Authors: Henry James

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American novelist, short-story writer, essayist, and critic

April 15, 1843

New York, New York

February 28, 1916

London, England

Biography

Henry James is one of the most important and influential writers in English of the nineteenth century; his examples and his theoretical principles established the foundation of the modernist movement in twentieth century fiction and poetry, and his major novels constitute a great advance in the type known as psychological realism. Henry James’s father was an eccentric though respected philosopher from a prominent New York family. Determined to give his children the best possible education, James, Sr., sent them to the Continent, where they attended schools in France, Germany, England, and Switzerland. The young Henry James returned to America in 1860, studied painting briefly, attended Harvard Law School briefly, and then returned to the family home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he met such prominent literary figures of the day as James Russell Lowell. About the time he decided to become a writer, the Civil War began; simultaneously, James suffered a mysterious and still unspecified injury while helping to put out a fire at Newport. Because of his slow recovery, he took no active part in the war.

Henry James

(Library of Congress)

By 1864, James was submitting reviews to various publications, and in 1865 he placed his first story. For the next five years, he traveled extensively, spending long periods particularly in Paris and London, where he penetrated the fashionable literary circles and formed friendships with the leading writers and artists of the time. During this time, he wrote sporadically, mostly on a minor scale, though he did manage to achieve the serialized publication of his first novel, Watch and Ward, in 1871. During the next five years, he continued his schedule of travel and socializing, though he gradually began to write more regularly. His literary career properly began in 1875 with the publication of A Passionate Pilgrim, his first significant stories, which included “Madame de Mauves.” The success of this collection seemed to confirm him in his literary vocation, and in the following year he settled permanently in London and began to follow a serious regimen. From then on his output was prodigious.

James’s literary career is usually divided into three phases. The first phase, from 1875 to 1885, really begins with “Madame de Mauves,” in which the naïve innocence of America is juxtaposed against the cynical and jaded experience of Europe, a confrontation often also compounded by the juxtapositions of American money with European decay and American simplicity with European complexity. During this period, James enjoyed the only true popularity he ever encountered in his career, largely because he had fastened on the question of the moment and realized it in fiction—the question of what constituted the American character and how it would interact with the established society of Europe. The American was the first in this series of popular successes; in this work, James caught the popular imagination in an account of a young American hopelessly out of his depth in sophisticated European society. He capitalized on this success in Daisy Miller, in which a spirited American girl defies European conventions, exposes their hypocrisies and repressions, yet dies because she carries her rebellion too far. The masterpiece of this period is The Portrait of a Lady; here James deepens and intensifies the themes, showing that both Europe and America suffer in their repeated failure to reach an accommodation that will fuse the values of both traditions. In this work, James also began to experiment with those techniques of point of view and characterization that ultimately led to a new kind of storytelling.

In his second phase, from 1885 to 1897, James abandoned the treatment of international confrontation to pursue more limited national—that is, distinctly British and American—social and psychological themes. He had also become more interested in technical problems in narrative. During this time, he lost many of his readers, and the major works of this period—The Bostonians, The Princess Casamassima, and The Tragic Muse—were all financial and critical failures. Yet they define the social ambience that became the context of the modernist movement: Many critics have speculated that the early work of James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound originated in scenes that James created in these works. Dismayed by their popular rejection, James decided in 1890 to try the stage as a more appropriate vehicle for his vision, for this was a time of social realism in the theater. Here he failed even more dismally; one of his plays was met with such derision from the audience that the performance could not continue. Probably drawing on these experiences, James composed at this time a series of stories about artists out of touch with their society, the best known of which is “The Real Thing.”

Returning to fiction, James inaugurated his third period, from 1897 to 1916—often called his major phase but also designated by adverse critics as that of James the Old Pretender—with The Spoils of Poynton. Here he introduces drastic experiments in point of view, dramatic presentation of scene, and partial revelation of character, devices which foreshadow Joyce and Virginia Woolf. The other landmarks of this phase are The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl; his most enduring work, the novella The Turn of the Screw, also appeared at this time. These works undeniably represent the most complex development of James’s approach to fiction, and they are by any standard technical marvels. Their influence on the evolution of twentieth century fiction, moreover, was immense. Critical acceptance of these works continues to be divided, however, perhaps in part because James’s technical innovations were already being superseded by those of Joyce. Beyond all doubt, these later works constitute the most advanced reach of James’s art; his style here reaches its most cryptic extreme, becoming almost an end in itself. James has been damned as a “writer’s writer,” but in his art he nevertheless anticipated the most abstract contemporary critical theories.

Author Works Long Fiction: Watch and Ward, 1871 Roderick Hudson, 1876 The American, 1876–1877 The Europeans, 1878 Daisy Miller, 1878 An International Episode, 1878–1879 Confidence, 1879–1880 Washington Square, 1880 The Portrait of a Lady, 1880–1881 The Bostonians, 1885–1886 The Princess Casamassima, 1885–1886 The Reverberator, 1888 The Tragic Muse, 1889–1890 The Other House, 1896 The Spoils of Poynton, 1897 What Maisie Knew, 1897 The Awkward Age, 1897–1899 The Turn of the Screw, 1898 In the Cage, 1898 The Sacred Fount, 1901 The Wings of the Dove, 1902 The Ambassadors, 1903 The Golden Bowl, 1904 The Outcry, 1911 The Ivory Tower, 1917 The Sense of the Past, 1917 Short Fiction: Madame de Mauves, 1874 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 A London Life, 1888 The Aspern Papers, 1888 The Lesson of the Master, 1888 The Real Thing, 1893 Terminations, 1895 Embarrassments, 1896 The Two Magics: The Turn of the Screwand Covering End, 1898 The Soft Side, 1900 The Beast in the Jungle, 1903 The Better Sort, 1903 The Novels and Tales of Henry James, 1907–1909 (24 volumes) The Finer Grain, 1910 Henry James: Selected Short Stories, 1950 Henry James: Eight Tales from the Major Phase, 1958 The Complete Tales of Henry James, 1962–1965 (12 volumes; Leon Edel, editor) The Figure in the Carpet, and Other Stories, 1986 The Jolly Corner, and Other Tales, 1990 Drama: Daisy Miller, pb. 1883 (adaptation of his novel) The American, pr. 1891 (adaptation of his novel) Theatricals: Tenants and Disengaged, pb. 1894 The Reprobate, pb. 1894, pr. 1919 Guy Domville, pb. 1894 (privately), pr. 1895 Theatricals, Second Series: The Album and The Reprobate, pb. 1895 The High Bid, pr. 1908 The Outcry, wr. 1909, pr. 1917 The Saloon, pr. 1911 (one act) The Complete Plays of Henry James, pb. 1949 (Leon Edel, editor) Nonfiction: Transatlantic Sketches, 1875 French Poets and Novelists, 1878 Hawthorne, 1879 Portraits of Places, 1883 A Little Tour in France, 1884 The Art of Fiction, 1884 Partial Portraits, 1888 Essays in London, 1893 William Wetmore Story and His Friends, 1903 English Hours, 1905 The American Scene, 1907 Views and Reviews, 1908 Italian Hours, 1909 A Small Boy and Others, 1913 (memoirs) Notes of a Son and Brother, 1914 (memoirs) Notes on Novelists, 1914 The Middle Years, 1917 The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces, 1934 (R. P. Blackmur, editor) The Notebooks of Henry James, 1947 (F.O. Matthiessen and Kenneth B. Murdock, editors) The Scenic Art, 1948 (Allan Wade, editor) Henry James Letters, 1974-1984 (5 volumes; Leon Edel, editor) The Art of Criticism: Henry James on the Theory and Practice of Fiction, 1986 The Complete Notebooks of Henry James, 1987 Dear Munificent Friends: Henry James’s Letters to Four Women, 1999 (Susan E. Gunter, editor) Henry James on Culture: Collected Essays on Politics and the American Social Scene, 1999 (Pierre A. Walker, editor) Dearly Beloved Friends: Henry James’s Letters to Younger Men, 2001 (Gunter and Steven H. Jobe, editors) Bibliography Anesko, Michael. “Friction with the Market”: Henry James and the Profession of Authorship. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. A thoughtful and well-researched specialized study. Covers with great skill the social and economic aspects of James’s career as a novelist, essayist, dramatist, and critic. Erudite but still quite useful for the general reader. Bailie, Ronnie. The Fantastic Anatomist: A Psychoanalytic Study of Henry James. Atlanta, Ga.: Rodopi, 2000. A look at James and his works from the psychological perspective. Bibliography and index. Bell, Millicent. “‘The Pupil’ and the Unmentionable Subject.” Raritan 16 (Winter, 1997): 50-63. Claims the story is about that which was once considered almost unmentionable by the genteel: money. James focuses on the extinct code of manners and taste by which refined persons were not supposed to talk much about money. Bloom, Harold, ed. Henry James. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Bloom has compiled what he considers the best in criticism available on James, presented in order of their original publication. Contains much insight from knowledgeable sources on this important American novelist. Dewey, Joseph, and Brooke Horvath, eds. “The Finer Thread, the Tighter Weave”: Essays on the Short Fiction of Henry James. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2001. A critical study. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Flannery, Denis. Henry James: A Certain Illusion. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 2000. An analysis of illusion in the works of James. Bibliography and index. Freedman, Jonathan, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Henry James. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. A reference work that provides extensive information on James’s life and literary influences and also details his works and the characters contained in them. Bibliography and index. Gage, Richard P. Order and Design: Henry James Titled Story Sequences. New York: Peter Lang, 1988. Gage examines James’s published short-story collections, such as Terminations, Embarrassments, and The Soft Side, in order to show how James collected his stories around a central theme. Focusing on the interrelatedness of James’s works, Gage shows how James’s stories can be divided into organized units based upon a holistic design. Graham, Kenneth. Henry James, a Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. A comprehensive biography. Greenwood, Christopher. Adapting to the Stage: Theatre and the Work of Henry James. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2000. An analysis of James’s dramatic works and of his works that have been adapted for the stage. Bibliography and index. Heldreth, Leonard. “The Ghost and the Self: The Supernatural Fiction of Henry James.” In The Celebration of the Fantastic, edited by Donald E. Morse, Marshall B. Tymn, and Csilla Bertha. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. Discusses two typical patterns in James’s ghost stories: In one group, the supernatural force is a trace of the past compelling a character to make a change. In the second group, ghosts constitute an intrusion of the romantic relationship between two characters. Hocks, Richard A. Henry James: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Hocks’s book is a good introduction to James’s short fiction. The book divides James’s stories into three periods: the early social realism, the middle tales dealing with psychological and moral issues, and the later works of poetic expressionism. Detailed analyses of the major works are provided, along with selections of James’s writings on short fiction and a collection of critical articles on selected works. Horne, Philip. “Henry James and the Economy of the Short Story.” In Modernist Writers and the Marketplace, edited by Ian Willison, Warwick Gould, and Warren Chernaik. London: Macmillan, 1996. Discusses some of the commercial and social constraints and opportunities that affected James’s writing of short fiction in the last half of his career. Kaplan, Fred. Henry James: The Imagination of Genius. New York: Morrow, 1992. Kraft, James. The Early Tales of Henry James. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969. Kraft briefly covers James’s theory of short fiction and gives considerable emphasis to James’s little known early stories. He focuses on James’s development as a writer of short fiction, beginning with James’s first story “A Tragedy of Error” (1864) and ending with “The International Episode” (1879). This book is not for the student interested in James’s major works. Lewis, R. W. B. The Jameses. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991. Lustig, T. J. Henry James and the Ghostly. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Discusses James’s ghost stories and the significance of the “ghostly” for James’s work generally. Among the best-known James stories discussed are “The Jolly Corner” and “The Turn of the Screw.” Lustig devotes a third of this study to “The Turn of the Screw,” which he argues is a story about reading. Martin, W. R., and Warren U. Ober. Henry James’s Apprenticeship: The Tales, 1864-1882. Toronto: P. D. Meany Publishers, 1994. An analysis of the stories James wrote in the first fifteen years of his career, suggesting how the vision he was creating in those stories prepared for the writing of his first masterpiece, The Portrait of a Lady. Discusses the sources of his basic theme of the victimized innocent. Moore, Harry Thornton. Henry James. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999. A biography that covers the life and works of James. Nettels, Elsa. Language and Gender in American Fiction: Howells, James, Wharton, and Cather. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997. Elsa Nettels examines American writers struggling with the problems of patriarchy. Novick, Sheldon M. Henry James: The Young Master. New York: Random House, 1996. A controversial biography which provoked considerable debate between Novick and Edel. Novick explores James’s career up to The Portrait of a Lady, delving more daringly into James’s sexual life than other biographers. Includes notes and bibliography. Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Madness of Art: Henry James’s ‘The Middle Years.’” New Literary History 27 (Spring, 1996): 259-262. Discusses the story’s buried theme as that of the strange marriage of artist and “greatest admirer.” Pearson, John H. The Prefaces of Henry James: Framing the Modern Reader. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997. In Chapter 5 of this study, Pearson examines James’s preface to volume 17 of his collected works, which contains such stories as “The Altar of the Dead,” “The Beast in the Jungle,” and “The Birthplace.” Provides an intertextual reading of these stories as self-reflective tales in which author and reader are dialectically opposed. Pippin, Robert B. Henry James and Modern Moral Life. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A look at the moral message James tried to convey through his works. Pollak, Vivian R., ed. New Essays on “Daisy Miller” and “The Turn of the Screw.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Includes feminist and psychological approaches as well as a study of the stories in the context of the Victorian period. Contains an introduction and bibliography. Rawlings, Peter. “A Kodak Refraction of Henry James’s ‘The Real Thing.’” Journal of American Studies 32 (December, 1998): 447-462. Discusses “The Real Thing” and its treatment of issues of representation and reproduction as an allegory in which the tyrannical forces of the real and the vulgar, unless subjected to the processes of selection and idealization, can be all-vanquishing. Rowe, John Carlos. The Other Henry James. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998. A biography of James that examines his political and social views and looks at his portrayal of gender and sex roles. Simon, Linda. The Critical Reception of Henry James: Creating a Master. Rochester: Camden House, 2007. A thorough study of criticism of James’ work, ranging from early magazine reviews to contemporary studies. Stevens, Hugh. Henry James and Sexuality. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. A study of sexuality as it presents itself in James’s work, including homosexuality and sex roles. Bibliography and index. Tambling, Jeremy. Henry James. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. From the series Critical Issues. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Vaid, Krishna Balden. Technique in the Tales of Henry James. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964. Vaid covers all the major works, gives a comprehensive overview of James’s writings on short fiction, and focuses on James’s styles of narration and his careful balance of summary and scene. The book contains an excellent chapter on James’s later tales. Wagenknecht, Edward. The Tales of Henry James. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984. The book contains brief analyses of fifty-five of James’s major tales as well as thumbnail sketches of other stories. It provides a good reference work for someone looking for short summaries and critical bibliographies (found in the footnotes) but lacks detailed criticism of individual works as well as historical perspective.

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