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Henry James

Born 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 (1898), and 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 frequently to 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 such as the Nation and the Atlantic Monthly.  While there, he completed his first novel, Watch and Ward, which was published in 1871.

When 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 life.

"I could come back to America to die - but never, never to live." - letter to Mrs. William James, April 1, 1913

James 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, and 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 tea."

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."

James' 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 , Washington Square, and 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 on him. 

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 psychologist. 

James 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 more, wrote several memoirs of his earlier life, and was captured on canvas by John Singer Sargent for his 70th birthday in 1913.

He 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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