Ryan Ruby in Lapham's Quarterly:
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.