Henry James was born in April 1843 in New York City to a cosmopolitan, upper-class East Coast family. His grandfather's business ventures had left the family with money and status, freed from the pressures of regular work. The family traveled extensively in Europe during James's youth, going most often to Paris, London, and Geneva. For the most part, James and his siblings—who included the illustrious pragmatist William and diarist Alice—were privately tutored. At nineteen, James briefly attended Harvard Law School before deciding to devote himself to writing. From 1869 on, James lived and wrote almost entirely in Europe, supporting himself by contributing short stories, reviews and serial novels to such American mainstays as the Atlantic Monthly, the Nation, and the New York Tribune. James wrote The American during a year-long stay in Paris (1875-1876), after which he moved to London. James lived in England for the rest of his life, first in London and subsequently in Rye, becoming a British subject in 1915 in part to protest America's failure to support the British in World War I. James died in February 1916.

The American, one of James's earliest important works, first appeared as a serial novel in the Atlantic Monthly, running in twelve installments from June 1876 to May 1877. It was James's third serialized novel, following Watch and Ward (1870) and Roderick Hudson (1875). James substantially revised the text in 1907 for publication by Scribner & Sons, New York; this later version is now standard. Thus, The American is a curious mixture of early and late James which, if not as consistently fine as his later works, clearly reflects his rare mastery of grace, gesture and form. James would later continue The American's thematic exploration of a the collision of the New World and Europe, most notably in Portrait of a Lady (1882), The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904).

James's writing in general, and The American in particular, is notable for its high and eloquent style, gorgeous prose, carefully crafted narrative, and substantial attention to detail. Though written serially, The American is nonetheless full of the parallelism, prophesy, foreshadowing, structural symmetry and déjà vu one might expect from a traditionally written novel. The substantial revisions of the 1907 edition focused mainly on individual phrases and words, leaving plot details entirely intact. Even some thirty years later, when an older and more pragmatic James admitted the Bellegardes might very well have accepted his hero's money, the love whose tragic end scandalized Atlantic readers refused the cheap satisfaction of a happy ending. Then, as now, the book's great triumph remains its sympathetic and intricate character study against the clear backdrop of tragedy. The novel gives voice not only to James's analyses of his characters, but to their feelings, praise, encouragement and condemnation of each other. Ultimately, having fostered dependence, the novel considers its characters in their fellows' absence. Broad themes of cross-cultural encounter, of love and marriage, of betrayal and friendship are negotiated on the difficult and particular level of individual characters. The characters at once transcend stereotype, embody it, and give it life. The novel, like the Louvre of its opening scenes, is not to be hurried through for fear of an aesthetic headache. Much of its rarity and beauty are hidden in turns of phrase and subtle wit, in characters' dreams against evidence of desolation, in the odd unconscious smile and the lingering glance.