic founded on the right to self-determination and the consent of the governed. Though we rarely think of James as a political writer or person, his involvement with the league went beyond merely signing petitions; he was elected the organization’s vice president in 1904.

James’ attitudes toward the nascent American empire also found their way into his fiction. In his treatment of the international theme in his early period, American characters such as Daisy Miller and Isabel Archer—and, by extension, their country—were depicted as free-spirited, independent, and energetic, if a little naive. Their European or Europeanized counterparts, such as Mr. Giovanelli and Madame Merle, may have been much more worldly-wise, but they ultimately revealed themselves to be manipulative and duplicitous, worn down by traditions they upheld only cynically. But now that America was wholeheartedly abandoning its republican principles and ideals to follow Europe down the path of empire, the American characters in James’ later novels were sketched with a far less sympathetic hand.


Lambert Strether, the protagonist of The Ambassadors, is a perfect if subtle illustration of James’ change of heart. Strether has been dispatched to Paris by Mrs. Newsome, the widowed owner of a manufacturing concern in Woollett, Massachusetts, to persuade her son Chad—who, it is rumored, has been living with an older, married Frenchwoman—to return home, marry appropriately, and take over the family business. If he succeeds, the widower Strether stands to be promoted from his current position as editor of the unsuccessful economics journal Mrs. Newsome bankrolls to position of second husband.

Though he is a longtime friend of the family, Strether is an odd choice for the post of Woollett’s “ambassador” to Paris. He seems to have no love for Woollett, which he compares to a penitentiary, or for the Newsome business. He is too ashamed to identify the source of the family’s start-up capital (slavery?) and too embarrassed to name the “small, trivial, rather ridiculous object of the commonest domestic use” whose production has made the Newsomes fabulously wealthy and pays his salary. True, he has been to Europe once before, on his honeymoon, but the effect of his travels seems only to have been self-pity for missing out on the more interesting life he would have lived had he not returned home. A dilettante and a parasite, he has failed at everything he’s ever tried, including, by his own admission, being a good father.

He will fail Mrs. Newsome, too, of course. She may be narrow-minded and provincial, the sort of patriot who imagines that her son remains in Paris only for love and can be enticed to come home only with money, but her ambassador, though he fancies himself a cosmopolitan, is just a snob. Far from the first American to come to Europe “to convert the savages” only to have the “savages simply convert” him, Strether is immediately charmed by Chad’s Parisian life. It takes little more than a brief acquaintance with the “little ‘colony’” in that “vast, bright Babylon” to persuade Strether to switch his allegiances and argue the son’s case to the mother. He also proves himself to be something of a cad, falling at first for his confidante Maria Gostrey, an American expatriate, and then for her childhood friend Marie de Vionnet, the very woman whose ties to Chad he has been sent to Europe to sever.

Aside from Madame de Vionnet’s beauty, the nature of Strether’s attraction to her is unclear, but James suggests that it has to do with her association in Strether’s mind with the “glory,” “prosperity” and “Napoleonic glamour” of France’s First Empire. One senses that he, too, would like to be a conqueror. Like any man desperate to have his importance confirmed, Strether is easily flattered, and while various characters tell him how perceptive he is, he does not seem to notice that the countess he now takes it as his mission to “save” from her “fatal benightedness” gracefully suffers him, the editor of a small-town economics journal, to scheme on her behalf, because she at least understands that the future belongs to Americans. When Madame de Vionnet is then forced to supplicate Sarah Pocock, Chad’s sister—sent by Mrs. Newsome to clean up the mess Strether has made out of his ambassadorship—he can’t help but admire how, in that moment, it is the American who appears more like an aristocrat.

Henry James. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

James was too pure a novelist to engage in any overt political allegorizing, but his depictions of Americans lusting after and usurping the European aristocracy cannot be read as compliments. For James, feudal posturing is a gateway to imperial practice. It is telling that Miss Gostrey describes Strether’s meddling in the lives of Madame de Vionnet, Chad, and several of the book’s other characters the same way the Anti-Imperialist League platform describes America’s meddling in the lives of other nations. “The way you reduce people to subjection!” she exclaims when Strether deliriously confides his final machinations to her near the end of the novel. He doesn’t even register her description of his conduct as a criticism. “It’s certainly, on one side, wonderful,” he tells her. On the other side it is not, as one might expect, a recognition of the potential immorality of his actions, only a regret that they have not yet been more widely applied. “But it’s quite equaled, on another, by the way I don’t. I haven’t reduced Sarah,” he lamely objects, though it’s not for want of trying.


Europe’s immediate future would indeed belong to the United States, as Madame de Vionnet suspected. The Ambassadors would be followed by a number of American writers who borrowed the novel’s plot as they grappled with the widening application of their country’s imperial ambitions in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf has read The Ambassadors, so when he sends Tom Ripley to the small Italian fishing village Mongibello to retrieve his wayward son Dickie, he is aware of the literary precedent. He can’t have read James’ book very carefully, though. For while he believes he has made a tactical advance on Mrs. Newsome by sending a peer of his son’s rather than a father figure, in appointing Ripley—a petty criminal, small-time con artist, and repressed homosexual with a fungible personality—to be his ambassador, he proves himself to be an even worse judge of character. The failure of Ripley to fulfill Mr. Greenleaf’s mission is far more spectacular than Strether’s. Instead of merely being unable to convince Dickie to come home, Tom murders him. He then kills Dickie’s friend Freddie Miles, steals Dickie’s identity, fakes his own suicide, and makes off with Dickie’s inheritance. These grotesque twists on James’ plot make up the dark heart of Patricia Highsmith’s classic novel The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Set largely in 1955, the year it was published, The Talented Mr. Ripley reflects the developments in America’s military and economic position since the turn of the century. Victory in two world wars and a historic economic boom had transformed the country from an upcoming player on the world stage to a full-fledged superpower. Marshall Plan money poured into Western Europe; along with a strong dollar, it stimulated the eastward flow of American tourists and expatriates. The “little colony” of Chad Newsome’s day had expanded to such an extent that Ripley was forced to slink around Paris and Rome out of fear he would run into one of Dickie’s many friends from back home. The Italians show remarkable deference to the visiting Americans, even ones with as little money as Tom—the behavior of a colonized people toward the citizens of their new imperial hegemon. The Roman policemen investigating the death of Freddie Miles are even expected to address Americans in a particular fashion: Tom notes that it would be inappropriate for them “to accuse an American citizen outright of murder.” Though admittedly sensational, the Miles case seems to command more attention from the local tabloids than one involving Italians would have. Tom may rue the fact that “not even an American” would be allowed to leave the country in the middle of an ongoing criminal investigation, but when he surfaces in Venice the Roman detectives are happy to go there rather than inconvenience him by summoning him back to Rome.

“Being an American citizen still commanded certain privileges,” Tom supposes, though he is far more circumspect about using his than Dickie or Freddie ever were. Highsmith emphasizes the connection between the ancient Roman empire and the new American one when Tom kills Freddie in his apartment on the Via Imperiale, drives his corpse to the outskirts of town in Freddie’s Fiat 1400 “nero” convertible, and disposes of it behind what Tom imagines is the tomb of a patrician on the Via Appia Antica.

Highsmith’s allusions to the Cold War are only slightly less subtle. Fausto, Tom’s Italian teacher in Mongibello, is a Communist who likes to flash his party card and shock new arrivals from the land of Joseph McCarthy. Or consider Tom’s brief association with Carlo, a Mongibello Mafioso who offers Tom and Dickie $1,000 to smuggle drugs into France. Hiding the drugs in their clothing, they would ride from Trieste to Paris in a pair of coffins disguised as French soldiers killed in Indo-China. Dickie scuttles the idea, but Highsmith’s decision to include this scene in the very years that French troops withdrew from their colony in Vietnam and President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in military advisers to take their place (as the U.S. had previously done with Spain and the Philippines) is intriguing. Though she could not have known that the U.S. would be involved militarily in Vietnam for another two decades, the detail represents a prescient observation about America’s ongoing desire to pick up where Europe’s empires had left off.

That Tom shows more enthusiasm for the plan than Dickie is in keeping with their respective characters, and not just because Tom is more attracted to crime, violence, get-rich-quick schemes, and Paris—Tom takes his role as an imperial citizen much more seriously than Dickie does. Whereas for Dickie, Europe is just a permanent vacation from American responsibility spent on beaches and in cafés, Tom views it as European colonists once viewed America: a place for rebirth and self-invention. On the boat ride over, “he felt as he imagined immigrants felt when they left everything behind them in some foreign country, left their friends and relations and their past mistakes, and sailed for America. A clean slate!” Dickie is a terrible painter who never thinks to improve his art by visiting galleries and museums, while Tom goes to “visit the Capitoline and the Villa Borghese” and makes sure to “explore the Forum thoroughly” the first chance he gets. He admires the paintings he sees in galleries in Paris and Rome and plans to use the fortune he hopes to steal from Dickie to become a collector of “Etruscan pottery” and a patron of “young painters with talent.”

“The Ambassador,” by Matthew B. Brady, 1859. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

In many ways, just as America became the empire James dreaded, Ripley became the conqueror that his predecessor Lambert Strether could only dream of being. As he sails from Italy to Greece with two murders under his belt, Tom compares himself to Jason and Odysseus, both adventurers who, using cunning and deadly force, come away with stolen treasures from far-off lands. Highsmith could have used this moment to punish her hero for his hubris. Instead she awards him the spoils of his most audacious con: a letter from Mr. Greenleaf acknowledging the validity of Dickie’s last will, which Tom has forged in his favor, awaits him at the American Express in Athens.


If the turn of the twentieth century represents the birth of America’s empire and the 1950s its apogee, by the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century it had begun to show signs of irreversible decline. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has found itself in a position of unrivaled economic and military power; few places lay beyond the reach of its cultural and political hegemony. The result was a spasm of self-congratulation that served to mask a profound crisis of identity. No matter how hard it tried, America was finding it increasingly difficult to sustain the fiction that it was a young nation, bringing fresh values and a new way of life to a world that had grown wary of the gap between America’s republican rhetoric and its imperial practices.

In 2010 President Barack Obama officially declared an end to Operation Iraqi Freedom, a seven-year-long conflict begun on pretexts even flimsier than those that triggered the Spanish-American War and did more to mark the limits of American imperial power and prestige than even Vietnam had done. That year Cynthia Ozick published her own take on The Ambassadors plot. Just as the florid syntax of James’ novel still had one foot planted in the nineteenth-century European novel and Highsmith’s novel was written in confident, Golden Age of Hollywood prose, Ozick’s Foreign Bodies was written as historical pastiche, that most decadent of art forms. In this respect, it, too, has been marked by its relation to the trajectory of American history. Historical pastiche is a style appropriate to cultures that have exhausted themselves; sophisticated recyclings of the past anesthetize cultures that despair of creating something new.

Ozick’s story, like Strether’s, is set in Paris but during Ripley’s era. The ambassador is Bea Nightingale, a childless, middle-aged high school teacher who is hectored into going to Paris by her estranged brother Marvin, a domineering, Princeton-educated aeronautics engineer living in Los Angeles. The role of the prodigal son is played by Julian, a would-be writer, who has secretly married Lili, a Holocaust survivor. Lili has fled to Paris from her native Romania, one of the millions of displaced persons in what would be among the greatest mass migrations in European history.

The novel’s scaffolding may be Henry James, but its sensibility has more in common with a TV show like Mad Men, which treats the 1960s in the same fashion that Ozick treats the 1950s. Whereas James and Highsmith mention current events only sparingly in their novels, Foreign Bodies is steeped in self-consciously period detail. Café existentialism, The Paris Review, East Village experimental theater, Schönberg and Stravinsky, ankle-length skirts, suburbanite neurasthenia, “loyalty oaths” and the Hollywood Ten, the Korean War, the Mau Mau rebellion, the slums of the Marais: all appear on Ozick’s highlight reel. The Talented Mr. Ripley doffed its cap to James and went on its merry, demented way; Foreign Bodies couldn’t stop winking back to the future.

With historical pastiche, the audience’s pleasure is predicated on a knowing condescension toward the manners and morals of the past, in which we watch the characters succeed or fail in leaping over the hurdles of history—pervasive sexism, casual anti-Semitism, oblivious imperial privilege—and recognize how much they are, or are not, like us. Because she has backdated her story, Ozick’s characters, particularly the ones she wishes readers to identify with, display levels of historical self-awareness that would have been unavailable to their ostensible contemporaries in The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Bea walks through Paris as if it were a movie she has seen before. As a result, she never runs the risk of being enchanted by Europe, like Strether and Ripley were. If she feels guilty that her role as an ambassador is really that of a spy, it is because there is no longer such a thing as an innocent American abroad, according to Ozick. Ripley is aware of his American privilege and takes advantage of it; Lili is capable of articulating a critique of it. “Which was the real wilderness anyway, the New World (it had aged substantially by now) or the Old?” Julian’s friend Alfred wonders. Highsmith might have put a similar thought into Ripley’s mind, but the parenthetical seems to have time-traveled into Alfred’s from the twenty-first century. The awareness that America itself has actually become the Old World, a second Europe, is more plausible at the time of the novel’s writing than at the time in which it was set.

The possibilities of The Ambassadors plot have not been exhausted, but—thanks to America’s development from a rising empire to one in decline—it’s no longer possible for an American to tell it. To create a version of James’ story that would be as authentic to the present moment as the original, the terms of the plot would have to be reversed. If it really is now as much the Old World as Europe once was, America should be where a twenty-first-century Lambert Strether must go in order to bring home a lost charge.

A concerned parent from a rising global power (China or India, say) dispatches a trusted surrogate to San Francisco, where the daughter, having dropped out of Stanford, has fallen in love, conducted a hasty green card wedding, and is now an aspiring programmer in the East Bay. The ambassador encounters an Americanized version of the child he so fondly remembers: sophisticated, sarcastic, worldly-wise, and, most horrifying of all, surrounded by a group of manipulative and duplicitous friends who are worn down by traditions they uphold only cynically.