Henry James, kept out of the Civil War due to a back injury incurred while fighting a stable fire, began writing professionally with the publication of his first short story in 1865. Throughout his career, James, aware of the significance of the Civil War, used his writing to help America arrive at a new sense of self. He did this by reassessing America’s relationship with its origins in Europe. James utilized the increasingly efficient transatlantic transportation to capture the true spirit of contemporary Americans in contact with their European peers. In doing so, he showed how the two sides actively engaged each other in an Atlantic community. The best novel of his last period, The Ambassadors, neatly resolves this discussion. In this work, Americans enjoy Paris but then return to America where the grit of life is being manufactured.
The Ambassadors remains one of the few novels whose record of origin appears nearly perfect. The novel began from a “germ” that James captured in his notebook on October 31, 1895. There he records how William Dean Howells, standing in the garden of James McNeill Whistler’s Parisian home, sermonized to the young Jonathan Sturges that he must live while he was young. Then, in September of 1900, in an article for Harpers called “Project of a Novel by Henry James,” James laid out the blueprint of the novel. The piece shows how James constructed from Howells’ speech, reworked as the speech that Lewis Lambert Strether gives to John Little Bilham, the basis of his novel. The actual writing took seven months and James super- vised the novel’s publication process. Published serially in 1903 by the North American Review (where Howells was a literary consultant), the novel’s reception was guided by James’ appraisal of the novel as “the best, ‘all round,’ of my productions.”