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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 4563 words.)

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