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Transatlantic Fictions

Stephen Henighan

My first inkling that an Atlantic crossing could contain a story occurred at the age of three and a half. After days adrift in mist, jumping in fright when the foghorn sounded, taking refuge in our tiny cabin to play with my toy cars, I was summoned on deck. Like generations of immigrants before me, I watched the New York skyline approach. The ranks of skyscrapers told me that we had reached a new continent. The image of two continents that faced each other across the dark, foggy Atlantic became the story that explained who I was. I would cross the Atlantic many more times. Each time I returned to Europe, where I had been born, I was more integrated into Canada; the contrast between the two continents yawned wider. Yet, as I grew older, my assertions of Canadian identity in the face of European history and customs were complicated by the claims Europe made on me: on my awareness that Canada’s evolution was an extension of Europe, a product of European colonialism, a reality that expressed itself primarily in two European languages. Over time, I came to regard Canada, and my own Canadianness, as indecipherable without an engagement with Europe.

Early in my efforts to comprehend the world through writing, I stumbled on a category I called transatlantic fiction. The first book I read in full awareness that it addressed transatlantic experience was Henry James’s Daisy Miller. I read this short novel in a dog-eared, pungent-smelling second-hand paperback that was passed on to me in my mid-teens by my father, who had stood beside me at the ship’s railing as we approached New York. Later I would learn that the city we had stared at that day was not only his birthplace and the city to which his mother had immigrated across the Atlantic as a teenager to take work cleaning rich people’s houses; it was also the city from which my father’s great-grandparents had fled back to Europe to work in the mines in the late nineteenth century, when jobs in America dried up during a long recession. In spite of the gulf between my paternal family’s transatlantic crossings in search of steady work and the grand tour of Europe of the novel’s society-girl protagonist, Daisy Miller spoke to me. The novella is celebrated for its allegorical portrait of “innocent young America and corrupt old Europe.” Daisy succumbs to a fever after a socially inappropriate involvement with a suave Italian charmer. Yet the character who caught my attention was the neutral Winterbourne, an American whom Daisy meets in Europe and who becomes the powerless witness to her tragedy. Winterbourne’s response to Daisy’s death is not, as a reader might anticipate, to scurry back to America, but rather to remain in Europe, settling in Switzerland and courting “a very clever foreign lady.”

Winterbourne’s decision to prolong his engagement with Europe lays the foundations for generations of American literary protagonists who throw into relief the contours of their own identities through deep involvement with Europe and Europeans. James described the naive American abroad in ever more complex patterns in novels such as The Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors and The Wings of the Dove. Once launched into their European journeys of discovery, his protagonists hardly ever go home. Part of the reason for this—teased out in stunning form by Colm Tóibín in his novel about James, The Master—is that amorphous sexual identities which can remain ambiguous as long as the protagonist is an expatriate, are more difficult to obfuscate in the tell-all society of the U.S. East Coast. It is revealing that the only novel of the mature years of James’s career that is set in the United States, The Bostonians, tells the story of a “Boston marriage,” the nineteenth-century expression for a long-term lesbian relationship.

Edith Wharton, a younger friend of James, also wrote novels of Americans abroad. In 192, after James was dead and the Europe he had known had blown itself up in the First World War, Wharton reprised her friend’s themes, yet consigned them to the past, in The Age of Innocence. Expatriate experience became the property of the disillusioned Lost Generation. In Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, two American would-be lovers in France and Spain cannot consummate their relationship because both have been emotionally damaged by their commitment to Europe during the First World War. Similar strains of cultural nebulosity and sexual furtiveness appear in the transatlantic fiction of Gertrude Stein and Henry Miller. After the Second World War, African-American writers such as Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin used Paris as a base from which to understand their Americanness against the backdrop of new creative currents flowing from a rapidly decolonizing Africa. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith would invert the patterns of Henry James. Highsmith’s protagonist was not an innocent but a murderer. She maintained Jamesian sexual ambiguity by suggesting same-sex passions which could not be evoked openly in the popular fiction of the time. Less imposing than it had been before the two world wars, Highsmith’s Europe became a tourist playground where you could get away with murder.

Exploring these books, I realized they were all American. Yet Canadian transatlantic fictions, too, abounded in my youth. Novels such as Fifth Business by Robertson Davies, St. Urbain’s Horseman by Mordecai Richler and Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood narrated transatlantic lives to take the measure of a maturing nation’s distance from its colonial past. In Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners, the protagonist visits Scotland, where she has an affair with a man named McRaith; this “wraith” symbolizes her irretrievable Scottish heritage. Canadian transatlanticism was sober and reverential in its quest for roots; only Leonard Cohen, smoking pot on the Greek island of Hydra, appeared transgressive. Last year, when I published my own transatlantic novel, I realized how rare this genre had become. The contemporary atomization of identities into a cluster of personal traits discourages testing national character by comparing continent to continent. Like other cultural forms, the transatlantic novel has shrunk from a statement relevant to an entire society to one primarily of significance to those who remember standing at a ship’s railing as it came into harbour in a new world.

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Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan’s most recent novel is The World of After. Over the winter of 2022–23, Monica Santizo’s Spanish translation of Stephen’s novel The Path of the Jaguar will be published in Guatemala, and Stephen’s English translation of the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novel The Country of Toó will be published in North America. Read more of his work at stephenhenighan.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHenighan.

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