Henry James, OM (April 15, 1843 - February 28, 1916), was one of the greatest prose writers in American literature. Enormously prolific, James authored 22 novels, hundreds of short stories, and dozens of volumes of non-fiction including biographies, travel writing, art and literary criticism, and memoirs.1
James' evolving literary style and artistic intentions mirrored the transition from the Victorian to the Modern era in English literature. His early fiction followed the realistic conventions of the French and Russian novelists he admired, while his later work became notoriously complex. James was one of the first major novelists to utilize modernist, stream-of-consciousness techniques, and he perfected an aesthetic approach that eschewed a conventional omniscient narrative voice, arguing that the novelist's craft required a revelatory process of "showing" rather than a didactic act of "telling."
James spent most of his late life in Europe, and his fiction often addressed the intersections of European and American culture, making it difficult for many critics to locate James' works in the American and British literary traditions. James' fiction is exceptional for its keen psychological insight, as well as its realistic portrayal of European and American society.
James' fascination with consciousness and the workings of the mind owed much to his remarkable family. In addition to his sister, Alice, who was an accomplished diarist and prose stylist in her own right, his older brother, William James, was a famous American philosopher and psychologist. Their father, the philosopher and theologian Henry James Sr., was a close friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson and, with Bronson Alcott and Henry David Thoreau, was a noted New England Transcendantalist. The James family was one of the most productive intellectual families in the history of the United States, and Henry James was its most gifted literary stylist and innovator.
LifeHenry James at eight years old with his father, Henry James, Sr. Daguerreotype by Mathew Brady, 1854
Henry James was born in New York City into a wealthy, intellectually inclined family. His father, Henry James Sr., was interested in various religious and literary pursuits. In his youth James traveled with his family back and forth between Europe and the United States. He studied with tutors in Geneva, London, Paris and Bonn. At the age of 19 he briefly and unsuccessfully attended Harvard University Law School, but he much preferred reading and writing fiction to studying law.2
From an early age, James read, criticized and learned from the classics of English, American, French, Italian, German, and (in translation) Russian literature. In 1864 he anonymously published his first short story, A Tragedy of Error, and from then on devoted himself completely to literature. Throughout his career he contributed extensively to magazines such as The Nation, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's and Scribner's. From 1875 to his death he maintained a strenuous schedule of book publication in a variety of genres: novels, short story collections, literary criticism, travel writing, biography and autobiography.
James never married, and it is an unresolved (and perhaps unresolvable) question as to whether he ever experienced a relationship. Many of his letters are filled with expressions of affection, but it is never been shown conclusively that any of these expressions were acted out. James enjoyed socializing with his many friends and acquaintances, but he seems to have maintained a certain distance from other people.3
After a brief attempt to live in Paris, James moved permanently to England in 1876. He settled first in a London apartment and then, from 1897 on, in Lamb House, a historic residence in Rye, East Sussex. He revisited America on several occasions, most notably in 1904-1905. The outbreak of World War I was a profound shock for James, and in 1915 he became a British citizen to declare his loyalty to his adopted country and to protest America's refusal to enter the war on behalf of Britain. James suffered a stroke in London on December 2, 1915, and died three months later.4
Themes, Style and AnalysisPortrait of Henry James, charcoal sketch by John Singer Sargent, 1911
James is one of the major figures of trans-Atlantic literature, which is to say that his works frequently juxtapose characters from different worlds-the Old World (Europe), simultaneously artistic, corrupting, and alluring; and the New World (United States), where people are often brash, open, and assertive-and explore how this clash of personalities and cultures affects the two worlds.
He favored internal, psychological drama, and his work is often about conflicts between imaginative protagonists and their difficult environments. As his secretary Theodora Bosanquet remarked in her monograph Henry James at Work:
When he walked out of the refuge of his study and into the world and looked around him, he saw a place of torment, where creatures of prey perpetually thrust their claws into the quivering flesh of doomed, defenseless children of light… . His novels are a repeated exposure of this wickedness, a reiterated and passionate plea for the fullest freedom of development, unimperilled by reckless and barbarous stupidity.5
His earlier work is considered realist because of the carefully described details of his characters' physical surroundings. But, throughout his long career, James maintained a strong interest in a variety of artistic effects and movements. His work gradually became more metaphorical and symbolic as he entered more deeply into the minds of his characters. In its intense focus on the consciousness of his major characters, James's later work foreshadows extensive developments in twentieth century fiction.6
In the late twentieth century, many of James's novels were filmed by the team of Ismail Merchant & James Ivory, and this period saw a small resurgence of interest in his works. Among the best known of these are the short works Daisy Miller, Washington Square and The Turn of the Screw, and the novels The Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl, The Ambassadors and The American.
The prose of James's later works is frequently marked by long, digressive sentences that defer the verb and include many qualifying adverbs, prepositional phrases, and subordinate clauses. James seemed to change from a fairly straightforward style in his earlier writing to a more elaborate manner in his later works. Biographers have noted that the change of style occurred at approximately the time that James began dictating his fiction to a secretary.
Henry James was afflicted with a mild stutter. He overcame this by cultivating the habit of speaking very slowly and deliberately. Since he believed that good writing should resemble the conversation of an intelligent man, the process of dictating his works may perhaps account for a shift in style from direct to conversational sentences. The resulting prose style is at times baroque. His friend Edith Wharton, who admired him greatly, said that there were some passages in his works that were all but incomprehensible.7 His short fiction, such as The Aspern Papers and The Turn of the Screw, is often considered to be more readable than the longer novels, and early works tend to be more accessible than later ones.
The Turn of the Screw is one of James's later works. Generalizations about the "accessibility" of James's fiction are difficult. Many of his later short stories-"Europe," "Paste" and "Mrs. Medwin," for instance-are briefer and more straightforward in style than some tales of his earlier years.8
For much of his life James was an expatriate living in Europe. Much of The Portrait of a Lady was written while he lived in Venice, a city whose beauty he found distracting; he was better pleased with the small town of Rye in England. This feeling of being an American in Europe came through as a recurring theme in his books, which contrasted American innocence (or lack of sophistication) with European sophistication (or decadence), as described in his major novels The Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl.
He made only a modest living from his books, yet was often the houseguest of the wealthy. James had grown up in a well-to-do family, and he was able to fraternize with the upper-class, gaining from them many of the impressions he would eventually include in his fiction, just as Honore de Balzac had once done in Parisian salons. James said he got some of his best story ideas from dinner table gossip.9 He was a man whose sexuality was uncertain and whose tastes were, according to the prevailing standards of Victorian-era Anglo-American culture, rather feminine.10 William Faulkner once referred to James as "the nicest old lady I ever met." In a similar vein, Thomas Hardy called James and Robert Louis Stevenson "virtuous females" when he read their unfavorable comments about his novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles.11 Theodore Roosevelt also criticized James for his supposed lack of masculinity. Oddly, however, when James toured America in 1904-1905, he met Roosevelt at a White House dinner and dubbed Roosevelt "Theodore Rex" and called him "a dangerous and ominous jingo." The two men chatted amiably and at length.12
It is often asserted that James's role as a permanent outsider in many circumstances may have helped him in his detailed psychological analysis of situations-one of the strongest features of his writing. He was never a full member of any camp.13 In his review of Van Wyck Brooks's The Pilgrimage of Henry James, critic Edmund Wilson noted James's detached, objective viewpoint and made a startling comparison:
One would be in a position to appreciate James better if one compared him with the dramatists of the seventeenth century-Racine and Molière, whom he resembles in form as well as in point of view, and even Shakespeare, when allowances are made for the most extreme differences in subject and form. These poets are not, like Dickens and Hardy, writers of melodrama-either humorous or pessimistic, nor secretaries of society like Balzac, nor prophets like Tolstoy: they are occupied simply with the presentation of conflicts of moral character, which they do not concern themselves about softening or averting. They do not indict society for these situations: they regard them as universal and inevitable. They do not even blame God for allowing them: they accept them as the conditions of life.14
It is possible to see many of James's stories as psychological thought-experiments. The Portrait of a Lady may be an experiment to see what happens when an idealistic young woman suddenly becomes very rich; alternatively, it has been suggested that the storyline was inspired by Charles Darwin's theory of sexual selection, where males compete (to the death) for the attention of females. The novella The Turn of the Screw describes the psychological history of an unmarried (and, some critics suggest, repressed and possibly unbalanced) young governess. The unnamed governess stumbles into a terrifying, ambiguous situation involving her perceptions of the ghosts of a lately deceased couple-her predecessor, Miss Jessel, and Miss Jessel's lover, Peter Quint.15
The Early PhasePortrait of Henry James, oil painting by John Singer Sargent, 1913
In all, James wrote 22 novels, including two left unfinished at his death, 112 tales of varying lengths, along with many plays and a large number of nonfiction essays and books. Among the writers most influential on James's fiction were Nathaniel Hawthorne, with his emphasis on the ambiguities of human choice and the universality of guilt, Honoré de Balzac, with his careful attention to detail and realistic presentation of character, and Ivan Turgenev, with his preference for straight-forward plotting.16
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.17
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 nineteenth-century fiction. Roderick Hudson (1875) is a bildungsroman that traces the development of the title character, an extremely talented sculptor. Although the book shows some signs of immaturity-this was James's first serious attempt at a full-length novel-it has attracted favorable comment due to the vivid realization of the three major characters: Roderick Hudson, superbly gifted but unstable and unreliable; Rowland Mallet, Roderick's limited but much more mature friend and patron; and Christina Light, one of James's most enchanting and maddening femme fatales. The pair of Hudson and Mallet has been seen as representing the two sides of James's own nature: the wildly imaginative artist and the brooding conscientious mentor.
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. Newman is looking for a world different from the simple, harsh realities of nineteenth-century American business. He encounters both the beauty and the ugliness of Europe, and learns not to take either for granted.
James did not set all of his novels in Europe or focus exclusively on the contrast between the New World and the Old. Set in New York City, 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 (1907-1909) but found that he could not. So he excluded the novel from the edition. But other readers have enjoyed the book enough to make it one of the more popular works in the entire Jamesian canon.
With The Portrait of a Lady (1881) James concluded the first phase of his career with a novel that remains to this day his best-selling long fiction. This impressive achievement is the story of a spirited young American woman, Isabel Archer, who "affronts her destiny" and finds it overwhelming. She inherits a large amount of money and subsequently becomes the victim of Machiavellian scheming by two American expatriates. Set mostly in Europe, notably England and Italy, and generally regarded as the masterpiece of his early phase, this novel is not just a reflection of James's absorbing interest in the differences between the New World and the Old. The book also treats in a profound way the themes of personal freedom, responsibility, betrayal and sexuality.
In the 1880s, James began to explore new areas of interest besides the Europe-America contrast and the "American girl." In particular, he began writing on explicitly political themes. The Bostonians (1886) is a bittersweet tragicomedy that centers on an odd triangle of characters: Basil Ransom, an unbending political conservative from Mississippi; Olive Chancellor, Ransom's cousin and a zealous Boston feminist; and Verena Tarrant, a pretty protégé of Olive's in the feminist movement. The story line 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.
The political theme turned darker in The Princess Casamassima (1886), the story of an intelligent but confused young London bookbinder, Hyacinth Robinson, who becomes involved in radical politics and a terrorist assassination plot. The book is unique in the Jamesian canon for it treatment of such a violent political subject. But it is often paired with The Bostonians, which is concerned with political issues in a less tragic manner.
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 artists: Nick Dormer, who vacillates between a political career and his efforts to become a painter, and Miriam Rooth, an actress striving for artistic and commercial success. A huge cast of supporting characters helps and hinders their pursuits. The book reflects James's consuming interest in the theater and is often considered to mark the close of the second or middle phase of his career in the novel.
After the failure of his "dramatic experiment" James returned to his fiction with a deeper, more incisive approach. He began to probe his characters' consciousness in a more insightful manner, which had been foreshadowed in such passages as Chapter 42 of The Portrait of a Lady. His style also started to grow in complexity to reflect the greater depth of his analysis. The Spoils of Poynton (1897), considered the first example of this final phase, is a half-length novel that describes the struggle between Mrs. Gereth, a widow of impeccable taste and iron will, and her son Owen over a houseful of precious antique furniture. The story is largely told from the viewpoint of Fleda Vetch, a young woman in love with Owen but sympathetic to Mrs. Gereth's anguish over losing the antiques she patiently collected.
James continued the more involved, psychological approach to his fiction with What Maisie Knew (1897), the story of the sensitive daughter of divorced and irresponsible parents. The novel has great contemporary relevance as an unflinching account of a wildly dysfunctional family. The book is also a notable technical achievement by James, as it follows the title character from earliest childhood to precocious maturity.
The third period of James's career reached its most significant achievement in three novels published just after the turn of the century. Critic F. O. Mathiessen called this "trilogy" James's major phase, and these novels have certainly received intense critical study. Although it was the second-written of the books, The Wings of the Dove (1902) was the first published. This novel tells the story of Milly Theale, an American heiress stricken with a serious disease, and her impact on the people around her. Some of these people befriend Milly with honorable motives, while others are more self-interested. James stated in his autobiographical books that Milly was based on Minny Temple, his beloved cousin who died at an early age of tuberculosis. He said that he attempted in the novel to wrap her memory in the "beauty and dignity of art."
The next published of the three novels, The Ambassadors (1903), is a dark comedy that follows the trip of protagonist Louis Lambert Strether to Europe in pursuit of his widowed fiancée's supposedly wayward son. Strether is to bring the young man back to the family business, but he encounters unexpected complications. The third-person narrative is told exclusively from Strether's point of view. In his preface to the New York Edition text of the novel, James placed this book at the top of his achievements, which has occasioned some critical disagreement. The Golden Bowl (1904) is a complex, intense study of marriage and adultery that completes the "major phase" and, essentially, James's career in the novel. The book explores the tangle of interrelationships between a father and daughter and their respective spouses. The novel focuses deeply and almost exclusively on the consciousness of the central characters, with sometimes-obsessive detail and powerful insight.
James was particularly interested in what he called the "beautiful and blest nouvelle," or the longer form of short narrative. Still, he produced a number of very short stories in which he achieved notable compression of sometimes-complex subjects. The following narratives are representative of James's achievement in the shorter forms of fiction.18
Just as the contrast between Europe and America was a predominant theme in James's early novels, many of his first tales also explored the clash between the Old World and the New. In "A Passionate Pilgrim" (1871), the earliest fiction that James included in the New York Edition, the difference between America and Europe erupts into open conflict, which leads to a sadly ironic ending. The story's technique still seems somewhat amateurish, with passages of local color description occasionally interrupting the flow of the narrative. But James manages to craft an interesting and believable example of what he would call the "Americano-European legend."
James published many stories before what would prove to be his greatest success with the readers of his time, "Daisy Miller" (1878). This story portrays the confused courtship of the title character, a free-spirited American girl, by Winterbourne, a compatriot of hers with much more sophistication. Winterbourne's pursuit of Daisy is hampered by her own flirtatiousness, which is frowned upon by the other expatriates they meet in Switzerland and Italy. Her lack of understanding of the social mores of the society she so desperately wishes to enter ultimately leads to tragedy.
As James moved on from studies of the Europe-America clash and the American girl in his novels, his shorter works also explored new subjects in the 1880s. "The Aspern Papers" (1888) is one of James's best-known and most acclaimed longer tales. The storyline is based on an anecdote that James heard about a Lord Byron devotee who tried to obtain some valuable letters written by the poet. Set in a brilliantly described Venice, the story demonstrates James's ability to generate almost unbearable suspense while never neglecting the development of his characters.
Another fine example of the middle phase of James's career in short narrative is "The Pupil" (1891), the story of a precocious young boy growing up in a mendacious and dishonorable family. He befriends his tutor, who is the only adult in his life that he can trust. James presents their relationship with sympathy and insight, and the story reaches what some have considered the status of classical tragedy.
The final phase of James's short narratives shows the same characteristics as the final phase of his novels: a more involved style, a deeper psychological approach, and a sharper focus on his central characters. Probably his most popular short narrative among today's readers, "The Turn of the Screw" (1898) is a ghost story that has lent itself to operatic and film adaptation. With its possibly ambiguous content and powerful narrative technique, the story challenges the reader to determine if the protagonist, an unnamed governess, is correctly reporting events or is instead an unreliable neurotic with an overheated imagination. To further muddy the waters, her written account of the experience-a frame tale-is being read many years later at a Christmas house party by someone who claims to have known her.
"The Beast in the Jungle" (1903) is almost universally considered one of James's finest short narratives, and has often been compared with The Ambassadors in its meditation on experience or the lack of it. The story also treats other universal themes: loneliness, fate, love and death. The parable of John Marcher and his peculiar destiny speaks to anyone who has speculated on the worth and meaning of human life. Among his last efforts in short narrative, "The Jolly Corner" (1908) is usually held to be one of James's best ghost stories. The tale describes the adventures of Spencer Brydon as he prowls the now-empty New York house where he grew up. Brydon encounters a "sensation more complex than had ever before found itself consistent with sanity."
NonfictionPhotograph of Henry James, 1897
Beyond his fiction, James was one of the more important literary critics in the history of the novel. In his classic essay The Art of Fiction (1884), he argued against rigid proscriptions on the novelist's choice of subject and method of treatment. He maintained that the widest possible freedom in content and approach would help ensure narrative fiction's continued vitality. James wrote many valuable critical articles on other novelists; typical is his insightful book-length study of his American predecessor Nathaniel Hawthorne. When he assembled the New York Edition of his fiction in his final years, James wrote a series of prefaces that subjected his own work to the same searching, occasionally harsh criticism.19
For most of his life James harbored ambitions for success as a playwright. He converted his novel The American into a play that enjoyed modest returns in the early 1890s. In all he wrote about a dozen plays, most of which went unproduced. His costume drama Guy Domville failed disastrously on its opening night in 1895. James then largely abandoned his efforts to conquer the stage and returned to his fiction. In his Notebooks he maintained that his theatrical experiment benefited his novels and tales by helping him dramatize his characters' thoughts and emotions. James produced a small but valuable amount of theatrical criticism, including perceptive appreciations of Henrik Ibsen.20
With his wide-ranging artistic interests, James occasionally wrote on the visual arts. Perhaps his most valuable contribution was his favorable assessment of fellow expatriate John Singer Sargent, a painter whose critical status has improved markedly in recent decades. James also wrote sometimes charming, sometimes brooding articles about various places he visited and lived in. His most famous books of travel writing include Italian Hours (an example of the charming approach) and The American Scene (most definitely on the brooding side).21
James was one of the great letter-writers of any era. More than ten thousand of his personal letters are extant, and over three thousand have been published in a large number of collections. 22 James's correspondents included celebrated contemporaries like Robert Louis Stevenson, Edith Wharton and Joseph Conrad, along with many others in his wide circle of friends. The letters range from the "mere twaddle of graciousness"23 to serious discussions of artistic, social and personal issues. Very late in life James began a series of autobiographical works: A Small Boy and Others, Notes of a Son and Brother, and the unfinished The Middle Years. These books portray the development of a classic observer who was passionately interested in artistic creation but was somewhat reticent about participating fully in the life around him.24
Criticism, biographies and fictional treatments
James's critical reputation fell to its lowest point in the decades immediately after his death. Some American critics, such as Van Wyck Brooks, expressed hostility towards James's long expatriation and eventual naturalization as a British citizen.25 Other critics like E.M. Forster complained about what they saw as James's squeamishness in the treatment of sex and other possibly controversial material, or dismissed his style as difficult and obscure.26
Although these criticisms have by no means abated completely, James is now widely valued for his masterful creation of situations and storylines that reveal his characters' deepest motivations, his low-key but playful humor, and his assured command of the language. In his 1983 book, The Novels of Henry James, critic Edward Wagenknecht offers a strongly positive assessment in words that echo Theodora Bosanquet's:
"To be completely great," Henry James wrote in an early review, "a work of art must lift up the heart," and his own novels do this to an outstanding degree… More than sixty years after his death, the great novelist who sometimes professed to have no opinions stands foursquare in the great Christian humanistic and democratic tradition. The men and women who, at the height of World War II, raided the secondhand shops for his out-of-print books knew what they were about. For no writer ever raised a braver banner to which all who love freedom might adhere.27
The standard biography of James is Leon Edel's massive five-volume work published from 1953 to 1972. Edel produced a number of updated and abridged versions of the biography before his death in 1997. Other writers such as Sheldon Novick, Lyndall Gordon, Fred Kaplan and Philip Horne have also published biographies that occasionally disagree sharply with Edel's interpretations and conclusions. Colm Tóibín used an extensive list of biographies of Henry James and his family for his 2004 novel, The Master, which is a third-person narrative with James as the central character, and deals with specific episodes from his life during the period between 1895 and 1899. Author, Author, a novel by David Lodge published in the same year, was based on James's efforts to conquer the stage in the 1890s. In 2002 Emma Tennant published Felony: The Private History of The Aspern Papers, a novel that fictionalized the relationship between James and American novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson and the possible effects of that relationship on The Aspern Papers.
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 Review28, published three times a year, offers criticism of James's entire range of writings, and many other articles and book-length studies appear regularly. Some guides to this extensive literature can be found on the external sites listed below.
Perhaps the most prominent examples of James' legacy in recent years have been the film versions of several of his novels and stories. The Merchant-Ivory movies were mentioned earlier, but a number of other filmmakers have based productions on James' fiction. The Iain Softley-directed version of The Win