• Birth—April 15, 1843
• Where—New York, New York, USA
• Death—February 28, 1916
• Where—London, England, UK
• Education—Attended schools in France and Switzerland;
Harvard Law School
• Awards—British Order of Merit from King George V
Henry James was an American-born writer, regarded as one of the key figures of 19th-century literary realism. He was the son of Henry James, Sr. and the brother of philosopher and psychologist William James and diarist Alice James.
James alternated between America and Europe for the first 20 years of his life, after which he settled in England, becoming a British subject in 1915, one year before his death. He is primarily known for the series of novels in which he portrays the encounter of Americans with Europe and Europeans.
James contributed significantly to literary criticism, particularly in his insistence that writers be allowed the greatest possible freedom in presenting their view of the world. James claimed that a text must first and foremost be realistic and contain a representation of life that is recognisable to its readers. His theatrical work is thought to have profoundly influenced his later novels and tales.
James was born in New York City into a wealthy family. His father, Henry James Sr., was one of the best-known intellectuals in mid-19th-century America. In his youth James traveled back and forth between Europe and America. At the age of 19 he briefly attended Harvard Law School, but preferred reading literature to studying law. James published his first short story, A Tragedy of Error, at age 21, and devoted himself to literature. In 1866–69 and 1871–72 he was a contributor to The Nation and Atlantic Monthly.
Among James's masterpieces are Daisy Miller (1879) and The Portrait of a Lady (1881). The Bostonians (1886) is set in the era of the rising feminist movement. What Maisie Knew (1897) depicts a preadolescent girl who must choose between her parents and a motherly old governess. In The Wings of the Dove (1902) an inheritance destroys the love of a young couple. James considered The Ambassadors (1903) his most "perfect" work of art. James's most famous novella is The Turn of the Screw, a ghost story in which the question of childhood corruption obsesses a governess. Although James is best known for his novels, his essays are now attracting a more general audience.
James regularly rejected suggestions that he marry, and after settling in London proclaimed himself "a bachelor." F. W. Dupee, in several well-regarded volumes on the James family, originated the theory that he had been in love with his cousin Mary ("Minnie") Temple, but that a neurotic fear of sex kept him from admitting such affections.
James's letters to expatriate American sculptor Hendrik Christian Andersen have attracted particular attention. James met the 27-year-old Andersen in Rome in 1899, when James was 56, and wrote letters to Andersen that are intensely emotional: "I hold you, dearest boy, in my innermost love, & count on your feeling me—in every throb of your soul". In a letter from May 6, 1904, to his brother William, James referred to himself as "always your hopelessly celibate even though sexagenarian Henry". How accurate that description might have been is the subject of contention among James's biographers, but the letters to Andersen were occasionally quasi-erotic: "I put, my dear boy, my arm around you, & feel the pulsation, thereby, as it were, of our excellent future & your admirable endowment." To his homosexual friend Howard Sturgis, James could write: "I repeat, almost to indiscretion, that I could live with you. Meanwhile I can only try to live without you."
He corresponded in almost equally extravagant language with his many female friends, writing, for example, to fellow-novelist Lucy Clifford: "Dearest Lucy! What shall I say? when I love you so very, very much, and see you nine times for once that I see Others! Therefore I think that—if you want it made clear to the meanest intelligence—I love you more than I love Others."
James is one of the major figures of trans-Atlantic literature. His works frequently juxtapose characters from the Old World (Europe), embodying a feudal civilization that is beautiful, often corrupt, and alluring, and from the New World (United States), where people are often brash, open, and assertive and embody the virtues—freedom and a more highly evolved moral character—of the new American society. James explores this clash of personalities and cultures, in stories of personal relationships in which power is exercised well or badly.
Critics have jokingly described three phases in the development of James's prose: "James the First, James the Second, and The Old Pretender" and observers do often group his works of fiction into three periods. In his apprentice years, culminating with the masterwork The Portrait of a Lady, his style was simple and direct (by the standards of Victorian magazine writing) and he experimented widely with forms and methods, generally narrating from a conventionally omniscient point of view. Plots generally concern romance, except for the three big novels of social commentary that conclude this period. In the second period, as noted above, he abandoned the serialised novel and from 1890 to about 1897, he wrote short stories and plays. Finally, in his third and last period he returned to the long, serialised novel.
More important for his work overall may have been his position as an expatriate, and in other ways an outsider, living in Europe. While he came from middle-class and provincial belongings (seen from the perspective of European polite society) he worked very hard to gain access to all levels of society, and the settings of his fiction range from working class to aristocratic, and often describe the efforts of middle-class Americans to make their way in European capitals. He confessed he got some of his best story ideas from gossip at the dinner table or at country house weekends. He worked for a living, however, and lacked the experiences of select schools, university, and army service, the common bonds of masculine society. He was furthermore a man whose tastes and interests were, according to the prevailing standards of Victorian era Anglo-American culture, rather feminine, and who was shadowed by the cloud of prejudice that then and later accompanied suspicions of his homosexuality.
Although any selection of James's novels as "major" must inevitably depend to some extent on personal preference, the following books have achieved prominence among his works in the views of many critics. James believed a novel must be organic. Parts of the novel need to go together and the relationship must fit the form. If a reader enjoys a work of art or piece of writing, then they must be able to explain why. The very fact that every reader has different tastes, lends to the belief that artists should have artistic freedom to write in any way they choose to talk about subject matter that could possibly interest everyone.
The first period of James's fiction, usually considered to have culminated in The Portrait of a Lady, concentrated on the contrast between Europe and America. The style of these novels is generally straightforward and, though personally characteristic, well within the norms of 19th century fiction. Although the book shows some signs of immaturity—this was James's first serious attempt at a full-length novel—it has attracted favourable comment due to the vivid realisation of the three major characters.
Although Roderick Hudson featured mostly American characters in a European setting, James made the Europe–America contrast even more explicit in his next novel. In fact, the contrast could be considered the leading theme of The American (1877). This book is a combination of social comedy and melodrama concerning the adventures and misadventures of Christopher Newman, an essentially good-hearted but rather gauche American businessman on his first tour of Europe.
Washington Square (1880) is a deceptively simple tragicomedy that recounts the conflict between a dull but sweet daughter and her brilliant, domineering father. The book is often compared to Jane Austen's work for the clarity and grace of its prose and its intense focus on family relationships. James was not particularly enthusiastic about Jane Austen, so he might not have regarded the comparison as flattering. In fact, James was not enthusiastic about Washington Square itself. He tried to read it over for inclusion in the New York Edition of his fiction but found that he could not. So he excluded the novel from the edition.
In The Portrait of a Lady (1881) James concluded the first phase of his career with a novel that remains his most popular piece of long fiction. The narrative is set mainly in Europe, especially in England and Italy. Generally regarded as the masterpiece of his early phase, The Portrait of a Lady is described as a psychological novel, exploring the minds of his characters, and almost a work of social science, exploring the differences between Europeans and Americans, the old and the new worlds.
The Bostonians (1886) is a bittersweet tragicomedy that centres on Basil Ransom, an unbending political conservative from Mississippi. The storyline concerns the contest between Ransom and Olive for Verena's allegiance and affection, though the novel also includes a wide panorama of political activists, newspaper people, and quirky eccentrics.
James followed with The Princess Casamassima (1886), the story of an intelligent but confused young London bookbinder, Hyacinth Robinson, who becomes involved in far left politics and a terrorist assassination plot. The book is something of a lone sport in the Jamesian canon for dealing with such a violent political subject. But it is often paired with The Bostonians, which is also concerned with political issues.
Just as James was beginning his ultimately disastrous attempt to conquer the stage, he wrote The Tragic Muse (1890). This novel offers a wide, cheerful panorama of English life and follows the fortunes of two would-be artist. The book reflects James's consuming interest in the theatre and is often considered to mark the close of the second or middle phase of his career.
Criticism, Biographies and Fictional Treatments
James's work has remained steadily popular with the limited audience of educated readers to whom he spoke during his lifetime, and remained firmly in the British canon, but after his death American critics, such as Van Wyck Brooks, expressed hostility towards James's long expatriation and eventual naturalisation as a British citizen. Oscar Wilde once criticised him for writing "fiction as if it were a painful duty".
Despite these criticisms, James is now valued for his psychological and moral realism, his masterful creation of character, his low-key but playful humour, and his assured command of the language.
Early biographies of James echoed the unflattering picture of him drawn in early criticism. F.W. Dupee, as noted above, characterised James as neurotically withdrawn and fearful, and although Dupee lacked access to primary materials his view has remained persuasive in academic circles, partly because Leon Edel's massive five-volume work, published from 1953 to 1972, seemed to buttress it with extensive documentation.
The published criticism of James's work has reached enormous proportions. The volume of criticism of The Turn of the Screw alone has become extremely large for such a brief work. The Henry James Review, published three times a year, offers criticism of James's entire range of writings, and many other articles and book-length studies appear regularly.
Perhaps the most prominent examples of James's legacy in recent years have been the film versions of several of his novels and stories. Three of James's novels were filmed: The Europeans (1978), The Bostonians (1984) and The Golden Bowl (2000). The Iain Softley-directed version of The Wings of the Dove (1997) was successful with both critics and audiences. Agnieszka Holland's Washington Square (1997) was well received by critics, and Jane Campion tried her hand with The Portrait of a Lady (1996) but with much less success.
Most of James's work has remained continuously in print since its first publication, and he continues to be a major figure in realist fiction, influencing generations of novelists. James has allowed the genre of the novel to become worthy of a literary critic's attention. James has formulated a theory of fiction that many today still discuss and debate.
In 1954, when the shades of depression were thickening fast, Ernest Hemingway wrote an emotional letter in which he tried to steady himself as he thought James would: "Pretty soon I will have to throw this away so I better try to be calm like Henry James. Did you ever read Henry James? He was a great writer who came to Venice and looked out the window and smoked his cigar and thought." The odd, perhaps subconscious or accidental allusion to "The Aspern Papers" is striking. More recently, James' writing was even used to promote Rolls-Royce automobiles: the tagline "Live all you can, it's a mistake not to", originally spoken by The Ambassadors' Lambert Strether, was used in one advertisement. This is somewhat ironic, considering the novel's sardonic treatment of the "great new force" of mass marketing. (Adapted from Wikipedia.)
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