Henry James

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Henry James Biography

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.


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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...

(This entire section contains 3083 words.)

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Rome (which he would revisit in 1874). His residence in Rome during these years gave impetus to the writing ofRoderick 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 most familiar to contemporary readers came into full bloom. He found Sussex to be a suitable environment for this last prolonged stage of his life and work, steeped as it is in history still clearly visible, as had been the Europe of his experience. He grew attached to the coast and the sea and the ancient towns thereabouts. He could still travel to London with ease when moved to do so.

The middle period of his career culminated in the publication of What Maisie Knew (1897), the still-famous and widely read The Turn of the Screw (1898), and The Awkward Age (1899). Before proceeding into his final most successful stage as a novelist, however, he made a highly unsuccessful bid for fame in the theater in the early 1890’s. He had written a play based on the novel Daisy Miller, but it was never produced. He adapted another novel, The American, for the stage, but its London run was not very long and the reviews were negative. After a number of other such attempts, he at last gave up, convinced that the theater was a vulgar medium, its audiences demanding the wrong things from writers.

In 1900, he shaved the familiar beard and mustache of his early career, perhaps as a symbol of his new inner resolve. His clean-shaven face and balding head would now take on the prominent well-known profile found in the John Singer Sargent portrait of him, painted much later in honor of his seventieth birthday, at the insistence of his friends; this famous painting now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

In 1904, after having lived twenty years abroad, James returned briefly to the United States and toured many regions and levels of society. He was in the end, however, quite dismayed with what he found and felt unable to identify with what America had become in his absence. Later, by the start of World War I, after his return to Rye, he was to conclude that the civilization of Europe that he had cherished so much was now dead. In truth, James’s life, spent as it was between Great Britain and the United States for the most part, gave him a unique vantage point on the passing of an age. The more innocent and isolated America of his youth was transformed, just as were the traditional rigidities of society in the Old World.

There are three novels which critics generally cite as representing the apex of James’s career: The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904). They are among the most difficult of his works to read but also probably the most rewarding. All three are concerned with the idea that improving one’s perception of one’s own personality and character, and thereby learning to understand better the personalities and characters of others, is the true road to freedom and maturity for human beings.

In The Wings of the Dove, the New York heiress Milly Theale is the leading character, the “dove” of the story. Upon her death, Merton Densher, who has pursued her for her money, finally cannot accept it; he has become a morally better person through his contact with Milly. Milly Theale is by no means naïve, but her simple grace and wisdom transcend the sordid materialism and artificial artfulness of those around her. The setting is London high society, perhaps best represented by the manipulative and grasping, polished and beautiful Kate Croy. This is perhaps the first modern novel to focus so intently and intricately upon subjective experience, the inner life; indeed, it is a forerunner in many ways of such major modernist fiction as that of Proust, D. H. Lawrence, Woolf, and Joyce.

The Ambassadors, actually written before The Wings of the Dove but published after it, was considered by James to be his best work; most critics and readers have come to agree. It is about the American Lambert Strether and his delayed liberation from the clutches of the deadening ethos of American Puritanism. Strether becomes an appreciator of European culture and enlightenment and an expert in understanding the importance of leading a sensitive and aesthetically fulfilling life; Paris is for him the new world that saves him, and this city is the ultimate symbol for James, too, of the best kind of life.

The Golden Bowl is in form and content a true culmination of James’s progression as a novelist. The symbol of the golden bowl, taken from Ecclesiastes, represents life and sensibility; it must be broken near the end of the story, just as the protagonist Maggie Verver’s life must be reconstituted on a higher plane, one more spiritual and refined. James obviously hoped that the American upper crust would similarly be transformed. Maggie remains essentially American but also an inheritor of the best of European culture, and she is triumphant in the end over both European and American evils and distractions from the high road in life.

The “New York edition” of his writings, The Novels and Tales of Henry James, was published in 1907-1909; he made revisions and wrote prefaces to these works, the prefaces being separately published in 1934 as The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces. In 1908, at the age of sixty-five, he once again suffered from what he called “black depression,” a condition which he had last experienced fourteen years previously; this time it continued for a longer period. Harvard University granted him an honorary degree in 1911, which he accepted in memory of his famous brother William. In 1915, he became a naturalized British subject. In the same year, he suffered two strokes. James was given the Order of Merit by the king in early 1916, and shortly thereafter, he died, on February 28, 1916, and was cremated; his ashes were put in the family grave in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A memorial plaque was erected in his honor in Chelsea Old Church in London; it reads, “A resident of this parish who renounced a cherished citizenship to give his allegiance to England in the first year of the Great War.” Near the end of his life, James wrote, “One’s supreme relation . . . is one’s relation to one’s country.” Despite his attraction to England and Europe, Henry James was an American; his life and work are dominated by his “relation” to his homeland.


The novels of Henry James are in marked contrast to most other literature written between the American Civil War and World War I, a whole epoch. His work is quite unlike the romanticism of O. Henry, the local color of Sarah Orne Jewett and Bret Harte, the realism of Howells and Mark Twain, or the naturalism of Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Jack London. James was intensely preoccupied with artistic technique, psychological verisimilitude, and the mores and manners of a highly sophisticated elite. In both style and subject matter, he was the inaugurator of the modern novel. His belief in the power of consciousness as the ultimate shaper of people’s lives and his denial of the fixed givens of life as determinants of destiny can be seen in retrospect as very American. Just as the United States itself was preparing to enter the world scene as a major power during his lifetime, James’s life and work looks outward, despite its concern with interior states and developed sensibilities, to America’s new adult relationship to England and Europe in the twentieth century. Although it took some time after his death for Henry James’s reputation and influence to reach their height, he has finally come to be regarded as one of the great American authors; indeed some would say the greatest.


Cargill, Oscar. The Novels of Henry James. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1961. A very informative commentary by a famous critic of James’s novels. In addition, there are handy references to biographical and critical studies. Cargill’s criticism here is particularly useful because it summarizes and incorporates most of the outstanding scholarship on James (up to 1960).

Edel, Leon, ed. Henry James: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963. Contains eighteen essays, published elsewhere previously, a selected bibliography, and a list of important dates in James’s life. Probably the most readily available collection of critical essays on the works of James.

Edel, Leon, ed. Henry James: A Life. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1985. Derived from Edel’s monumental five-volume biography, published between 1953 and 1972, but updated and revised. This is the definitive work. Edel’s additions to this one-volume version are particularly helpful on the subject of James’s sexuality and its relationship to his writings. Based on unpublished correspondence, diaries, and other resources. This noted biography provides a comprehensive treatment of every aspect of James’s life and career.

Edel, Leon, and Dan H. Laurence. A Bibliography of Henry James. 2d ed., rev. Soho Bibliographies. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1961. Includes sections on “Original Works,” “Contributions to Books, including prefaces, introductions, translations, unauthorized and fugitive writings,” “Published Letters,” “Contributions to Periodicals,” “Translations,” and “Miscellanea.”

Edgar, Pelham. Henry James: Man and Author. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1927. Provides both a biographical overview and a critical analysis of James’s major fiction and nonfiction. Treats matters such as James’s craftsmanship, early style, use of dialogue. Extended discussions of The Spoils of Poynton (1897), “The Figure in the Carpet,” and What Maisie Knew. Concludes that by the age of thirty, James had formed the final impressions of America influential in his later writings.

Matthiessen, F. O. The James Family: Including Selections from the Writing of Henry James, Senior, William, Henry and Alice James. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948. An interesting view of Henry James’s relationship with other members of his famous family, especially his brother William, the well-known philosopher and psychologist. This book is largely a collection of quotations. Contains short biographical introductions about the four James family members included. A postscript compares Henry and William.

Perry, Ralph Barton. The Thought and Character of Henry James. 2 vols. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1935. Especially useful on relationship of Henry James to his brother William. Deals with their education, upbringing, and correspondence. Contains many quotations from Henry James’s letters and autobiographical writings. Attention is devoted to James’s European experience and his impressions of the United States.

Putt, Samuel G. Henry James: A Reader’s Guide. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1966. Introduction by Arthur Mizener. Contains fifteen chapters systematically commenting on most of James’s major and minor works, attempting to make them more accessible to the general reader. Although the introduction claims that this book is aimed at beginning readers, it is really more helpful to the slightly advanced student of James’s works. Covers all twenty-two novels and 112 tales.

Wagenknecht, Edward. Eve and Henry James: Portraits of Women and Girls in His Fiction. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1978. A study of many, but not all, of James’s female characters which discusses many sides of their personalities. Wagenknecht organizes his commentary by employing certain types, such as women as victors, women as losers, women as victims, women as femmes fatales, and certain qualities such as destiny, modernity, innocence, love, and honor.


Critical Essays