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James in 1910
|Born||15 April 1843|
2 Washington Place, New York City, New York, USA
|Died||28 February 1916 (aged 72)|
Cheyne Walk, Chelsea London, England
|Nationality||born as an American; acquired British nationality in July 1915|
|Alma mater||Harvard Law School|
|Notable work(s)||The American|
The Turn of the Screw
The Portrait of a Lady
What Maisie Knew
The Wings of the Dove
|Relative(s)||Henry James, Sr. (father), William James (brother), Alice James (sister)|
|This article possibly contains original research. (October 2012)|
James in 1910
|Born||15 April 1843|
2 Washington Place, New York City, New York, USA
|Died||28 February 1916 (aged 72)|
Cheyne Walk, Chelsea London, England
|Nationality||born as an American; acquired British nationality in July 1915|
|Alma mater||Harvard Law School|
|Notable work(s)||The American|
The Turn of the Screw
The Portrait of a Lady
What Maisie Knew
The Wings of the Dove
|Relative(s)||Henry James, Sr. (father), William James (brother), Alice James (sister)|
Henry James, OM ( 15 April 1843 – 28 February 1916 ) was an American-born British writer, regarded as one of the key figures of 19th-century literary realism. He was the son of Henry James, Sr. and the brother of philosopher and psychologist William James and diarist Alice James.
James alternated between America and Europe for the first 20 years of his life, after which he settled in England, becoming a British subject in 1915, one year before his death. He is primarily known for the series of novels in which he portrays the encounter of Americans with Europe and Europeans. His method of writing from the point of view of a character within a tale allows him to explore issues related to consciousness and perception, and his style in later works has been compared to impressionist painting.
James contributed significantly to literary criticism, particularly in his insistence that writers be allowed the greatest possible freedom in presenting their view of the world. James claimed that a text must first and foremost be realistic and contain a representation of life that is recognisable to its readers. Good novels, to James, show life in action and are, most importantly, interesting. The concept of a good or bad novel is judged solely upon whether the author is good or bad. His imaginative use of point of view, interior monologue and possibly unreliable narrators in his own novels and tales brought a new depth and interest to narrative fiction. An extraordinarily productive writer, in addition to his voluminous works of fiction he published articles and books of travel, biography, autobiography, and criticism, and wrote plays, some of which were performed during his lifetime with moderate success. His theatrical work is thought to have profoundly influenced his later novels and tales.
James was born at 2 Washington Place in New York City into a wealthy family. His parents were Mary Robertson (Walsh) and Henry James, Sr., who was one of the best-known intellectuals in mid-19th-century America. His brother is William James the philosopher. In his youth James travelled back and forth between Europe and America. He studied with tutors in Geneva, London, Paris, Bologna, and Bonn. At the age of 19 he briefly attended Harvard Law School, but preferred reading literature to studying law. James published his first short story, A Tragedy of Error, at age 21, and devoted himself to literature. In 1866–69 and 1871–72 he was a contributor to The Nation and Atlantic Monthly.
From an early age James read the classics of English, American, French and German literature, and Russian classics in translation. His first novel, Watch and Ward (1871), was written while travelling through Venice and Paris. After living in Paris, where he was contributor to the New York Tribune, James moved to England in 1876, living first in London and then in Rye, Sussex. During his first years in Europe James wrote novels that portrayed Americans living abroad. In 1905 James visited America for the first time in twenty-five years, and wrote "Jolly Corner".
Among James's masterpieces are Daisy Miller (1879); in which the eponymous protagonist, the young and innocent American Daisy Miller, finds her values in conflict with European sophistication; and The Portrait of a Lady (1881), in which a young American woman finds that her upbringing has ill prepared her against two scheming American expatriates during her travels in Europe. The Bostonians (1886) is set in the era of the rising feminist movement. What Maisie Knew (1897) depicts a pre-adolescent girl who must choose between her parents and a motherly old governess. In The Wings of the Dove (1902) an inheritance destroys the love of a young couple. James considered The Ambassadors (1903) his most "perfect" work of art. James's most famous novella is The Turn of the Screw, a ghost story in which the question of childhood corruption obsesses a governess. Although James is best known for his novels, his essays are now attracting a more general audience.
Between 1906 and 1910 James revised many of his tales and novels for the New York edition of his complete works. His autobiography, A Small Boy And Others, appeared in 1913 and was continued in Notes Of A Son And Brother (1914). The third volume, The Middle Years, appeared posthumously in 1917. The outbreak of World War I was a shock for James, and on 26 July 1915, he became a British citizen as a declaration of loyalty to his adopted country and in protest against America's refusal to enter the war. James suffered a stroke on 2 December 1915, and it soon became apparent that his prognosis was not good. The novelist, now seriously ill, was awarded the Order of Merit, bestowed on 1 January 1916. His health continued to decline and he died in London on 28 February 1916. He was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium and his ashes are interred at Cambridge, Massachusetts.
James early established the precedent of pursuing his career as a man of letters. His first published work was a review of a stage performance, "Miss Maggie Mitchell in Fanchon the Cricket," published in 1863, that reflected a lifelong interest in the actor's art. From an early age James read, criticised, and learned from the classics of English, American, French, Italian, German and (in translation) Russian literature. In 1863, he anonymously published his first short story, A Tragedy of Error. Until his fiftieth year he supported himself by writing, principally by contributing extensively to illustrated monthly magazines in the United States and Great Britain, but after his sister's death in 1892 his royalties were supplemented by a modest income from the family's properties in Syracuse, New York.
Until late in life his novels were serialised in magazines before book publication, and he wrote the monthly instalments as they were due, allowing him little opportunity to revise the final work. To supplement his income he also wrote frequently for newspapers, and from 1863 to his death he maintained a strenuous schedule of publication in a variety of genres and media. In his criticism of fiction, the theatre, and painting he developed ideas concerning the unity of the arts; he wrote two full-length biographies, two volumes of memoirs of his childhood and a long fragment of autobiography; 22 novels, including two left unfinished at his death, 112 tales of varying lengths, fifteen plays, and dozens of travel and topical essays.
Biographers and critics have identified Henrik Ibsen, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Honoré de Balzac, George Eliot, and Ivan Turgenev as important influences. He heavily revised his major novels and many of his stories for a selected edition of his fiction, whose twenty-three volumes formed an artistic autobiography which he called "The New York Edition" to emphasise his continuing ties to the city of his birth. In his essay The Art of Fiction, and in prefaces to each volume of The New York Edition, James explained his views of the art of fiction, emphasising the importance to him of realist portrayals of character as seen through the eyes and thoughts of an embodied narrator.
At several points in his career James wrote plays, beginning with one-act plays written for periodicals in 1869 and 1871 and a dramatisation of his popular novella Daisy Miller in 1882. From 1890 to 1892, he made a conscious effort to succeed commercially on the London stage, writing a half-dozen plays of which only one, a dramatisation of his novel The American, was produced. This play was performed for several years by a touring repertory company, and had a respectable run in London, but did not earn very much money for James. His other plays written at this time were not produced. The effort was made avowedly to improve his finances, and after his sister Alice's death in 1892, as he had a modest independent income, he halted his theatrical efforts. In 1893, however, he responded to a request from actor-manager George Alexander for a serious play for the opening of his renovated St. James's Theatre, and James wrote a long drama, Guy Domville, which Alexander produced. There was a noisy uproar on the opening night, 5 January 1895, with hissing from the gallery when James took his bow after the final curtain, and the author was considerably upset. The incident was not repeated, the play received moderately good reviews and had a modest run of four weeks, before being taken off to make way for Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, which Alexander thought would have better prospects for the coming Season. After the stresses and disappointment of this effort James insisted that he would write no more for the theatre, but within weeks had agreed to write a curtain-raiser for Ellen Terry. This became the one-act "Summersoft", which he later rewrote into a short story, "Covering End", and then expanded into a full-length play, The High Bid, which had a brief run in London in 1907, when James made another concerted effort to write for the stage. He wrote three new plays, two of which were in production when the death of Edward VII 6 May 1910, plunged London into mourning and the theatres were closed. Discouraged by failing health and the stresses of theatrical work, James did not renew his efforts in the theatre, but recycled his plays as successful novels. The Outcry was a best-seller in the United States when it was published in 1911. During the years 1890–1893 when he was most engaged with the theatre, James wrote a good deal of theatrical criticism and assisted Elizabeth Robins and others in translating and producing Henrik Ibsen for the first time on the London stage.
Biographer Leon Edel was the first to call attention to the importance of the "theatrical years" 1890–1895 for James's later work. Following the commercial failure of his novel The Tragic Muse, in 1890, James renounced novel writing and dedicated himself to short fiction and plays, which he described as related forms. Between 1890 and 1895, he sketched in his notebooks plots and themes of nearly all his later novels, which he first conceived as short stories or plays. The structure of his late novels was "scenic" in James's special sense, in that they followed the scene-by-scene structure of a French play in the classical mode, and he freely translated short stories into plays and vice versa. The use of an observer's consciousness and the sense of the action as a performance became most marked in James's fiction in and after the 1890s. Failing to make a commercial success on the stage, however, and finding that the stresses of theatrical work were difficult to sustain, he returned to the writing of long, serialised novels, which again became the mainstay of his income. With his new private income as well, he was able to maintain a country house and rooms in London.
Leon Edel argued in his psychoanalytic biography that James was deeply traumatised by the opening night uproar that greeted Guy Domville, and that it plunged him into a prolonged depression. The successful later novels, in Edel's view, were the result of a kind of self-analysis, expressed in James's fiction, which partly freed him from his fears. Other biographers and scholars have not accepted this account, however; the more common view being that of F.O. Matthiessen, who wrote: "Instead of being crushed by the collapse of his hopes [for the theatre]... he felt a resurgence of new energy."
James returned to the United States in 1904–1905 for a lecture tour to recoup his finances and to visit his family. His essays describing that visit, published as The American Scene, were perhaps his most important work of social commentary. In them he described the rise of commerce and democracy, the impact of free immigration on American culture, and his agonised sense that his deeply felt American nationality was threatened by these upheavals.
James regularly rejected suggestions that he marry, and after settling in London proclaimed himself "a bachelor." F. W. Dupee, in several well-regarded volumes on the James family, originated the theory that he had been in love with his cousin Mary ("Minnie") Temple, but that a neurotic fear of sex kept him from admitting such affections: "James's invalidism ... was itself the symptom of some fear of or scruple against sexual love on his part." Dupee used an episode from James's memoir A Small Boy and Others, recounting a dream of a Napoleonic image in the Louvre, to exemplify James's romanticism about Europe, a Napoleonic fantasy into which he fled. This seemed to support literary critics like Van Wyck Brooks and Vernon Parrington who had condemned James's expatriation and criticised his work as effeminate and deracinated; Leon Edel used it as the premise of his influential biography which held the field for many years.
Dupee had not had access to the James family papers and worked principally from James's published memoir of his older brother, William, and the limited collection of letters edited by Percy Lubbock, heavily weighted toward James's last years. His account therefore moved directly from James's childhood, when he trailed after his older brother, to elderly invalidism. As more material became available to scholars, including the diaries of contemporaries and hundreds of affectionate and sometimes erotic letters written by James to younger men, the picture of neurotic celibacy gave way to a portrait of a closeted homosexual, although as author Terry Eagleton has stated, "... gay critics debate exactly how repressed his (probable) homosexuality was ..."
James's letters to expatriate American sculptor Hendrik Christian Andersen have attracted particular attention. James met the 27-year-old Andersen in Rome in 1899, when James was 56, and wrote letters to Andersen that are intensely emotional: "I hold you, dearest boy, in my innermost love, & count on your feeling me—in every throb of your soul". In a letter of 6 May 1904, to his brother William, James referred to himself as "always your hopelessly celibate even though sexagenarian Henry". How accurate that description might have been is the subject of contention among James's biographers, but the letters to Andersen were occasionally quasi-erotic: "I put, my dear boy, my arm around you, & feel the pulsation, thereby, as it were, of our excellent future & your admirable endowment." To his homosexual friend Howard Sturgis, James could write: "I repeat, almost to indiscretion, that I could live with you. Meanwhile I can only try to live without you."
His many letters to the young gay men who made up a large fraction of his close male friends are more forthcoming. In a letter to Howard Sturgis, following a long visit, James refers jocularly to their "happy little congress of two" and in letters to Hugh Walpole he pursues convoluted jokes and puns about their relationship, referring to himself as an elephant who "paws you oh so benevolently" and winds about Walpole his "well meaning old trunk". His letters to Walter Berry printed by the Black Sun Press have long been celebrated for their lightly veiled eroticism.
He corresponded in almost equally extravagant language with his many female friends, writing, for example, to fellow-novelist Lucy Clifford: "Dearest Lucy! What shall I say? when I love you so very, very much, and see you nine times for once that I see Others! Therefore I think that—if you want it made clear to the meanest intelligence—I love you more than I love Others." To his New York friend Mary Cadwalader Jones: "Dearest Mary Cadwalader. I yearn over you, but I yearn in vain; & your long silence really breaks my heart, mystifies, depresses, almost alarms me, to the point even of making me wonder if poor unconscious & doting old Célimare [Jones's pet name for James] has "done" anything, in some dark somnambulism of the spirit, which has ... given you a bad moment, or a wrong impression, or a "colourable pretext" ... However these things may be, he loves you as tenderly as ever; nothing, to the end of time, will ever detach him from you, & he remembers those Eleventh St. matutinal intimes hours, those telephonic matinées, as the most romantic of his life ... His long friendship with American novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, in whose house he lived for a number of weeks in Italy in 1887, and his shock and grief over her suicide in 1894, are discussed in detail in Leon Edel's biography and play a central role in a study by Lyndall Gordon. (Edel conjectured that Woolson was in love with James and killed herself in part because of his coldness, but Woolson's biographers have strongly objected to Edel's account.
|This section needs additional citations for verification. (January 2011)|
James is one of the major figures of trans-Atlantic literature. His works frequently juxtapose characters from the Old World (Europe), embodying a feudal civilization that is beautiful, often corrupt, and alluring, and from the New World (United States), where people are often brash, open, and assertive and embody the virtues—freedom and a more highly evolved moral character—of the new American society. James explores this clash of personalities and cultures, in stories of personal relationships in which power is exercised well or badly. His protagonists were often young American women facing oppression or abuse, and as his secretary Theodora Bosanquet remarked in her monograph Henry James at Work:
When he walked out of the refuge of his study and into the world and looked around him, he saw a place of torment, where creatures of prey perpetually thrust their claws into the quivering flesh of doomed, defenseless children of light ... His novels are a repeated exposure of this wickedness, a reiterated and passionate plea for the fullest freedom of development, unimperiled by reckless and barbarous stupidity.
Critics have jokingly described three phases in the development of James's prose: "James the First, James the Second, and The Old Pretender" and observers do often group his works of fiction into three periods. In his apprentice years, culminating with the masterwork The Portrait of a Lady,his style was simple and direct (by the standards of Victorian magazine writing) and he experimented widely with forms and methods, generally narrating from a conventionally omniscient point of view. Plots generally concern romance, except for the three big novels of social commentary that conclude this period. In the second period, as noted above, he abandoned the serialised novel and from 1890 to about 1897, he wrote short stories and plays. Finally, in his third and last period he returned to the long, serialised novel. Beginning in the second period, but most noticeably in the third, he increasingly abandoned direct statement in favour of frequent double negatives, and complex descriptive imagery. Single paragraphs began to run for page after page, in which an initial noun would be succeeded by pronouns surrounded by clouds of adjectives and prepositional clauses, far from their original referents, and verbs would be deferred and then preceded by a series of adverbs. The overall effect could be a vivid evocation of a scene as perceived by a sensitive observer. In its intense focus on the consciousness of his major characters, James's later work foreshadows extensive developments in 20th century fiction. Indeed, he might have influenced stream-of-consciousness writers such as Virginia Woolf, who not only read some of his novels but also wrote essays about them. Then and later many readers find the late style difficult and unnecessary; his friend Edith Wharton, who admired him greatly, said that there were passages in his work that were all but incomprehensible. H.G. Wells harshly portrayed James as a hippopotamus laboriously attempting to pick up a pea that has got into a corner of its cage. Some critics[who?] have claimed that the more elaborate manner was a result of James taking up the practice of dictating to a secretary. He was afflicted with a stutter and compensated by speaking slowly and deliberately. The late style does become more difficult in the years when he dictates, but James also was able to revise typewritten drafts more extensively, and his few surviving drafts show that the later works are more heavily revised and redrafted. In some cases this leads critics to prefer the earlier, unrevised versions of some works because the older style is thought to be closer to the original conception and spirit of the work, Daisy Miller being a case in point: most of the current reprints of this novel contain the unrevised text. On the other hand, the late revision of the early novel The Portrait of a Lady is generally much preferred to the first edition, even by those who dislike the late style, because of the power of the imagery and the depth of characterisation, while his shorter late fiction, such as The Turn of the Screw, is considered highly accessible and remains popular with readers.
More important for his work overall may have been his position as an expatriate, and in other ways an outsider, living in Europe. While he came from middle-class and provincial belongings (seen from the perspective of European polite society) he worked very hard to gain access to all levels of society, and the settings of his fiction range from working class to aristocratic, and often describe the efforts of middle-class Americans to make their way in European capitals. He confessed he got some of his best story ideas from gossip at the dinner table or at country house weekends. He worked for a living, however, and lacked the experiences of select schools, university, and army service, the common bonds of masculine society. He was furthermore a man whose tastes and interests were, according to the prevailing standards of Victorian era Anglo-American culture, rather feminine, and who was shadowed by the cloud of prejudice that then and later accompanied suspicions of his homosexuality. Edmund Wilson famously compared James's objectivity to Shakespeare's:
One would be in a position to appreciate James better if one compared him with the dramatists of the seventeenth century—Racine and Molière, whom he resembles in form as well as in point of view, and even Shakespeare, when allowances are made for the most extreme differences in subject and form. These poets are not, like Dickens and Hardy, writers of melodrama—either humorous or pessimistic, nor secretaries of society like Balzac, nor prophets like Tolstoy: they are occupied simply with the presentation of conflicts of moral character, which they do not concern themselves about softening or averting. They do not indict society for these situations: they regard them as universal and inevitable. They do not even blame God for allowing them: they accept them as the conditions of life.
It is also possible to see many of James's stories as psychological thought-experiments. The Portrait of a Lady may be an experiment to see what happens when an idealistic young woman suddenly becomes very rich. In many of his tales, characters seem to exemplify alternate futures and possibilities, as most markedly in "The Jolly Corner", in which the protagonist and a ghost-doppelganger live alternate American and European lives; and in others, like The Ambassadors, an older James seems fondly to regard his own younger self facing a crucial moment.
Although any selection of James's novels as "major" must inevitably depend to some extent on personal preference, the following books have achieved prominence among his works in the views of many critics. James believed a novel must be organic. Parts of the novel need to go together and the relationship must fit the form. If a reader enjoys a work of art or piece of writing, then they must be able to explain why. The very fact that every reader has different tastes, lends to the belief that artists should have artistic freedom to write in any way they choose to talk about subject matter that could possibly interest everyone.
The first period of James's fiction, usually considered to have culminated in The Portrait of a Lady, concentrated on the contrast between Europe and America. The style of these novels is generally straightforward and, though personally characteristic, well within the norms of 19th century fiction. Roderick Hudson (1875) is a Künstlerroman that traces the development of the title character, an extremely talented sculptor. Although the book shows some signs of immaturity—this was James's first serious attempt at a full-length novel—it has attracted favourable comment due to the vivid realisation of the three major characters: Roderick Hudson, superbly gifted but unstable and unreliable; Rowland Mallet, Roderick's limited but much more mature friend and patron; and Christina Light, one of James's most enchanting and maddening femmes fatales. The pair of Hudson and Mallet has been seen as representing the two sides of James's own nature: the wildly imaginative artist and the brooding conscientious mentor.
Although Roderick Hudson featured mostly American characters in a European setting, James made the Europe–America contrast even more explicit in his next novel. In fact, the contrast could be considered the leading theme of The American (1877). This book is a combination of social comedy and melodrama concerning the adventures and misadventures of Christopher Newman, an essentially good-hearted but rather gauche American businessman on his first tour of Europe. Newman is looking for a world different from the simple, harsh realities of 19th-century American business. He encounters both the beauty and the ugliness of Europe, and learns not to take either for granted.
Washington Square (1880) is a deceptively simple tragicomedy that recounts the conflict between a dull but sweet daughter and her brilliant, domineering father. The book is often compared to Jane Austen's work for the clarity and grace of its prose and its intense focus on family relationships. James was not particularly enthusiastic about Jane Austen, so he might not have regarded the comparison as flattering. In fact, James was not enthusiastic about Washington Square itself. He tried to read it over for inclusion in the New York Edition of his fiction (1907–09) but found that he could not. So he excluded the novel from the edition. But other readers have enjoyed the book enough to make it one of the popular works in the Jamesian canon. Washington Square was turned into a dramatic musical-opera in 1972 by Jerome Walman.
In The Portrait of a Lady (1881) James concluded the first phase of his career with a novel that remains his most popular piece of long fiction. The story is of a spirited young American woman, Isabel Archer, who "affronts her destiny" and finds it overwhelming. She inherits a large amount of money and subsequently becomes the victim of Machiavellian scheming by two American expatriates. The narrative is set mainly in Europe, especially in England and Italy. Generally regarded as the masterpiece of his early phase, The Portrait of a Lady is described as a psychological novel, exploring the minds of his characters, and almost a work of social science, exploring the differences between Europeans and Americans, the old and the new worlds.
The Bostonians (1886) is a bittersweet tragicomedy that centres on Basil Ransom, an unbending political conservative from Mississippi; Olive Chancellor, Ransom's cousin and a zealous Boston feminist; and Verena Tarrant, a pretty protégée of Olive's in the feminist movement. The storyline concerns the contest between Ransom and Olive for Verena's allegiance and affection, though the novel also includes a wide panorama of political activists, newspaper people, and quirky eccentrics.
James followed with The Princess Casamassima (1886), the story of an intelligent but confused young London bookbinder, Hyacinth Robinson, who becomes involved in far left politics and a terrorist assassination plot. The book is something of a lone sport in the Jamesian canon for dealing with such a violent political subject. But it is often paired with The Bostonians, which is also concerned with political issues.
Just as James was beginning his ultimately disastrous attempt to conquer the stage, he wrote The Tragic Muse (1890). This novel offers a wide, cheerful panorama of English life and follows the fortunes of two would-be artists: Nick Dormer, who vacillates between a political career and his efforts to become a painter, and Miriam Rooth, an actress striving for artistic and commercial success. A huge cast of supporting characters help and hinder their pursuits. The book reflects James's consuming interest in the theatre and is often considered to mark the close of the second or middle phase of his career.
After the failure of his "dramatic experiment" James returned to his fiction and began to probe his characters' consciousness. His style started to grow in complexity to reflect the greater depth of his analysis. The Spoils of Poynton (1897) is a half-length novel that describes the struggle between Mrs. Gereth, a widow of impeccable taste and iron will, and her son Owen over a houseful of precious antique furniture. The story is largely told from the viewpoint of Fleda Vetch, a young woman in love with Owen but sympathetic to Mrs Gereth's anguish over losing the antiques she patiently collected.
James continued the more involved, psychological approach to his fiction with What Maisie Knew (1897), the story of the sensitive daughter of divorced and irresponsible parents. The novel has great contemporary relevance as an unflinching account of a wildly dysfunctional family.
The third period of James's career reached its most significant achievement in three novels published just around the start of the 20th century. Critic F. O. Matthiessen called this "trilogy" James's major phase, and these novels have certainly received intense critical study. It was the second-written of the books, The Wings of the Dove (1902) that was the first published. This novel tells the story of Milly Theale, an American heiress stricken with a serious disease, and her impact on the people around her. Some of these people befriend Milly with honourable motives, while others are more self-interested. James stated in his autobiographical books that Milly was based on Minny Temple, his beloved cousin who died at an early age of tuberculosis. He said that he attempted in the novel to wrap her memory in the "beauty and dignity of art".
The next published of the three novels, The Ambassadors (1903), is a dark comedy that follows the trip of protagonist Lewis Lambert Strether to Europe in pursuit of his widowed fiancée's supposedly wayward son. Strether is to bring the young man back to the family business, but he encounters unexpected complications. The third-person narrative is told exclusively from Strether's point of view. In his preface to the New York Edition text of the novel, James placed this book at the top of his achievements, which has occasioned some critical disagreement. The Golden Bowl (1904) is a complex, intense study of marriage and adultery that completes the "major phase" and, essentially, James's career in the novel. The book explores the tangle of interrelationships between a father and daughter and their respective spouses. The novel focuses deeply and almost exclusively on the consciousness of the central characters, with sometimes obsessive detail and powerful insight.
James was particularly interested in what he called the "beautiful and blest nouvelle", or the longer form of short narrative. Still, he produced a number of very short stories in which he achieved notable compression of sometimes complex subjects. The following narratives are representative of James's achievement in the shorter forms of fiction.
Just as the contrast between Europe and America was a predominant theme in James's early novels, many of his first tales also explored the clash between the Old World and the New. In "A Passionate Pilgrim" (1871), the earliest fiction that James included in the New York Edition, the difference between America and Europe erupts into open conflict, which leads to a sadly ironic ending. The story's technique still seems somewhat inexpert, with passages of local color description occasionally interrupting the flow of the narrative. But James manages to craft an interesting and believable example of what he would call the "Americano-European legend".
James published many stories before what would prove to be his greatest success with the readers of his time, "Daisy Miller" (1878). This story portrays the confused courtship of the title character, a free-spirited American girl, by Winterbourne, a compatriot of hers with much more sophistication. His pursuit of Daisy is hampered by her own flirtatiousness, which is frowned upon by the other expatriates they meet in Switzerland and Italy. Her lack of understanding of the social mores of the society she so desperately wishes to enter ultimately leads to tragedy.
As James moved on from studies of the Europe-America clash and the American girl in his novels, his shorter works also explored new subjects in the 1880s. "The Aspern Papers" (1888) is one of James's best-known and most acclaimed longer tales. The storyline is based on an anecdote that James heard about a Shelley devotee who tried to obtain some valuable letters written by the poet. Set in a brilliantly described Venice, the story demonstrates James's ability to generate almost unbearable suspense while never neglecting the development of his characters. Another fine example of the middle phase of James's career in short narrative is "The Pupil" (1891), the story of a precocious young boy growing up in a mendacious and dishonorable family. He befriends his tutor, who is the only adult in his life that he can trust. James presents their relationship with sympathy and insight, and the story reaches what some have considered the status of classical tragedy.
"The Altar of the Dead", first published in James's collection Terminations in 1895 after the story failed of magazine publication, is a fable of literally life and death significance. The story explores how the protagonist tries to keep the remembrance of his dead friends, to save them from being forgotten entirely in the rush of everyday events. He meets a woman who shares his ideals, only to find that the past places what seems to be an impassable barrier between them. Although James was not religious in any conventional sense, the story shows a deep spirituality in its treatment of mortality and the transcendent power of unselfish love.
The final phase of James's short narratives shows the same characteristics as the final phase of his novels: a more involved style, a deeper psychological approach, and a sharper focus on his central characters. Probably his most popular short narrative among today's readers, "The Turn of the Screw" (1898) is a ghost story that has lent itself well to operatic and film adaptation. With its possibly ambiguous content and powerful narrative technique, the story challenges the reader to determine if the protagonist, an unnamed governess, is correctly reporting events or is instead an unreliable neurotic with an overheated imagination. To further muddy the waters, her written account of the experience—a frame tale—is being read many years later at a Christmas house party by someone who claims to have known her.
"The Beast in the Jungle" (1903) is almost universally considered to be one of James's finest short narratives, and has often been compared with The Ambassadors in its meditation on experience or the lack of it. The story also treats other universal themes: loneliness, fate, love and death. The parable of John Marcher and his peculiar destiny speaks to anyone who has speculated on the worth and meaning of human life. Among his last efforts in short narrative, "The Jolly Corner" (1908) is usually held to be one of James's best ghost stories. The tale describes the adventures of Spencer Brydon as he prowls the now-empty New York house where he grew up. Brydon encounters a "sensation more complex than had ever before found itself consistent with sanity".
Beyond his fiction, James was one of the more important literary critics in the history of the novel. In his classic essay The Art of Fiction (1884), he argued against rigid proscriptions on the novelist's choice of subject and method of treatment. He maintained that the widest possible freedom in content and approach would help ensure narrative fiction's continued vitality. James wrote many valuable critical articles on other novelists; typical is his insightful book-length study of his American predecessor Nathaniel Hawthorne. When he assembled the New York Edition of his fiction in his final years, James wrote a series of prefaces that subjected his own work to the same searching, occasionally harsh criticism.
For most of his life James harboured ambitions for success as a playwright. He converted his novel The American into a play that enjoyed modest returns in the early 1890s. In all he wrote about a dozen plays, most of which went unproduced. His costume drama Guy Domville failed disastrously on its opening night in 1895. James then largely abandoned his efforts to conquer the stage and returned to his fiction. In his Notebooks he maintained that his theatrical experiment benefited his novels and tales by helping him dramatise his characters' thoughts and emotions. James produced a small but valuable amount of theatrical criticism, including perceptive appreciations of Henrik Ibsen.
With his wide-ranging artistic interests, James occasionally wrote on the visual arts. Perhaps his most valuable contribution was his favourable assessment of fellow expatriate John Singer Sargent, a painter whose critical status has improved markedly in recent decades. James also wrote sometimes charming, sometimes brooding articles about various places he visited and lived in. His most famous books of travel writing include Italian Hours (an example of the charming approach) and The American Scene (most definitely on the brooding side).
James was one of the great letter-writers of any era. More than ten thousand of his personal letters are extant, and over three thousand have been published in a large number of collections. A complete edition of James's letters began publication in 2006 with two volumes covering the 1855–1872 period, edited by Pierre Walker and Greg Zacharias. James's correspondents included celebrated contemporaries like Robert Louis Stevenson, Edith Wharton and Joseph Conrad, along with many others in his wide circle of friends and acquaintances. The letters range from the "mere twaddle of graciousness" to serious discussions of artistic, social and personal issues. Very late in life James began a series of autobiographical works: A Small Boy and Others, Notes of a Son and Brother, and the unfinished The Middle Years. These books portray the development of a classic observer who was passionately interested in artistic creation but was somewhat reticent about participating fully in the life around him.
Henry James was only twenty-two when he wrote The Noble School of Fiction for The Nation's first issue in 1865. He wrote, in all, over two hundred essays and book, art and theatre reviews for the magazine.
James's work has remained steadily popular with the limited audience of educated readers to whom he spoke during his lifetime, and remained firmly in the British canon, but after his death American critics, such as Van Wyck Brooks, expressed hostility towards James's long expatriation and eventual naturalisation as a British citizen. Other critics like E.M. Forster complained about what they saw as James's squeamishness in the treatment of sex and other possibly controversial material, or dismissed his style as difficult and obscure, relying heavily on extremely long sentences and excessively latinate language. Similarly Oscar Wilde once criticised him for writing "fiction as if it were a painful duty". Vernon Parrington, composing a canon of American literature, condemned James for having cut himself off from America. Jorge Luis Borges wrote about him, "Despite the scruples and delicate complexities of James his work suffers from a major defect: the absence of life." And Virginia Woolf, writing to Lytton Strachey, asked, "Please tell me what you find in Henry James. ...we have his works here, and I read, and I can't find anything but faintly tinged rose water, urbane and sleek, but vulgar and pale as Walter Lamb. Is there really any sense in it?"
Despite these criticisms, James is now valued for his psychological and moral realism, his masterful creation of character, his low-key but playful humour, and his assured command of the language. In his 1983 book, The Novels of Henry James, Edward Wagenknecht offers an assessment that echoes Theodora Bosanquet's:
"To be completely great," Henry James wrote in an early review, "a work of art must lift up the heart," and his own novels do this to an outstanding degree ... More than sixty years after his death, the great novelist who sometimes professed to have no opinions stands foursquare in the great Christian humanistic and democratic tradition. The men and women who, at the height of World War II, raided the secondhand shops for his out-of-print books knew what they were about. For no writer ever raised a braver banner to which all who love freedom might adhere.
Early biographies of James echoed the unflattering picture of him drawn in early criticism. F.W. Dupee, as noted above, characterised James as neurotically withdrawn and fearful, and although Dupee lacked access to primary materials his view has remained persuasive in academic circles, partly because Leon Edel's massive five-volume work, published from 1953 to 1972, seemed to buttress it with extensive documentation. Michael Anesko, Fred Kaplan, and Sheldon Novick, working from primary materials, have disputed the factual basis of Dupee's and Edel's accounts. Other critics and biographers have disputed Edel's interpretations and conclusions. James has also figured in at least a half-dozen novels. Colm Tóibín used an extensive list of biographies of Henry James and his family for his widely admired 2004 novel, The Master, which is a third person narrative with James as the central character, and deals with specific episodes from his life during the period between 1895 and 1899. Author, Author, a novel by David Lodge published in the same year, was based on James's efforts to conquer the stage in the 1890s. In 2002 Emma Tennant published Felony: The Private History of The Aspern Papers, a novel that fictionalised the relationship between James and American novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson and the possible effects of that relationship on The Aspern Papers.
The published criticism of James's work has reached enormous proportions. The volume of criticism of The Turn of the Screw alone has become extremely large for such a brief work. The Henry James Review, published three times a year, offers criticism of James's entire range of writings, and many other articles and book-length studies appear regularly. Some guides to this extensive literature can be found on the external sites listed below.
William Dean Howells saw James as a representative of a new realist school of literary art which broke with the English romantic tradition epitomised by the works of Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray. Howells wrote that realism found "its chief exemplar in Mr. James... A novelist he is not, after the old fashion, or after any fashion but his own."
Perhaps the most prominent examples of James's legacy in recent years have been the film versions of several of his novels and stories. Three of James's novels were filmed by the team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory: The Europeans (1978), The Bostonians (1984) and The Golden Bowl (2000). The Iain Softley-directed version of The Wings of the Dove (1997) was successful with both critics and audiences, and Helena Bonham Carter received an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress for her memorable portrayal of Kate Croy. Agnieszka Holland's Washington Square (1997) was well received by critics, and Jane Campion tried her hand with The Portrait of a Lady (1996) but with much less success. In earlier times Jack Clayton's The Innocents (1961) brought The Turn of the Screw to vivid life on film, and William Wyler's The Heiress (1949), adapted from Washington Square, won four Academy Awards, including a Best Actress award for Olivia de Havilland as Catherine Sloper.
Most of James's work has remained continuously in print since its first publication, and he continues to be a major figure in realist fiction, influencing generations of novelists. James has allowed the genre of the novel to become worthy of a literary critic's attention. James has formulated a theory of fiction that many today still discuss and debate. Testifying to his importance, a character named "Henry James" appears in at least a half-dozen novels, as noted above, the best-known of which is The Master by Colm Toibin. Such disparate writers as Joyce Carol Oates with Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly (1994), Louis Auchincloss with The Ambassadress (1950), Tom Stoppard with The Real Thing (1982), and Alan Hollinghurst with The Line of Beauty (2004) were explicitly influenced by James's works. James was definitely out of his element when it came to music, but Benjamin Britten's operatic version of "The Turn of the Screw" (1954) has become one of the composer's most popular works. William Tuckett converted the story into a ballet in 1999.
Even when the influence is not so obvious, James can cast a powerful spell. In 1954, when the shades of depression were thickening fast, Ernest Hemingway wrote an emotional letter in which he tried to steady himself as he thought James would: "Pretty soon I will have to throw this away so I better try to be calm like Henry James. Did you ever read Henry James? He was a great writer who came to Venice and looked out the window and smoked his cigar and thought." The odd, perhaps subconscious or accidental allusion to "The Aspern Papers" is striking. More recently, James' writing was even used to promote Rolls-Royce automobiles: the tagline "Live all you can, it's a mistake not to", originally spoken by The Ambassadors' Lambert Strether, was used in one advertisement. This is somewhat ironic, considering the novel's sardonic treatment of the "great new force" of mass marketing.
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