Julien Green was born of American parents in Paris on September 6, 1900. His father was from Virginia, his mother originally from Georgia; at the time his father’s business had taken the family to Paris. Although Julien attended French schools and learned to speak French fluently, he was required at home to learn English thoroughly. His mother, who was an Episcopalian, also held daily Bible readings with her family. Thus Green was early affected by the awe and mystery of religion, as well as by its significance to him. In 1915, after his mother’s death, he converted to Roman Catholicism, only to enter a period of apostasy later on. His journals, however, record with deep feeling and humility the account of his return to faith in 1939.
During World War I, he was at first too young to join the army and served in the American Field Service, in which he saw service at the front in both France and Italy. In 1918, he was able to join the French artillery. After the war, an uncle in the United States persuaded Green to pursue his studies at the University of Virginia. While he was there, the university literary magazine published a short piece of his called “The Apprentice Psychiatrist,” an early work holding promise of his later novels. After three years, however, Green became homesick for France and returned without having completed his course of study.
After a brief period of art studies, Green determined to write for his career. His first novel, Avarice House, was favorably received in France and the United States. The story, which is set in Virginia, concerns a niggardly and cruel mother and her neurotic daughter. His second novel, Adrienne Mesurat, written shortly after, shows more maturity. Here the setting is a French provincial town, and the main character is a persecuted, embittered, and bored young girl who, when her love is rejected, loses her reason. This work was awarded a prize for the best French work suitable for English translation, and the translation, The Closed Garden, was chosen as a selection by one of the national book clubs. His next novel, The Dark Journey, tells the story of a man’s unrequited passion for a rather shabby village girl. This work was the Harper Prize novel for 1929. Perhaps his most bizarre novel is The Dreamer, which concerns a sickly young man who imagines himself inhabiting a chateau peopled with a small group of quite weird inhabitants.
Following his early successes, Green interspersed novel writing with short stories, plays, and books of personal recollections. His Journal, published in fourteen volumes between 1938 and 1990, contain reflections on such subjects as death and God as well as glimpses into his literary friendships with such writers as André Gide and Gertrude Stein. During World War II, after the fall of France, Green resided in the United States, where he lectured at various colleges and wrote one of his few English works, Memories of Happy Days, in which he poignantly described his boyhood life in France. During that war, he also served with the United States Army.
In Moira, he returned to an American setting to present a psychological study of a country boy at an American university in the South during the 1920’s. The setting for one of his later plays, South, takes place shortly before the Civil War. In the novel The Transgressor he presents an intensely psychological theme against a French provincial background.
Critics have commented on Green’s impeccable French style. His backgrounds are usually well conceived, the tone of most of his works is excessively somber, and most of his characters are highly neurotic. These qualities give his novels their distinctive blend of external melodrama and inward psychological intensity. His later work is marked also by a spirit of devout mysticism. In 1966, he received the Prix National des Lettres, and in 1970 the Grand Prix de l’Académie Française. Green died in Paris in 1998 a month before his ninety-eighth birthday.