The Life and Work of Henry James
Henry James, an American author, spent much of his life living in, and writing about, Europe. As a novelist, short-story writer, and critic, James was particularly interested in Europe’s history and traditions and the formal manners of its upper class. His tales of independent, yet naive, Americans encountering the cultivated, subtle influences of European society made him famous, although his work was not fully accepted until years after his death. Influenced by European authors such as George Eliot, Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and Ivan Turgenev, James was a prolific writer, publishing 22 novels and over a hundred short stories. In addition, he is the author of a number of plays, autobiographical writings, and noted critical essays.
Born in New York City on April 15, 1843, Henry James traveled extensively with his parents, Henry James, Sr. and Mary Walsh James, and their four other children. Before he reached the age of 20, James had been to Europe several times, living in Switzerland, France, Germany, and England. His broad education, provided mainly by his parents and private tutors, included the study of literature, philosophy, languages, and religion. Henry, Sr., a wealthy, eccentric essayist and philosopher, knew a number of famous authors and thinkers of the day, including Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. This created a unique atmosphere, and exposed young Henry to an impressive array of intellectual and artistic ideas as he was growing up.
In 1860, James suffered a debilitating back injury while fighting a fire at the family home in Newport, Rhode Island. The injury would have a profound influence on him for the rest of his life, affecting his limited romantic relationships, and keeping him from fighting in the Civil War. Unable to participate in the war, James continued his education, studying with private tutors until he entered Harvard Law School when he was 19. His time at Harvard was not a success, however—he was unable to adapt to the rigors of formal education, and he left the school after his first year. Now James began to write seriously and he soon published a short story, anonymously, followed by a series of book reviews and other works of short fiction written under his own name. Much of James’s early work reflects his interests in the supernatural, the individual’s role in society, and the psychological influences that affect human behavior.
James traveled alone to Europe for the first time in 1869, visiting England, Switzerland, and Italy. Three years later he returned to Europe, touring with relatives at first, then remaining to write and travel on his own. He finally returned to the United States in 1874 and a year later published two books, one a collection of travel essays, and the other a book of short stories. In 1876, he wrote his first novel, Roderick Hudson. That same year, James decided to move to Europe, settling first in Rome and then Paris before moving to England where he lived until his death in 1916.
In his early work, such as Daisy Miller (1879) and The Portrait of a Lady (1881), James explored the theme of Americans encountering European culture. It was Daisy Miller, his novella about a young American innocent in Europe, that first earned him widespread recognition and would become his most famous work. In other novels, including The Portrait of a Lady, James developed similar themes and characters, but Daisy Miller would remain his most popular piece of writing, becoming something of a phenomenon both in America and Europe.
Later, in novels such as The Bostonians (1886) and The Princess Casamassima (1886), James wrote about revolution and political unrest. His short novels, such as The Aspern Papers (1888) and The Turn of the Screw (1898), brought him further acclaim, and in the early 1900s, he wrote his last novels, The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904), works considered by many to be his masterpieces.
Although a resident of England for many years, James remained a U.S. citizen until 1915 when, as a political protest over America’s refusal to go to war with Germany, he became a British citizen. After James died in 1916, his works were largely ignored until the 1930s, when he was rediscovered in England and the United States. Even today, some readers find his work too abstract and difficult to follow, but others appreciate James’s ability to reflect deep thought and human emotion.
James is considered to be a major influence on the work of many authors, including James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner. He has long been admired for his great literary skill, and his ability to create profound and innovative psychological portraits.