to a wealthy family in New York city on April 15, 1843, Henry James went on
to write more than twenty novels, including
Washington Square (1880), The Turn of the Screw
The Wings of the Dove
(1902). He was a master of the psychological
drama and was an innovator in both literary technique and style.
At the age of 19, James enrolled for a short time in Harvard
Law School. He soon learned that he preferred literature to
law, though, and he left. Two years later, he published his first
short story, A Tragedy of
Errors, and he devoted himself to literature from then on.
As a child, James traveled
Europe where he explored Geneva, London,
Paris, and Bologna. His parents allowed him to wander the streets of
the continent so that he might absorb the language and culture that the greatest
European cities had to offer. After
being graduated from Harvard, he again went to Europe where he wrote for magazines
the Nation and the Atlantic Monthly. While there, he
completed his first novel, Watch and Ward, which was published in 1871.
James ran out of money, he had to decide whether to return to America, where
he felt he had a better chance at getting more books published, or remain in
Europe and hope for the best. His brother, William,
wrote in a letter, "It is a fork in the path of your life, and upon your decision
hangs your whole future." Finally, in October 1875, James wrote
to his family, "Dear People All. I take possession of the old world—I inhale
it—I appropriate it!" He would live in Europe for the rest of his
"I could come back to America to die - but never, never to live." -
letter to Mrs. William James, April 1, 1913
began work on his most famous book, The Portrait of a Lady,
in an apartment that overlooked a waterway in Florence. The book is about a woman
named Isabel Archer who goes to England to live with her aunt, her uncle,
their son Ralph. Isabel inherits some money and leaves for Italy, where
she decides to marry a rich widower named Gilbert Osmond. She spends the rest
of the novel dealing with the horrible consequences of her decision.
The novel begins, "Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life
more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon
James once said, "I hate American
simplicity. I glory in the piling up of complications of every sort.
If I could pronounce the name James in any different or more elaborate way I
should be in favour of doing it." One time, he said to a group of his
English friends, "However British you may be, I am more British still."
But around the beginning of the Twentieth Century, James found himself
thinking about his native land. He hadn't seen his home country in twenty-five years, and
he wanted to know how it had changed since he left. He dreamed about
kicking through the leaves on Fifth Avenue, seeing if the trees he
remembered as a youth were still there. He wrote to a friend that he wanted to
"lie on the ground, on an American hillside, on the edge of the woods, in
the manner of my youth." He had difficulty raising the money for
the trip home, but he
finally left for America in August 1904. He loved the big open spaces
of the American West, as well as the weather of sunny California, but he said the
country was "too huge...for any human convenience."
life as a writer was difficult. He wasn't especially popular with his
readers, who often found his long, rambling, challenging novels made up of
equally long, complicated
sentences. He once said, "We want it clear, goodness knows, but we also want
it thick." He once called his books "invincibly unsalable."
But his popularity has gone up
recently, thanks in large part to the movies made of his novels, The Portrait of a Lady
The Wings of the Dove, in
the late 1990s.
While not a member of Europe's wealthy set, he was often a guest of the
noble class. He once said that he got some of his best story ideas
from dinner table gossip. After a lecture tour of the United States in
1905, his first visit to his native country in 20 years, James began the
Herculean four-year task of editing and revising a number of his novels for
the 24-volume New York Edition. Working from his English homes in Rye
and London, he felt confident that he had achieved permanence in literature
and that his financial security was assured. He wrote a brilliant
series of introductions to the volumes, today considered among the finest of
literary essays, but was stunned to learn that his first royalty check for
the edition amounted to a mere $211. The public, he felt, had turned its back
By 1909, James had slipped into depression. The
following year, his youngest brother, Bob, died, followed by his
brother, William, who had become America's most famous philosopher and
returned to England and received several honors while keeping company with
writer Edith Wharton, who looked out for him financially.
He wrote another novel that was not very highly regarded, worked on two
wrote several memoirs of his earlier life, and was captured on
canvas by John Singer Sargent for his 70th birthday in 1913.
lived on to experience the outbreak and the tragedy of World War I, never
entirely recovering from the despair that had gripped him in 1909.
James, who once said, "It takes a great deal of history to produce a little
literature," wrote 20 novels, 112 short stories, and 12 plays in
addition to a number of works of literary criticism. Yet, despite all,
he made only a modest living from his books.
Henry James died in his London home in 1916. Although
he had denounced his American citizenship the year before, he is buried in
the James family plot in the Cambridge Cemetery in Massachusetts.
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