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The Jamesian Despair of Foxy Knoxy

December 4, 2009, 8:20 PM

Henry James knew a bit about Americans abroad, and he put it like this: It's a complex fate, being an American, and one of the responsibilities it entails is fighting against a superstitious valuation of Europe. And yet: one must also consider the "superstitious valuation" of Americaand Americansby Europeans. Even in this age of new hope for the American brand, one case study in How They See Us might be the trial of young American Amanda Knox, now finally come to conclusion tonight with a verdict: guilty.

We must bless John Guare for drawing, in today's New York Times, the provocativeand perfectparallel between Knox and one of James's most famous heroines, the most innocently-named Daisy Miller.

"Who is Amanda?" Guare asked in the article. "Is she Henry James's 'Daisy Miller,' the archetypal American girl in Europe who comes to a disastrous end?  Is she Dorothy swept up into an evil Oz?"

Now that the verdict has come down, we may have an answer: the former. She's not Dorothy. She knew where she was. It was not Oz. The bones of her story are uniquely compelling for their novelistic frame, and so perhaps it is no accident that the world has been watching. Knox's time in Europe began as an innocent story, evolved into Love, and ended as a devastating horror-show.

Whatever the real facts in the case (Knox has been known in the British press as "Foxy Knoxy," as she is at once uniquely beautiful and seductive) the story of what transpired during her year in Italy is as dark as it gets when it comes to the Jamesian archetype of an American in Europe. We concede certain facts: there was sex. There was murder. There was the element of race. Yet questions remain: who was where when, etc.

Italian society was captivated by this young girl, as was, more broadly, the international media. Did they want to indict her? Over time, increasingly, she became a villain, a seductress. 

The idea of a young American girl caught up in the (perhaps vastly beyond the scope of her comprehending) sophistication of Europe has a rather-cliche-yet-still-notable literary precedent. If you're not keen on James, consider Patricia Highsmith, whose The Talented Mr. Ripley was another variation on this theme. The idea was always: the innocent American is seduced by the more complex European. Knox turns this on its head, as—if we believe what we know from the press so far—she seemed to drive the narrative of her own life into greater depth, and she took the Europeans she met (including her beau) along for the ride.

No one knows what happened. Let's wait for John Guare's (inevitably brilliant) re-telling. Let us hope Guare will do for Knox what he did in his play Six Degrees of Separation, also inspired by a piece in the news: force us to consider something at once apparently close-to-home and psychopathic—and in doing so, remember that we are all engaged in the game of moral subjectivity. Novelists know it well.





The Jamesian Despair of Fox...

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