Henry James Biography

Henry James has been called the first of the great psychological realists in our time. Honored as one of the greatest artists of the novel, he is also regarded as one of America’s most influential critics and literary theorists. During the fifty years of his literary career, which spanned the period from the end of the American Civil War to the beginning of World War I, James produced a body of tales and novels that fills thirty-six volumes and an almost equal number of volumes of non-fiction prose, including travel books, autobiography, books of criticism, letters, and literary notebooks.

Henry James was born in New York City on April 15, 1843, into an affluent and socially prominent family. His father, Henry James, Sr., moved among a wide circle of intellectual leaders of the time and exposed his children to the cultural advantages of New England and, more especially, Europe; before he reached his eighteenth birthday, the younger James had lived abroad for extended periods on three separate occasions.

An “obscure hurt” suffered in 1861, an injury to his spine, kept James from service in the Civil War; for reasons perhaps related to this injury, James never married. At the age of thirty-three, he took up residence in Europe, living first for a year in Paris and then permanently in England. He became a British subject in 1915, a year before his death.

The influence of James’ European experience and, ultimately, the “idea” of Europe as it relates to his work are central to an understanding of James’ fiction. As a young man, James sensed the freedom of Americans to “deal freely with forms of civilization not our own . . . and assimilate”; in 1869, at the age of twenty-six, he traveled again to Europe, entered the mainstream of London intellectual life, and formed friendships with leading literary figures of the time. He returned to America in 1870, went abroad again in 1872 for two more years, spent the winter of 1874-75 in New York, and finally left America in 1875, this time for good. In Europe, James could best deal with his dominant theme: the illumination of the present by “the sense of the past,” the American present illuminated by the sense of the European past. James saw, in his own words, the manifest “possibility of contrast in the human lot . . . encountered as we turn back and forth between the distinctively American and the distinctively European outlook.” This contrast forms the basis of the Jamesian “international theme.”

James’ literary career has been divided into three stages or “periods”: the early period, the middle years, and the “later manner” or, more popularly, the major phase.

The period of James’ apprenticeship and first success — the early period of his career — is characterized by his discovery and development of the “international” theme: the study of the American abroad, the juxtaposition of New World innocence and Old World experience, American freedom and European convention, and an examination of the conflicting values of the two societies. Works of this period include Roderick Hudson (1875); The American (1877), James’ first really successful novel; Daisy Miller (1879); The Europeans (1878); and the triumphant novel which ends this period, The Portrait of a Lady (1881).

James’ second period, the middle phase of his career, has also been labeled the period of his “social” novels, involving a turning from the international theme to complex social and political issues set against both New England and European backdrops. These novels include The Princess Casamassima (1886) and The Bostonians (1886). These books were not well received by his public. By 1889, James’ income from his writings had dropped considerably. He abandoned fiction for the next five years in an unsuccessful attempt to write for the stage. He wrote seven plays, of which only two were produced: one of them, a dramatization of The American, was moderately successful; the other, Guy Domville, proved a distinct and, for James, humiliating failure. He left London, moving to Rye, Sussex, a picturesque coastal town. There he returned to the writing of fiction and produced a series of tales (the best known of which is The Turn of the Screw) and the novels The Spoils of Poynton (1897), What Maisie Knew (1897), and The Awkward Age (1899).

The final period of James’ career — the major phase — produced the novels that are today regarded as the peak of his achievement: The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904). In these three novels, James returned to his “international” theme, but with a more subtle, mature, and deeper exploration of its implications. The Ambassadors is perhaps the most widely admired of James’ novels and is an excellent introduction to his work, for it embodies his most significant themes and the best of his style and technique. The Ambassadors presents Henry James at the peak of his literary career.