What is a literary classic and why are these classic works important to the world?
A literary classic is a work of the highest excellence that has something important to say about life and/or the human condition and says it with great artistry. A classic, through its enduring presence, has withstood the test of time and is not bound by time, place, or customs. It speaks to us today as forcefully as it spoke to people one hundred or more years ago, and as forcefully as it will speak to people of future generations. For this reason, a classic is said to have universality.
Henry James was born in New York City on April 15, 1843, into a wealthy and intellectual family. His father, Henry James, Sr., had been friends with Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Consequently, James had numerous literary influences as he grew. He traveled between Europe and the United States dabbling in the law and attending Harvard University, but being primarily interested in writing and literature. A serious back injury kept James out of the Civil War.
His first novel, Watch and Ward (1871), written while he was traveling through Europe, first appeared in the Atlantic Magazine in serial form. It was not an immediate success, but with the publication of Daisy Miller in 1878, Washington Square in 1880, and The Portrait of a Lady in 1881, his reputation as an important novelist began to grow. James treated his subjects realistically, despite there being very little mention of the underclass, poverty, or societal problems in his works. Much of his early writing shows that he had a strong interest in the supernatural, a person’s place in society—especially an American searching for meaning while in Europe—and the psychological elements that determine human behavior.
From its first printing in 1898 until today, The Turn of the Screw has intrigued readers, who still cannot agree on the short novel’s full meaning: Is it merely a great ghost story, or is it a portrait of a madwoman?
James did return to the U. S., but Europe continued to fascinate him, and he eventually became a British citizen in protest against the United States’ entrance into World War I. His brother, the psychologist William James, coined the phrase “stream of consciousness” to describe the complexities of the human mind and how it actually functions. Henry began to employ this technique in his writing, and he is considered a strong influence on James Joyce, among others.
James died in London on February 28, 1916, three months after suffering a stroke.