Daisy Miller and the psychological novella The Turn of the Screw (1898) form the highlight of Henry James’s career. Published in 1879 in The Cornhill Magazine, Daisy Miller gave Henry James his first significant success as a fiction writer. It brought him fame as a novelist in the genre of “international” novels, right at the time when the number of Americans who could afford to travel to Europe for the first time increased following the American Civil War. It also raised a storm of controversy due to the nature of the titular character.
Winterbourne, the American expatriate who ultimately rejects Daisy and her “new American” manners, is the protagonist of the work, rather than Daisy herself. While some viewed the character of Daisy Miller as a refreshing depiction of a young lady unhampered by the rigid social structure in Victorian-influenced America and Europe at the time, many saw her as a shocking example of the type of American that was infiltrating upper-class society, both in the New World and the Old.
Henry James, though born in the United States, lived most of his life in Europe, becoming a British citizen shortly before he died, embarrassed by the failure of the United States to enter into World War I. However, it is his embarrassment over the lack of manners of many of his countrymen as they toured Europe that James pours out in the pages of Daisy Miller. Rather than making Daisy a heroine, he lets her die, with Winterbourne returning to his life as before, despite his intention to leave Europe for America. This ambiguous ending continues to cause discussion among its readers as to James’s real intent in writing the novella. Instead of a “declaration of independence” from the moral code of the middle and upper classes, perhaps Daisy Miller was meant to be a warning to American travelers of the period.