Henry James

The American author Henry James (1843-1916) was one of the major novelists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His works deal largely with the impact of Europe and its society on Americans.

Henry James, the son of a theologian and the brother of the philosopher William James, was born on April 15, 1843, at Washington Place in New York City. His childhood was spent in the city and in Albany and then, between the ages of 12 and 17, in Europe. He was privately tutored in London, Geneva, and Paris. His American education began at school in Newport, R.I. James entered Harvard Law School in 1862, leaving after a year. In 1864 his family settled in Boston and then in Cambridge. That same year he published his first story and early reviews.

James's frequent appearances in the Atlantic Monthly began in 1865. Four years later he traveled again in England, France, and Italy, returning to Cambridge in 1870 and publishing his first novel, Watch and Ward. It concerned American life in a specifically American setting, the upper-class world of Boston, its suburbs, and Newport. At the age of 29 James was again in Europe, spending a summer in Paris and most of 1873 in Rome, where he began Roderick Hudson. For a year in New York City he was part of the literary world of the era. His criticism appeared in 1874 and 1875 in the Nation and the North American Review. Also in 1875, Transatlantic Sketches, A Passionate Pilgrim, and Roderick Hudson appeared. Transatlantic Sketches is a travel book, as is A Passionate Pilgrim, which anticipates the theme of the European impact on what James repeatedly identified as the "American state of Innocence." Roderick Hudson is fiction on the same theme, a response to the colony of American expatriates James knew in Rome.

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His Expatriation

James's disengagement from America was a long process; he wrote: "I saw my parents homesick, as I conceived, for the ancient order, and distressed and inconvenienced by many of the more immediate features of the modern, as the modern pressed about us, and since their theory of a better living was from an early time that we should renew the question of the ancient on the very first possibility I simply grew greater in the faith that somehow to manage that would constitute success in life." Living in Paris during 1876, James wrote The American. At the time, he knew Ivan Turgenev, Gustave Flaubert, Edmond de Goncourt, Émile Zola, and others. His expatriation was complete by the end of that year, when he settled in London.

The impact of his short novel Daisy Miller (1879) brought James fame in Europe and the United States; it was his first popular success. He explained the novel this way: "The whole idea of the story is the little tragedy of a light, thin, natural, unsuspecting creature being sacrificed as it were to a social rumpus that went on quite over her head and to which she stood in no measurable relation. To deepen the effect, I have made it go over her mother's head as well." James repeated the same effect, and intention, in several other novels and stories. In The Portrait of a Lady, for example, the effect is similar but more intricate. James mentioned his "Americano-European legends" as one of the central impulses of his work.

Between 1879 and 1882 James produced his first major series of novels. They were The Europeans, Washington Square, Confidence, and The Portrait of a Lady. Of the four, only Washington Square is about American life. By 1886 a 14-volume collection of his novels and tales was published. He wrote The Bostonians and The Princess Casamassima in 1886 while living in a flat in De Vere Gardens in London. Both are social dramas. "The Aspern Papers," the short novel The Reverberator, and "A London Life" appeared the following year. The Tragic Muse, one of his most ambitious novels, was serialized in the Atlantic Monthly in 1890.

James then entered a 5-year period in which he concentrated on writing drama. The American was produced as a play in London by Edward Compton. The effort ended in 1895, when he was jeered at the opening of his play Guy Domville at St. James's Theatre in London. He abandoned the stage. Almost never revived, his plays are included in two volumes, Theatricals and Theatricals: Second Series.

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Later Career

A bachelor, James settled in Lamb House, Rye, in 1898, and continued his 20-year "siege" of English life and society. His schedule of concentrated work during the day and of relaxation at night produced in 1898 The Two Magics, a collection of stories that includes his novella "The Turn of the Screw" and the short novel In the Cage. What is frequently identified as his third and best phase began the following year with The Awkward Age, and between 1899 and 1904 he wrote The Sacred Fount, The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl. James himself described The Ambassadors as the "best -all round"' of his novels. In his early, middle, and later periods he relied explicitly on "devices" and the "grammar" of fiction, on "point of view," "scene," "dramatizing," selection of incidents, structure, and perspective. It was through technique that he isolated values, and he insisted that the primary values were "truth" and "life."

In September 1904 James returned to the United States after a 20-year absence, passing the fall with his brother William in New Hampshire and, later, revisiting New York City. After a year of lecturing he returned to Lamb House in England and began revising his fiction and writing the critical prefaces to the definitive New York edition of his work. During 1909 he suffered from a long nervous illness and produced a series of stories that appeared as The Finer Grain. He was in New Hampshire when William died after a long illness. Before returning to England in 1911, he received an honorary degree from Harvard; he received another from Oxford the following year.

James's autobiographical memoirs, A Small Boy and Others and Notes of a Son and Brother, were completed shortly before the outbreak of World War I. The war's disruption greatly disturbed him. He began war work in various hospitals, writing for war charities and aiding Belgian refugees. On July 26, 1915, James was naturalized as a British subject. Later in the year his last illness, a stroke and pneumonia, began. Before his death on Feb. 28, 1916, he received the Order of Merit from King George V. The funeral services were in Chelsea Old Church, London, and his ashes were buried in the family plot in Cambridge, Mass.

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Further Reading on Henry James

Critical and biographical material on James is extensive. The definitive biography is Leon Edel, Henry James (5 vols., 1953-1972). Other biographies are Van Wyck Brooks, The Pilgrimage of Henry James (1925), an early and influential book, and Quentin Anderson, The American Henry James (1957). F. W. Dupee, Henry James (1951; 2d ed. rev. 1956), is a critical biography. Millicent Bell, Edith Wharton and Henry James: The Story of Their Friendship (1965), contains correspondence of James to Mrs. Wharton and considerable biographical material. Oscar Cargill, The Novels of Henry James (1961), is an articulate introduction to his writing. Important critical studies of James are Joseph Warren Beach, The Method of Henry James (1918; rev. ed. 1954), and F. O. Matthiessen, Henry James: The Major Phase (1944). See also Christof Wegelin, The Image of Europe in Henry James (1958). Roger Gard, ed., Henry James: The Critical Heritage (1968), is a collection of reviews and articles on James and is useful in viewing responses to James's work from the late 19th to the early 20th century.