About the Author
American-born writer, gifted with talents in literature, psychology, and philosophy. James wrote 20 novels, 112 stories, 12 plays and a number of literary criticism. His models were Dickens, Balzac, and Hawthorne. James once said that he learned more of the craft of writing from Balzac "than from anyone else".
Henry 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-nineteenth-century America, whose friends included Thoreau, Emerson and Hawthorne. James made little money from his novels. Once his friend, the writer Edith Wharton, secretly arranged him a royal advance of $8,000 for The Ivory Tower (1917), but the money actually came from Wharton's royalty account with the publisher. When Wharton sent him a letter bemoaning her unhappy marriage, James replied: "Keep making the movements of life."
In his youth James traveled back and forth between Europe and America. He studied with tutors in Geneva, London, Paris, Bologna and Bonn At the age of nineteen he briefly attended Harvard Law School, but was more interested in literature than studying law. James published his first short story, 'A Tragedy of Errors' two years later, and then devoted himself to literature. In 1866-69 and 1871-72 he was contributor to the Nation and Atlantic Monthly.
From an early age James had read the classics of English, American, French and German literature, and Russian classics in translation. His first novel, Watch and Ward (1871), was written while he was traveling through Venice and Paris. It tells a story of a bachelor who adopts a twelve-year-old girl and plans to marry her.
After living in Paris, where James was contributor to the New York Tribune, he moved to England, living first in London and then in Rye, Sussex. "It is a real stroke of luck for a particular country that the capital of the human race happens to be British. Surely every other people would have it theirs if they could. Whether the English deserve to hold it any longer might be an interesting field of inquiry; but as they have not yet let it slip the writer of these lines professes without scruple that the arrangement is to his personal taste. For after all if the sense of life is greatest there, it is a sense of the life of people of our incomparable English speech." (from London, 1888) During his first years in Europe James wrote novels that portrayed Americans living abroad. In 1905 James visited America for the first time in twenty-five year, and wrote 'Jolly Corner'. It was based on his observations of New York, but also a nightmare of a man, who is haunted by a doppelgänger.
Between 1906 and 1910 James revised many of his tales and novels for the New York edition of his complete works. His autobiography, A Small Boy and Others (1913) was continued in Notes of a Son and Brother (1914). The third volume, The Middle Years, appeared posthumously in 1917. The outbreak of World War I was a shock for James and in 1915 he became a British citizen as a loyalty to his adopted country and in protest against the US's refusal to enter the war. James suffered a stroke on December 2, 1915. He expected to die and exclaimed: "So this is it at last, the distinguished thing!" James died three months later in Rye on February 28, 1916.
Characteristic for James novels are understanding and sensitively drawn lady portraits. His main themes were the innocence of the New World in conflict with corruption and wisdom of the Old. Among his masterpieces is Daisy Miller (1879), where the young and innocent American Daisy finds her values in conflict with European sophistication. In The Portrait of a Lady (1881) again a young American woman is fooled during her travels in Europe. James started to write the novel in Florence in 1879. He continued to work with it in Venice. "I had rooms on Riva Sciavoni, at the top of a house near the passage leading off to San Zaccaria; the waterside life, the wondrous lagoon spread before me, and the ceaseless human chatter of Venice came in at my windows, to which I seem to myself to have been constantly driven, in the fruitless fidget of composition, as if to see whether, out in the blue channel, the ship of some right suggestion, of some better phrase, of the next happy twist of my subject, the next true touch for my canvas, mightn't come into sight."
The definitive version of the novel appeared in 1908. The protagonist is Isabel Archer, a penniless orphan. She goes to England to stay with her aunt and uncle, and their tubercular son, Ralph. Isabel inherits money and goes to Continent with Mrs Touchett and Madame Merle. She turns down proposals of marriage from Casper Goodwood, and marries Gilbert Osmond, a middle-aged snobbish widower with a young daughter, Pansy. "He had a light, lean, rather languid-looking figure, and was apparently neither tall nor short. He was dressed as a man who takes little other trouble about it than to have no vulgar thing." Isabel discovers that Pansy is Madame Merle's daughter, it was Madame Merle's plot to marry Isabel to Osmond so that he, and Pansy can enjoy Isabel's wealth. Caspar Goodwood makes a last attempt to gain her, but she returns to Osmond and Pansy.
The Bostonians (1886), set in the era of the rising feminist movement, was based on Alphonse Daudet's novel L'Évangéliste. What Maisie Knew (1897) depicted a preadolescent young girl, who must chose between her parents and a motherly old governess. In The Wings of the Dove (1902) a heritage destroys the love of a young couple. James considered The Ambassadors (1903) his most 'perfect' work of art. The novel depicts Lambert Strether's attempts to persuade Mrs Newsome' son Chad to return from Paris back to the United States. Strether's possibility to marry Mrs Newsome is dropped and he remains content in his role as a widower and observer. "The beauty that suffuses The Ambassadors is the reward due to a fine artist for hard work. James knew exactly what he wanted, he pursued the narrow path of aesthetic duty, and success to the full extent of his possibilities has crowned him. The pattern has woven itself, with modulation and reservations Anatole France will never attain. But at what sacrifice!" (from Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster, 1927)
Although James is best-known for his novels, his essays are now attracting audience outside scholarly connoisseurs. In his early critics James considered British and American novels dull and formless and French fiction 'intolerably unclean'. "M. Zola is magnificent, but he strikes an English reader as ignorant; he has an air of working in the dark; if he had as much light as energy, his results would be of the highest value." (from The Art of Fiction) In Partial Portraits (1888) James paid tribute to his elders, and Emerson, George Eliot, and Turgenev. His advice to aspiring writers avoided all theorizing: "Oh, do something from your point of view". H.G. Wells used James as the model for George Boon in his Boon (1915). When the protagonist argued that novels should be used for propaganda, not art, James wrote to Wells: "It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance, and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process. If I were Boon I should say that any pretense of such a substitute is helpless and hopeless humbug; but I wouldn't be Boon for the world, and am only yours faithfully, Henry James."
James's most famous tales include 'The Turn of the Screw', which was first published serially in Collier's Weekly. The short story is written mostly in the form of a journal, kept by a governess, who works on a lonely estate in England. She tries to save her two young charges, Flora and Miles, from the demonic influence of the apparitions of two former servants in the household, steward Peter Quint and the previous governess Miss Jessel. Her employer, the children's uncle, has given strict orders not to bother him with any of the details of their education. The children evade the questions about the ghosts but she certain is that the children see them. When she tries to exorcize their influence, Miles dies in her arms. The story inspired later a debate over the question of the 'reality' of the ghosts, were her visions only hallucinations.
Most author biographies courtesy of Author's Calendar. Used with permission.