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Henry James Biography

(1843–1916), Nation, Galaxy, Atlantic Monthly, Watch and Ward, A Passionate Pilgrim and Other Tales, Roderick Hudson

American novelist and author of short stories, critical essays, and plays, born in New York, son of the Swedenborgian philosopher Henry James, Sr, brother of William James. He spent many of his formative years in Europe, residing in Geneva, London, Paris, and Boulogne in 18558 and 185960, until returning to live in Newport, Rhode Island in 1860. He entered Harvard Law School in 1862. With encouragement from William Dean Howells, with whom he developed a lifelong friendship, he devoted himself to writing. He contributed short stories and book reviews to the Nation and Galaxy in 1865, his first short story appearing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1868. In 1869 James returned to Europe and spent some time travelling in England, France, and Italy; this provided him with his observations of Americans adrift in Europe and the ‘international’ theme of the collision and collusion between Europe (especially Britain) and the USA that was to preoccupy his fiction in future years. Back in Cambridge, Massachusetts, his first novel Watch and Ward was serialized in the Atlantic Monthly in 1871, and appeared in book form in 1878. His first significant short story, ‘The Passionate Pilgrim’, also appeared in 1871, later published in A Passionate Pilgrim and Other Tales (1875). These early tales reflect the influence of the realism of Dickens, Balzac, Hawthorne, and George Eliot. After living in Boston writing reviews, short stories, and art criticism, he returned to Europe in 1872 and spent the next two years in Italy working on his first long work, Roderick Hudson (1875), a novel whose description of the disintegration of the life of a young American sculptor in Rome, hopelessly in love with an Italian girl, appears to suggest that love and passion are detrimental to the aesthetic vocation. After returning to America in 1874, he spent a year in Paris during 18756, where his friendship with Ivan Turgenev introduced him to a literary circle which included Gustave Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant, Emile Zola, Alphonse Daudet, and de Goncourt; he settled in London in 1876, where he lived for twenty years. He completed The American (1877), The Europeans (1878), Daisy Miller (1879), a short story about an American girl's experiences of the inflexibility of European social politeness and behaviour, and the two novelettes An International Episode (1879) and Confidence (1880), all of which continued his investigation of the cultural, social, and historical relationships between Europe and the USA. A collection of short stories also appeared at this time, The Madonna of the Future and Other Tales (1879). This period also brought James's first major works of criticism, French Poets and Novelists (1878) and Hawthorne (1879); these were followed in 1888 by Partial Portraits which included the classic essay ‘The Art of Fiction’, which laid down many of the aesthetic precepts for much of his work.

The 1880s saw several important achievements: Washington Square (1881), a novel about the isolated and hemmed-in social and cultural aspirations of the young American woman Catherine Sloper; The Bostonians (1886), which deals with the emerging feminist movement and different social and gender reactions to its demands; and The Princess Casamassima (1886), a tale about London revolutionaries, which brings back the Italian girl from Roderick Hudson. His abiding theme of analysing the American character with a group of Europeans occurred again in the book acknowledged as his first masterpiece, The Portrait of a Lady (1881). Its detailed and extended analysis of the characters involved in the story makes the book a triumph of understated psychological realism. During this period there were also several attempts at playwriting, with a dramatization of Daisy Miller (1883), but his later unsuccessful Guy Domville (1895) was booed off the stage. Several novelettes were also written, including The Reverberator (1888) and The Aspern Papers (1888), the latter about a critic's attempt to acquire a famous poet's correspondence. There followed The Tragic Muse (1890), which was set in London and focused on the lives of an artistic circle; What Maisie Knew (1897), describing the break-up of a marriage through the eyes of a young girl; an unsuccessful melodrama, The Other House (1896); and The Spoils of Poynton (1897), dramatizing the mean-mindedness of the occupants of a magnificent house, and a complex set of relationships based on acquisitiveness and a chain of personal pressures.

As well as writing these successful full-length novels, throughout his career James also produced a steady stream of outstanding short stories and novellas, including the collections A London Life (1889), The Lesson of the Master (1892), The Private Life (1893), The Wheel of Time (1893), Terminations (1895), Embarrassments (1896) which contains the tale ‘The Figure in the Carpet’, In The Cage (1898), The Two Magics (1898) which contains ‘The Turn of the Screw’, a ghost story of subtle horror, The Altar of the Dead (1909), and The Finer Grain (1910). In 1897 he purchased Lamb House in Rye, where he lived for the remainder of his life. The novel The Awkward Age appeared in 1899, about Nanda Brookhouse and her adolescent experiences in the materialistic and cut-throat New York salon society; and The Sacred Fount in 1901, a novelette which satirizes the ‘detached observer’ of James's novels, and ranges over the distinction between masks and ‘reality’, the ageing process, the invulnerability of art, the ‘madness of art’ which insists on seeing more than the immediate ‘real’, and the vulnerability of love.

Although the majority of James's fiction was written in the nineteenth century, he reached the peak of his career in the early 1900s with three massive novels: The Wings of the Dove (1902), a masterpiece of ironic character portrayal; The Ambassadors (1903); and The Golden Bowl (1904). In 1904 he returned to the USA, where he stayed with Henry Adams, and his generally dyspeptic and pessimistic analysis of the country and culture was expressed in The American Scene (1907). For the two years after the publication of this volume, he worked on the enormous New York Edition of his works, which eventually appeared complete with the new prefaces on the art of fiction. Although criticized by some for the labyrinthine complexity of his style, James's prose is usually regarded as second to none for subtlety of phrase and perception, with a reputation for sophistication, and his attention to textual detail and nuance is clearly evident in the revisions occasioned by this publishing enterprise. Between 1910 and 1914 he completed two volumes of a projected five-volume autobiography: A Small Boy (1913) and Notes of a Son and Brother (1914). He also began two novels, The Sense of the Past and The Ivory Tower (both published in 1917), and a volume of autobiography, The Middle Years (1917), all of which remained incomplete. His final years were scarred by his brother William's and sister Alice's deaths, and the outbreak of the First World War, which he described as ‘the plunge of civilization into the abyss of blood and darkness’. In 1915 he acquired British citizenship and was awarded the Order of Merit. James also published several travel books, principally Transatlantic Sketches (1875), Portraits of Places (1883), A Little Tour in France (1900), and Italian Hours (1909). Other works of criticism were Picture and Text (1893), Notes on Novelists (1914), and Within the Rim and Other Essays (1918). F. O. Matthiessen edited James's Notebooks (1947), and four volumes of his Letters (197484) were edited by Leon Edel. Edel has also written an authoritative five-volume biography, The Life of Henry James (195372), all of which confirm James's place as one of the most self-reflective artists to have ever lived.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Robin’ [Iris Guiver Wilkinson] ‘Hyde Biography to Percy Janes Biography