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Henry James

Henry James Henry James[1†]

Henry James (15 April 1843 – 28 February 1916) was an American-British author, regarded as a key transitional figure between literary realism and literary modernism[1†][2†]. He is considered by many to be among the greatest novelists in the English language[1†]. His fundamental theme was the innocence and exuberance of the New World in clash with the corruption and wisdom of the Old[1†][2†]. This theme is illustrated in such works as Daisy Miller (1879), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Bostonians (1886), and The Ambassadors (1903)[1†][2†].

James was born in New York City and later relocated to Europe as a young man, eventually settling in England[1†]. He became a British citizen in 1915, a year before his death[1†][2†]. His works are known for their unique ambiguity, as well as for other aspects of their composition. His late works have been compared to Impressionist painting[1†].

His novella The Turn of the Screw has garnered a reputation as the most analysed and ambiguous ghost story in the English language and remains his most widely adapted work in other media[1†]. He also wrote other highly regarded ghost stories, such as "The Jolly Corner"[1†].

James published articles and books of criticism, travel, biography, autobiography, and plays[1†]. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1911, 1912, and 1916[1†].

Early Years and Education

Henry James was born on April 15, 1843, in New York City[2†][3†]. He was named after his father, Henry James Sr., a prominent social theorist and lecturer[2†]. His family was intellectually inclined and wealthy, which exposed him to scientific and philosophical influences from an early age[2†][3†].

James was a well-traveled youth. As a teenager, he visited Geneva, Paris, and London[2†]. Just before the American Civil War, the James family moved to New England[2†]. During this time, Henry became friends with painter John La Farge, who introduced him to French literature, especially to the works of Balzac[2†][3†].

In terms of formal education, Henry James had private tutors and briefly attended a few schools while the family traveled in Europe[2†][4†][5†]. However, in the strictest sense of the word, he had no formal education[2†][5†][6†]. When he was 19 years old, he enrolled at the Harvard Law School, but he soon realized that his true interest lay in literature and not law[2†][3†]. Instead of focusing on his studies, he spent his time reading Balzac, Henrik Ibsen, Charles Dickens, and Nathaniel Hawthorne[2†][3†].

This early exposure to various cultures and intellectual ideas, coupled with his passion for literature, played a significant role in shaping Henry James’s literary career.

Career Development and Achievements

Henry James’s writing career was one of the longest, most productive, and most influential in American literary history[7†]. He contributed significantly to the development of the modernist novel, invented cryptic tales that border on the postmodern, and laid the groundwork for the contemporary theory of narrative[7†][8†]. His evolving literary style and artistic intentions mirrored the transition from the Victorian to the Modern era in English literature[7†][4†].

James wrote 20 novels, 112 tales, 12 plays, several volumes of travel and criticism, and a great deal of literary journalism over 50 years[7†]. He was enormously prolific, authoring 22 novels, hundreds of short stories, and dozens of volumes of non-fiction including biographies, travel writing, art and literary criticism, and memoirs[7†][4†].

Some of his most notable works include “The American” (1877), “Daisy Miller” (1879), “Washington Square” (1880), “The Portrait of a Lady” (1881), “The Bostonians” (1886), “The Aspern Papers” (1888), “What Maisie Knew” (1897), “The Turn of the Screw” (1898), “The Wings of the Dove” (1902), “The Ambassadors” (1903), and “The Golden Bowl” (1904)[7†][1†]. These novels are known for dealing with the social and marital interplay between émigré Americans, the English, and continental Europeans[7†][1†].

In describing the internal states of mind and social dynamics of his characters, James often wrote in a style in which ambiguous or contradictory motives and impressions were overlaid or juxtaposed in the discussion of a character’s psyche[7†][1†]. For their unique ambiguity, as well as for other aspects of their composition, his late works have been compared to Impressionist painting[7†][1†].

James was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1911, 1912, and 1916[7†][1†]. His influence on literature was such that Jorge Luis Borges once said, "I have visited some literatures of East and West; I have compiled an encyclopedic compendium of fantastic literature; I have translated Kafka, Melville, and Bloy; I know of no stranger work than that of Henry James"[7†][1†].

First Publication of His Main Works

Henry James began his writing career by publishing articles for American journals[14†]. His first short story, “A Tragedy of Errors”, was published when he was just twenty years old[14†]. From 1866 to 1869 and from 1871 to 1872, he worked for The Atlantic Monthly magazine and the Nation newspaper[14†]. His first story, “Watch and Ward”, appeared in 1871 as a serial in the Atlantic Monthly[14†].

Here are some of his main works, along with the year of their first publication:

Each of these works contributed to James’s reputation as a master of literary realism and modernism[1†]. His deep interest in the social and marital interplay between émigré Americans, the English, and continental Europeans is evident in these works[1†]. His later works, such as “The Ambassadors”, “The Wings of the Dove”, and “The Golden Bowl”, were increasingly experimental[1†].

Analysis and Evaluation

Henry James’s literary critical essays, especially the Prefaces that he wrote for the New York Edition of his fiction (1905-7), have generally been regarded as the foundational documents for Anglo-American novel theory[9†]. He was a pioneer in the criticism and theory of fiction[9†][8†]. His precise use of limited point of view invites the reader to become actively engaged in interpreting events and ferreting out meaning[9†][8†]. His works also achieve a masterful blend of summarized action and dramatic scenes[9†][8†].

In his short fiction, he created the forerunners of the modern antiheroes and invented metafictional stories about the nature of art and writing[9†][8†]. Also, his critical works and many prefaces have given modern critics a vocabulary for discussing character and point of view[9†][8†]. James edited a deluxe edition of his complete works, received honorary degrees from Harvard University and the University of Oxford, and was awarded the Order of Merit from King George V[9†][8†]. His works have influenced Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Graham Greene[9†][8†].

James transformed the novel of physical adventure to one of psychological intrigue[9†][8†]. His character studies are probing and intense[9†][8†]. His works often dealt with the social and marital interplay between émigré Americans, the English, and continental Europeans[9†][8†]. His later works, such as The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl, were increasingly experimental[9†][8†].

In describing the internal states of mind and social dynamics of his characters, James often wrote in a style in which ambiguous or contradictory motives and impressions were overlaid or juxtaposed in the discussion of a character’s psyche[9†][8†]. For their unique ambiguity, as well as for other aspects of their composition, his late works have been compared to Impressionist painting[9†][8†].

Personal Life

Henry James was known for his friendly nature and active participation in society, yet he maintained a certain distance in his relations with others[10†]. He never married and had no children[10†][11†]. This pattern of avoiding close relationships continued for most of his life until his later years[10†].

An “obscure hurt” suffered in 1861, possibly an injury to his spine, kept James from service in the Civil War[10†][11†]. This injury may have been related to his decision to remain unmarried[10†][11†]. At the age of thirty-three, he relocated to Europe, living first for a year in Paris and then permanently in England[10†][11†].

In January 1916, James was awarded the Order of Merit for his contributions to literature over a 50-year career, during which he wrote some 20 novels and over 100 short stories[10†][12†]. However, he was 73 and his strength was fading. He had a history of heart trouble and depression, and he found the anxiety and grief of wartime exhausting[10†][12†].

Conclusion and Legacy

Henry James’s career was one of the longest, most productive, and most influential in American letters[13†]. A master of prose fiction from the first, he practiced it as a fertile innovator, enlarged the form, and placed upon it the stamp of a highly individual method and style[13†]. He wrote for 51 years—20 novels, 112 tales, 12 plays, several volumes of travel and criticism, and a great deal of literary journalism[13†].

James recognized and helped to fashion the myth of the American abroad and incorporated this myth in the “international novel,” of which he was the acknowledged master[13†]. His fundamental theme was that of an innocent, exuberant, and democratic America confronting the worldly wisdom and corruption of Europe’s older, aristocratic culture[13†].

In both his light comedies and his tragedies, James’s sense of the human scene was sure and vivid, and, in spite of the mannerisms of his later style, he was one of the great prose writers and stylists of his century[13†]. His rendering of the inner life of his characters made him a forerunner of the “stream-of-consciousness” movement in the 20th century[13†].

James’s public remained limited during his lifetime, but, after a revival of interest in his work during the 1940s and ’50s, he reached an ever-widening audience[13†]. His works were translated in many countries, and he was recognized in the late 20th century as one of the subtlest craftsmen who ever practiced the art of the novel[13†].

Key Information

References and Citations:

  1. Wikipedia (English) - Henry James [website] - link
  2. Britannica - Henry James: American writer [website] - link
  3. The Famous People - Henry James Biography [website] - link
  4. New World Encyclopedia - Henry James [website] - link
  5. CliffsNotes - The Turn of the Screw - Henry James Biography [website] - link
  6. CliffsNotes - The American - Henry James Biography [website] - link
  7. NoSweatShakespeare - Henry James Overview: A Biography Of Henry James [website] - link
  8. eNotes - Henry James Analysis [website] - link
  9. Cambridge University Press - The Cambridge Companion to Henry James - Chapter: Henry James and the Invention of Novel Theory (Chapter 4) [website] - link
  10. SunSigns - Henry James Biography, Life, Interesting Facts [website] - link
  11. CliffsNotes - The Ambassadors - Henry James Biography [website] - link
  12. The Conversation - The real Henry James will never stand up – that’s his greatest legacy [website] - link
  13. Britannica - Henry James - Realism, Novels, Criticism [website] - link
  14. SciHi Blog - Henry James and Impressionism in Literature [website] - link
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