His name on the green cover, where he had put it for Mrs. Newsome, expressed him doubtless just enough to make the world . . . ask who he was. . . . He was Lambert Strether because he was on the cover, whereas it should have been, for anything like glory, that he was on the cover because he was Lambert Strether.
This quotation comes during the second half of Book Second, during a point at which Strether is thinking about his professional association with Mrs. Newsome and the narrative voice is still introducing readers to details of Strether’s life and identity. The interesting feature of this exposition is that it focuses on more than just personal details from Strether’s life. Readers also get a sense of the impressions and feelings Strether has about his personal details. In this way, this quotation serves both as an introduction to Lambert Strether the man and to Lambert Strether the functioning central consciousness of the novel The Ambassadors. The “cover” he refers to in the quotation is that of the literary magazine funded by Mrs. Newsome and edited by Strether. That Strether mentions Mrs. Newsome before he mentions his own contribution to the magazine speaks to his detachment even from his own work. In addition, the fact that the credit he gets on the cover is, to him, ironic, further displays his detachment and disinterest in this aspect of his life. He feels that he becomes Lambert Strether because that is the name that gets printed on the cover—he does not feel that he earns credit for his work as a man separate from that work. His identity comes from the work; the work does not come from his identity.
The loose link between Strether and his work resonates with Strether’s purpose in Paris. He goes to Europe because Mrs. Newsome has asked him to go, and not because he hopes to gain something from being in Paris. While there, he finds a more concrete self than the phantom self the magazine cover created. Likewise, the fact that Strether works professionally as an editor foreshadows Strether’s role in Paris, as a figurative reader of the many versions of Chad’s story. Throughout The Ambassadors, Strether must “read,” or interpret, and alter Chad’s story to justify his involvement in Chad’s life. At the end, he finally realizes the truth of Chad’s tale, just as he discovers a true version of his own life story. Coming to terms with this truth is the noble project Strether must undertake at the end of the novel. Although Strether begins as merely a name on the cover of a magazine, he becomes much, much more through his time in Paris, and he will arrive back in Woollett as a greatly changed man.