Henry James Biography

At a Glance

Henry James, now considered one of the world’s greatest novelists, desperately wanted to be a successful playwright. He spent several different periods of his life writing plays, but none of them garnered the success that his novels and short stories did. In fact, on the opening night of one of his early plays, James was greeted with hisses and boos when he bowed at the end of the performance. Traumatized by this reception, he eventually gave up writing for the theater and turned his unfinished plays into novels. As a result, his novels often follow a theatrical structure. He is now best known for The Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove, and the novellas Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw.

Facts and Trivia

  • Though American by birth, James renounced his heritage and became a naturalized citizen of Great Britain during World War I in protest over the fact that the U.S. would not enter the war. Ironically, the U.S. did join the war shortly after James’s death.
  • James was a self-proclaimed bachelor, but there is speculation among some critics that he was a closeted gay man.
  • Critics often divide James’s writing into three phases. His early work was simple and direct as much Victorian writing of the time was. In his second phase, he wrote more short stories and dramatic literature. In his third incarnation, he wrote long, serialized novels.
  • James wrote a great deal of nonfiction, including the essay “The Art of Fiction” and a book-length study of the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
  • Many of James’s novels have been made into films. The Wings of the Dove, Washington Square, and The Portrait of a Lady are particularly popular adaptations.


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

ph_0111201229-James.jpg Henry James. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: James is one of the most preeminent and influential writers of the modern novel in America. Both his life and his work are closely related to the United States’ emergence in the twentieth century as a major world power.

Early Life

Henry James was born April 15, 1843, at 21 Washington Place in New York City, son of a wealthy and distinguished American family tracing its roots to an immigrant ancestor, William James. This founder of the James family in America had come from Northern Ireland two generations before, just after the American Revolution, and had made a fortune in real estate in Albany, New York, then a small city greatly influenced by the Dutch. Henry James’s father, Henry James, Sr., married Mary Robertson Walsh, originally from Northern Ireland, and together they produced five children: William, Henry, Garth (known as “Wilky”), Robertson, and Alice. Henry’s brother William James, one year older than he, was to become one of the most famous American philosophers and psychologists.

Henry’s first memory later in life was as an infant on his mother’s knee, viewing the column in the center of the Place Vendôme in Paris, an extraordinarily fitting memory for someone whose attraction for Europe was to be one of the most pronounced aspects of his life. Indeed, the first two years of his life were spent with his family in England and France.

From 1845 to 1855, James lived in the United States and was educated by various tutors and schools. During this time, he knew Ralph Waldo Emerson, Washington Irving, and William Makepeace Thackeray, the first in a long line of renowned writers and artists with whom he associated throughout his life in the United States and Great Britain and on the Continent. As it turned out, this decade was also to be the longest continuous residence in the United States for James. As a boy, he was shy and a great reader.

Back in Europe in 1855 with his family, to improve his “sensuous” appreciation, he returned to the United States in 1858, only to leave again in 1859 for a year in Germany and Switzerland. His father, who in adult life became a devotee of the philosophy and theology of the Swedish thinker Emanuel Swedenborg, was dissatisfied with most of the schools available in both the United States and Europe; he continually sought other avenues of cultural enrichment for his children, particularly exposure to British and European society and heritage.

Having returned to Newport, Rhode Island, in 1860, James was prevented from joining the Union army in the American Civil War, which began in 1861, by a back injury, though his two younger brothers did so. Instead, he went to Harvard Law School in 1862 and began to write and publish stories; he dropped out of law school after one year to pursue his writing career fulltime. In 1864, his family moved to Boston. His friend, William Dean Howells, soon to become an editor at the Atlantic Monthly magazine, was helpful to him, and James published several pieces in the prestigious magazine.

At age twenty-six, he traveled again to England and grew the beard and mustache that would mark his visage until the end of the century. He dined with the eminent art critic and social historian John Ruskin, visited cathedrals, and at last went to Italy, where he formed a permanent impression of how the past impinges on the present, a hallmark of his later writings.

After a brief return to the United States a year later, he spent the years 1872-1873 in Great Britain, Paris, and Rome (which he would revisit in 1874). His residence in Rome during these years gave impetus to the writing of Roderick Hudson (1876), published in the Atlantic Monthly, about an expatriate American sculptor whose life abroad works to destroy him; obviously, James wondered whether Europe’s pull on him would do the same.

The fall of 1875 saw James in Paris, writing The American (1877), the story of an American businessman who is treated very badly in Parisian high society. James himself, though apparently welcomed at this time into exclusive literary and social circles in Paris, never felt fully accepted there. In 1877, at age thirty-four, James went to London, yearning to become fully integrated into English life, breaking down the barriers of being a mere observer and foreigner. He wrote The Europeans (1878), Daisy Miller (1879), and The Portrait of a Lady (1881) in quick succession, the second of which finally established his reputation.

Life’s Work

James returned to the United States in 1881, though now resolved that his mission as a writer was to return to Europe; a notebook entry this same year reads, “My choice is the old world—my choice, my need, my life.” An essay called “The Art of Fiction” (1884), written for Longman’s Magazine, is a kind of literary manifesto inaugurating the “modern” novel, exemplified not only by the works of James but also by those of Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce. James’s mother died in Boston in 1882 and his father soon thereafter. James went back to London, writing, “It is an anchorage in my life.”

By the end of the 1880’s, he had become a seasoned writer and a true expatriate, ready to enter his last, most mature phase as an artist, abandoning as his main subject the interrelationships of Europe and America and the impact of Europe upon Americans. Henceforward, his novels would have as their more major concern elucidating the inward states of mind in his characters. One already sees some of this new emphasis in Portrait of a Lady, whose main character, Isabel Archer, is married to Gilbert Osmond, an extreme narcissist with the potential for bringing much evil into people’s lives. It is the American expatriates in this novel, not the Europeans, who are the source of most of the deception and intrigue. The work contains portraits of various types of Americans abroad, all drawn with deft skill and subtlety; England, Florence, and Rome form the settings, all brought to life in the kind of convincing detail that only someone intimately familiar with life in these places could accomplish.

The novels of the later 1880’s, The Bostonians (1886), The Princess Casamassima (1886), and The Tragic Muse (1889), were less successful in many ways. James himself believed that The Bostonians was diffuse and that he had also failed to bring to life people and places in America sufficiently well, because of his having lost touch with the American scene. The Princess Casamassima depicts the poverty of London in the most vivid terms; although it touches upon the most sensitive of political and social issues, this novel is also a good example of one of James’s basic premises at work: that novels are meant to be “pictures,” not “moral or immoral,” not sermons or treatises. Naturally, the work of Charles Dickens was a model here. The Tragic Muse has as its subject the total immersion of the artist into art with all the arduous sacrifice that entails; it undoubtedly reflected James’s own state of mind at the time, since he, too, was poised on the edge of just such a total dedication of the rest of his life.

In 1896, James settled in England, finally moving into Lamb House at Rye, which would be his residence for his last and most intense productive period, the time when the legendary Henry James...

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