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Victorian Henry James is known for his novel writing, though he experimented prolifically across genres. Though a nineteenth-century cosmopolitan viewpoint is common to many of his books, James straddled the stylistic line between the extremes of romanticism, with its emphasis on spirituality, and naturalism, with its focus on external, deterministic forces. James is also known for the well-developed women characters found throughout his work, as well as for the running theme of New World innocence in conflict with Old World experience, knowledge, and corruption.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
World Traveler, Voracious Reader
Henry James was born in New York City, and was the second of five children. The son of an anti-Calvinist minister, James was raised to think of himself as a citizen of the world. in 1844, supported by a huge inheritance left by own his wealthy father, Henry James Sr. moved his family to London to be near Thomas Carlyle and other distinguished thinkers. In 1845, the family returned to New York, but Henry traveled abroad throughout his youth. These trips would inspire his future work. James became a voracious reader proficient in French and French literature. Friends from his parents’ social circles helped develop his early literary interests.
As a young man, James attended the Law School at Harvard so he could have access to the library and to lectures from such esteemed authors as James Russell Lowell, an American poet of the Romantic school. While at Harvard, James socialized in literary circles and became friends with social critic and activist Charles Eliot Norton and the future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. James attended Harvard while the Civil War raged. His military service was precluded by a severe (if never fully disclosed) injury he had previously sustained while putting out a stables fire, During his time at Harvard, James began publishing short stories and reviews.
The Grand European Tour and Travel Writings
In 1869, James, financed by his family, traveled across Europe. His parents wanted him to study philosophy and languages in Germany (to add to his fluency in French and Italian), but James wandered through France, Switzerland, and finally Italy, a country with which he became smitten. Several of his future works would feature Italy as a setting.
James returned to the United States in 1870 and wrote his first novel, Watch and Ward, which was serialized in The Atlantic Monthly in August-December of 1871 and published in book form in 1878. In 1870, James also published his first travel writings, not about his visit to Europe but sketches of New York, New England, and Quebec, in The Nation. Some critics compare the thematic exploration of past and present, and Old World and New in these essays to the themes in James’s larger works.
Career in Europe
In 1872, James played European tour guide for his sister, Alice, during her visit. On the trip, James drafted his first European travel essays as he visited several American expatriate communities and saw various sights in England, France, and Switzerland. The “sketches” of these travels ran in The Nation in 1872 and 1873. In these pieces, James created what critics would later call his ”spirit of place.” James called himself the ”sentimental tourist.”
Alice returned to the United States, but Henry remained abroad to build a professional career as an author. He traveled and wrote steadily for the next two years, publishing several short stories and finishing most of his second novel, Roderick Hudson (1875). James finally left Europe for America in 1874 and started his American writing career. He produced more than a dozen travel pieces for American magazines, including The Atlantic Monthly and The Independent. These writings helped support him financially and grew an audience for his fiction. Transatlantic Sketches, his first collection of travel pieces, was published in April 1875.
Travel, Biography, Novels, and More
James went back to Europe later in 1875, after persuading the New York Tribune to hire him as their Paris correspondent on politics and culture. The job allowed him the time to work on his novel, The American (1877), first published as a serial in The Atlantic. During the late 1870s, James wrote in various genres ranging from travel essays to reviews. Some of these articles, as well as some early work, were published in French Poets and Novelists (1878). James wrote a critical biography called Hawthorne (1879), about the author Nathaniel Hawthorne, for an English Men of Letters series. At this time, James also published some of his most successful shorter fiction, including the novella Daisy Miller (1878), in addition to four novels, most notably The Portrait of a Lady (1881). Both works focus on American women traveling in Europe, and the conflicts that occur between them, traditional Europeans, and other American expatriates living there. In this way, James reflected his own experiences both as an American expatriate and as an observer of European culture. James developed a rather famous collection of friends and acquaintances, including the writers George Eliot, Robert Browning, Anthony Trollope, and Ivan Turgenev, his closest friend abroad.
In the 1880s, James suffered a tremendous loss when his parents both died within a short period of time. After a brief return to the United States, James headed back to Europe, where his writing career continued to prosper. He wrote, among many other things, a manifesto of literary realism called The Art of Fiction (1884), which was inspired by a lecture from critic and novelist Walter Besant, who said that novels should have moral purpose. James argued that fiction, like the best history and painting, should offer a direct impression of real life. At the same time, he believed a writer should run with his imagination, which ”takes to itself the faintest hints of life [and] converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.”
Serial Success and Failed Playwriting
At the end of the 1880s came the American serialization of two of his longest novels, The Bostonians (1885-1886) and The Princess Casamassima (1885-1886), as well as the serialization of The Tragic Muse (1889-1890). When The Tragic Muse did not do as well as he hoped, James decided to try his hand at another genre: playwriting. With the help of an actor named Edward Compton, he turned his novel The American into a play. The drama starred Compton in the leading role, with James’s young American friend and famous actress Elizabeth Robins as his leading lady, and included a happy ending. The play was not well received, yet James was not deterred. By 1892, he had written four new plays, the majority of which of which were failures when produced.
In Lamb House
In his later years, James moved to Rye, a coastal town southeast of London, and bought Lamb House, an eighteenth-century mansion where he would live the rest of his life. He lavishly entertained there and created some of his finest literary works in his garden-house studio. Much of the fiction James wrote during this time was technically innovative and included the works What Maisie Knew (1897) and The Turn of the Screw (1898). His final writings were dictated to a typist, not only because of weakness in his right wrist, but also because he could no longer manage the volume of his personal correspondence. During this period, he wrote a trilogy that began with The Wings of the Dove (1902). After a visit back to the United States, he wrote The American Scene (1907), which some critics call James’s most penetrating travel book and one of the best of the travel genre. In 1916, James died after complications from two strokes.
Works in Literary Context
Morton Dauwen Zabel, in the introduction to The Art of Travel (1958), his anthology of James’s travel essays, proclaims that ”Travel [for James] is not a marginal matter of romantic atmosphere,” but rather a ”conflict of culture he saw as basic to his century.” At the same time, James considered himself a ”sentimental tourist.” In either case, James’s work, no matter the genre, is textured with a richness of place and an appreciation of Old World history over New World progress and restoration.
Europe Versus America
Throughout his novels, James often comments on the contrast between America and its European counterparts and creates wide-eyed American characters who view Europe through rose-colored glasses. For example, in A Passionate Pilgrim (1871), James uses the opposition to create the work’s central conflict: the protagonist, an ailing American who has idolized England and English life, is too frail to achieve his dream of owning an English estate. This ironic idealization and reevaluation of cultures also comprises the main theme of The American (1877). The novel follows the American Christopher Newman, a kind but uncouth businessman on his first visit to Europe. Newman becomes aware of the European Continent’s classic beauty as well as its seamy side. Years later, in The Portrait of a Lady (1881), a novel set mostly in Europe, James tells the story of a young American woman who inherits a great sum of money and is duped by two American expatriates.
James was inspired to write The American by Alexandre Dumas, fls’ L’Etrangere (The Female Stranger, 1876), a play that portrayed Americans as crude, brash, and untrustworthy. James’s protagonist Newman offers an honesty and positive attitude that depicts Americans in a more positive light. The book also borrows conventions from the popular melodrama genre, particularly elements such as the dark secret, the duel, and the convent.
Works in Critical Context
James has been classified as ”the first of the great psychological realists of our time” and the ”creator of the cosmopolitan novel.” Though his work experienced a period of decline at the turn of the twentieth century, famous writer-critics like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound pulled attention back to his vast, varied, and successful career in the 1940s.
Robert Gale of the University of Pittsburgh summed up contemporary critical perception of both James and his now canonical body of work:
James’s work is stylistically complicated, demanding much of the reader. He is verbally subtle and delicately comic. His use of the restricted point of view, especially in his later, more realistic work, makes his plots hard to follow but exciting because the reader shares the same delusions, limited perceptions, and dawning awarenesses as the character through whose consciousness the story is filtered. James’s imagery adds a poetic dimension to his prose, and individual similes and metaphors cluster into patterns which elucidate human conduct. James’s plots are precise and usually quite simple. His purpose is not to tell a story so much as it is to show the interaction between character and character and between character and setting, which is often presented pictorially and usually has symbolic import.
Turn of the Screw
The Turn of the Screw has been lauded as a work of literary artistry and originality. When the novella was published in 1898, The New York Times Saturday Review of Books and Art called the work ”a deliberate, powerful, and horribly successful study of the magic of evil, of the subtle influence over human hearts and minds of the sin with which this world is accursed.” The anonymous reviewer saw the story as ”one of the most moving and . . . most remarkable works of fiction published in many years.” A reviewer in Literature states that the novella is ”so astonishing a piece of art that it cannot be described.” A reviewer for The New York Tribune suggests the book ”crystallizes an original and fascinating idea in absolutely appropriate form.” James himself, in his preface to the novella included in the New York Edition, classifies the work as ”a piece of ingenuity pure and simple, of cold artistic calculation, an amusette to catch those not easily caught… the jaded, the disillusioned, the fastidious.”
- Albers, Christina A. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Henry James. New York: G. K. Hall, 1997.
- Anderson, Charles R. Person, Place, and Thing in Henry James’s Novels. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1977.
- Edel, Leon. Henry James. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1960.
- Fogel, Daniel Mark. Henry James and the Structure of the Romantic Imagination. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
- Gale, Robert L. The Caught Image: Figurative Language in the Fiction of Henry James. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1964.
- Hardy, Barbara. Henry James: The Later Writing. Plymouth, England: Northcote House, 1996.
- Haviland, Beverly. Henry James’s Last Romance: Making Sense of the Past. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
- Nowell-Smith, Simon. The Legend ofthe Master: Henry James. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.
- Zabel, Morton Dauwen, ed. The Art of Travel: Scenes and Journeys in America, France, and Italy from the Travel Writings of Henry James. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1958.
- Parkinson, Edward J. The Turn of the Screw: A History of its Critical Interpretations 1898-1979. Retrieved October 4, 2008, from http://www.turnofthe screw.com/ch2.htm.
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