Henry James: Biography - Life and Works

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      The world of Henry James’s novels, with its international outlook, its very intimate human relationships, and its ideal abundance of money, distinction, intelligence, and goodwill, was derived in part from the circumstances of his own childhood and youth. Henry James was born in New York City on April 15, 1843, the second son of Henry James and Mary Walsh James, both of whom belonged to wealthy New York State families of Irish Protestant descent. Henry James, the Senior, was a dissident religious philosopher, a man of many ideas, an affectionate father, and a charming highly independent social figure. His personal vitality and speculative mind descended to the eldest son, William James, the future scientist and philosopher, and in some degree to the younger brothers, Wilkinson and Robertson, and the younger sister, Alice. The Jameses were a gifted and vivacious circle; and their frequent changes of residence in the United States (Albany, New York, Newport, Cambridge); the lengthy stay they made in Europe during Henry’s boyhood; the perpetual experiments in schooling to which the young Jameses were subjected-all this promoted the self-sufficiency of the family as a whole and the interdependence of its close members on one another. Henry and William were, and remained, especially intimate.

Henry James’s Family Life

      Illness and mental tension also haunted the James family. Passive and withdrawn in childhood, Henry suffered a back injury in his nineteenth year which made him a semi-invalid throughout his youth. He never married. His experience was notably inward and his mind highly contemplative from the start. He felt unsure of his talents and of his place in the family, the United States, and the world. But these uncertainties determined him in his search for a vocation and a mind of his own. From his early love of paintings and stage plays arose a passion for artistic form and for the representation of life in what he called “images”. In Europe, especially Paris, of his boyhood, he found the image of a high culture and a complex social history as distinguished from the more meager culture and history of his own country at the time. He profited by the James family culture in the degree that he gently dissociated himself from some of its ideals, retaining the family faith in self-culture and moral disinterestedness but pursuing these aims from a point of view which was more international, aristocratic and conservative. Despite his family’s wealth and his own preference for good society, he largely supported himself by his writings and was a tireless critic of the manners and morals of a good society.

Henry James’s life in Europe

      These and other considerations made him finally take up residence in Europe. Meanwhile, he had served his literary apprenticeship in the United States. At Cambridge, where he was briefly enrolled in the Harvard Law School in 1862, he applied himself seriously to writing and formed enduring literary friendships with Wiliam Dean Howells, Charles Eliot, Norton, and others. His first publication seems to have been an unsigned tale, “A Tragedy of Error,” which appeared in the Continental Monthly in February, 1864. He was soon steady contributor of stories, critical articles, and travel essays to American periodicals. Between 1868 and 1874 he made two long stays in Europe; and in 1872 after a prolonged debate with himself and others, he decided to settle in Europe. Paris, where he first resided and where he came to know Turgenev, Flaubert, and other writers, proved uncongenial for his purposes, and in 1876 he removed to England. London was for many years his home; but in 1898 he acquired a small estate in Rye, Sussex, which was his main residence for the rest of his life. He continued to travel in Europe and paid three lengthy visits to America. He had a genius for friendship and its amenities, including letter writing. For many years his social life in Europe was very active; he frequented fashionable society as well as that of other writers and artists - English, American, and French. Essentially he remained a rather solitary bachelor, preoccupied with his own art and point of view as a kindly but austere moralist. His literary reputation, which was high in his early London years, declined during the later 1880’s ; and in the next decade, he turned to writing for the theater in the hope of recouping, his losses. The experiment failed, and gradually he ceased to expect a wide popularity, His novels became increasingly intricate and original in language and form; and while they antagonized the large public, they attracted readers of advanced taste. His remarkable powers of conversation were also widely appreciated. He left, said one listener, “a deep impression of majesty, beauty and greatness.” Beginning in 1907, there appeared The New York Edition of the Novels and Tales of Henry James, for which he selected, revised, and prefaced his writings. In 1911, following the death of William James, he issued two autobiographical volumes, A Small
Boy and Others and Notes of a Son and Brother : the fragment of a third, The Middle Years, was published posthumously. With the outbreak of the war of 1914, he devoted himself to England’s cause and in 1915, he made the sympathetic gesture of becoming a British subject. But his health was failing, and following a heart attack, he died in London on February 28, 1916, aged 72.

Nature of James’s Work

      James’s work is massive and complex and in its themes and techniques, extremely various. The twenty-six volumes of the New York Edition include only about two-thirds of his published fiction, which ranges in scope and subject from great international panoramas like The Wings of the Dove to unpretentious comedies of manners, fables of the artist life, ghost stories, and anecdotal tales. He was most famous in his lifetime for novels and stories showing the impact of Europeans and Americans on one another. His best early writings (e.g. Daisy Miller, The American, The Europeans, and The Portrait of a Lady) deal with this subject; and he returned to it in the three long novels of his later maturity (The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl). In the later 1880’s and the 1890’s, he wrote much on the subject of English life proper or American life proper (e. g. The Bostonians, The Princess Casamassima, The Spoils of Poynton, What Maisie Knew, The Awkward Age). These books, which had little success in their day, have since been recognized as among his greatest. Besides his fiction, he also wrote biographies (of Hawthorne and William Wetmore Story), literary essays, and cultural studies (“The American Scene”), and was one of the major Anglo-American critics between the. age of Matthew Arnold and that of T. S. Eliot.

      His fiction and his criticism rest on the same general interests and assumptions. Like Matthew Arnold, he was greatly concerned with the state of culture, and he believed that culture included art, ideas and manners, but consisted essentially in “the perfection of the self.” In all his major novels, his men and women seek self-knowledge and self-mastery along with knowledge of the world and pleasure in the world’s appearances. He was, Joseph Conrad said, “the historian of fine consciences.” Men and women become true heroes for James in the degree that they reach a state of consciousness concerning their own natures and aims, cast off their illusions and their emotional dependency on other persons, act decisively on the data of consciousness, and are willing to renounce some immediate material advantage in the expectation of some ultimate and high good. This is success in life for Henry James; while failure and evil which also abound in his fictional world, consist in the substitution of material aims and of personal power for the practice of intelligence, goodwill, and love. His high evaluation of human consciousness gives rise to the peculiar methods of the James novel. The events of the story are transmitted to us through the minds of the chief protagonists. The minds of his observers frequently develop in clarity and power of sympathy as the story progresses, though sometimes they remain closed to reality and record experiences falsely. From these methods arises the profound irony of many of James’s performances ; and some few of his tales (The Sacred Fount, The Turn of the Screw) seem to be deliberate exercises in ambiguity. Other similar tales (“The Aspern Papers,” “The Beast in Jungle”), in which the observer is denied real vision altogether or until the last moment, maybe James’s most original and perfect writings. In recent years some English critics claim him for the great tradition of novel writing in that country, while some American critics describe him as among the greatest of our own writers, the disciple of Hawthorne and the forerunner of T. S. Eliot. Both claims are justified by the range of his sympathy, knowledge, and art.


Novels :

Roderick Hudson, 1876 ;
The American, 1877 ;
The Europeans, 1878 :
Daisy Miller, 1879 ;
An International Episode, 1879
Confidence, 1880 ;
Washington Square, 1881
The Portrait of a Lady, 1881;
The Bostonians, 1886
The Princess Casamassima, 1886
The Reverberator, 1888 ;
The Tragic Muse, 1890 ,,
The Other House, 1896 ;
The Spoils of Poy it on, 1897 ;
What Maisie Knew, 1897
In the Cage, 1898 ;
The Awkward Age, 1899 
The Sacred Faunt, 1901 ;
The Wings of the Dove, 1902 ;
The Ambassadors, 1903 ;
The Golden Bowl, 1904 ;
Julia Bride, 1909 
The Outcry, 1911 ;
The Ivory Tower, 1917 ;
The Sense of the Past, 1917 ;

Short Stories :

A Passionate Pilgrim, 1875;
The Madonna of the Future, 1879
The Siege of London, 1883 :
Tales of Three Cities, 1884 ;
The Author of Beltraffio, 1885 ;
The Aspern Papers, 1888 ;
The Lesson of the Master, 1892 
The Real Thing, 1898
Terminations 1895;
Embarrassments, 1896
The Two Magics ;
The Turn of the Screw and Covering End, 1898
The Soft Side, 1900 ;
The Better Sort, 1903 ;
The Finer Grain, 1910
A Landscape Painter, 1919 ;
Traveling Companions, 1919 ;
Master Eustace, 1920 ;

Autobiography :

A Small Boy and Others, 1913
Notes, of a Son and Brother, 1914 ;
The Middle Years, 1917 .

Plays :

Theatrical ; Tenants and Disengaged
Theatricals’ Second Series : The Album and The Reprobate, 1895 ;
The Complete Plays of Henry James, 1949,

Travel sketches and impressions :

Translantic Sketches, 1875
Portraits of Places, 1883 
A Little Tour in France; 1884 
English Hours, 1905 
The American Scene, 1907 
Italian Hours, 1909.

Criticism :

French Poets and Novelists, 1878
Hawthorne, 1879
Partial Portraits, 1888
Essays in London, 1893
Views and Reviews, 1908
Notes on Novelists, 1914
Within the Rim, 1918.

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