Selected products from Henry James


Henry James (1843-1916) is today remembered as the most prolific American novelist of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century whose works have become part and parcel of the American literary tradition and of American heritage in general. Having lived most of his life as an expatriate in Europe, many of James’s novels juxtapose the Old World with the New World. Novels like The Portrait of a Lady, Daisy Miller and The Ambassadors, among many others, display the encounter between American and European cultures and mentalities. They highlight the differences between the two worlds through following the experiences of American expatriates in Europe. Furthermore, James’s fiction also transcends this recurring theme to offer sophisticated observations of human relations as well as realistic, social criticism.

Born on April 15th, 1843, in New York City, Henry James is the son of Henry James, Sr. and the brother of the famous American psychologist and philosopher William James. The father was himself an intellectual and a theologian who had inherited a considerable fortune from his Irish ancestors and who was able to provide his children with necessary conditions for brilliance. A passionate thirst for knowledge and learning was inculcated in the children by the father who, in the mid-1850s, took the family for a tour around the European continent. In Europe, Henry James had private tutors in France, England, Germany, Poland and Switzerland. Later, on their return to America, the family settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they had the opportunity to host famous intellectual and literary figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Washington Irving.

It was during their first stay in Europe that Henry James became very attached to the old continent. Later, he started by multiplying his visits to England and France before deciding to settle definitively in London. Unlike his brother William who made an outstanding academic career at Harvard, James did not have a formal education, and even when he joined the Harvard law school, he left it within only one year to concentrate on his writing activities. Henry James was an avid reader and the luxury of his father’s household allowed him to nourish his talents. Between 1864 and 1865, he published his first installments in literary magazines with the help of William Dean Howells.  

Henry James’s first short story, A Tragedy of Error, was published in the Continental Monthly magazine in 1864. Other publications soon followed in The Nation and Atlantic Monthly. Later, and after a new tour in Europe, James published his first novel Watch and Ward in 1870. Other visits to Europe took place and the publications of new books followed, including Roderick Hudson, A Passionate Pilgrim and Transatlantic Sketches. With these early works, James started to develop the major theme that haunted most of his oeuvre: American innocence and freshness meeting European tradition and experience. In such works, as well as in many other novels by Henry James, the novelist draws on his own experience in Europe and his acquaintances among American expatriates there.

In 1876, realizing that Europe was much more suitable for his career as a writer and as a realistic novelist, James decided to settle in Europe, the land of outstanding contemporaries such as Gustave Flaubert, Emile Zola and Ivan Turgenev. James spent most of his expatriate years around London in addition to Paris and Rome. Other works portraying Americans living in Europe followed, the most successful of which was probably the novella Daisy Miller (1879). The book follows the romantic adventures of an innocent American young woman who finds difficulties to adapt to European values and lifestyle. James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881) almost deals with the same theme, equally having as a central character an American lady in European distress, though she has to face the Machiavellian enterprises of fellow American expatriates.   

Among James’s other publications during this period, one can mention The Europeans, Washington Square and Confidence. These were later followed by a social drama entitled The Bostonians. In 1988, another seminal novella appeared in The Atlantic Monthly entitled The Aspern Papers. Though equally set in Europe (Venice, Italy), the novella deals with a different kind of themes. It tells the story of the love letters that a famous and now dead poet had written to his beloved. The poet’s beloved, now an aged woman, is visited by the narrator who is secretly after the letters. The narrative is a masterpiece of suspense in addition to its dexterous description of  the dreamlike city of Venice.

In the beginning of the 1890s, James was encouraged to enter the world of drama. He converted into theatre some of his fiction such as The American and Daisy Miller. In late nineteenth-century England and Europe, the stage was a perfect tool to introduce literary works to the large public and to help the author make considerable amounts of money. With Henry James, this worked for a while until 1895 when the negative reaction of the audience at the opening of his play Guy Domville made him decide to abandon drama for good. The decision was encouraged by the fact that he had already published quite successful stories during that same period. Indeed, in 1890, James published what many critics believe to be as one of his major masterpieces, The Tragic Muse. The latter was followed by another successful short story entitled “The Pupil” (1891). Being first published in Longman’s Magazine, “The Pupil” tells the story of a young boy named Morgan Moreen and his relationship with his tutor Pemberton. Some critics commented on the homoerotic nature of the relationship between Pemberton and Morgan and even advance the theory that Henry James was himself a homosexual, an idea encouraged by the fact that James was a life-long celibate.

In 1898, while still living in England, James published a collection of short stories entitled The Two Magics.  It included a number of tales in addition to the two longer stories “Covering End” and “The Turn of the Screw,” of which the latter was an outstanding success. “The Turn of the Screw,” basically a ghost story, was believed to have a great impact on the genre and on Gothic fiction. James took after his father an interest in spiritual and paranormal phenomena which pushed him to deal with the theme in fiction. The story centers around the character of a late governess who claims to have seen the figures of a man and a woman while they are not seen by others. The events are ambiguous and reality is blurred and confused with pure imagination, which is supposedly the major feature behind the captivating nature of the novella.

Many other works followed, the most important of which was probably The Ambassadors (1903) which James himself considered as his finest work. The story of The Ambassadors deals again with the theme of Americans visiting Europe. The narrator Lewis Lambert Strether has to go to Paris to look for Chad Newsome, his wealthy fiancée’s son. The book mainly deals with the difficulties Lewis is to encounter during his mission in Europe. The old continent is again portrayed as a world of experience and authenticity, but also as a world of corruption and ruination. Mrs. Newsome sends other Americans after Chad and the latter are referred to as “ambassadors.”

After decades spent in Europe, Hanry James finally visited his home country between 1904 and 1905 and many other publications followed including “The Jolly Corner” (1908) and The Outcry (1911). He also proofread his works for republication and wrote critical prefaces for the New York Edition. In 1911 and then in 1912, James received honorary degrees from Harvard and Oxford respectively. In 1915, one year before his death, Henry James became officially a British citizen, which caused significant disappointment and stimulated  contempt among many of his countrymen. James’s decision was mainly in reaction to his country’s position on the First World War. During this autumnal period of his life, James also finished his two autobiographical works entitled A Small Boy and Notes of a Son and Brother. On February 28th, 1916, Henry James died after a long illness. While his cremation and funerals took place in London, his ashes were taken to be buried in his American old home at Cambridge, Massachusetts.

During Henry James’s lifetime and after his death, his works have been criticized by numerous literary men and critics, including celebrated figures like Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf. His fiction has been criticized for its sophistication and elitist nature. In fact, Henry James’s works are far from being accessible for everyone. Furthermore, some observers and critics also complain about the fact that James’s protagonists always belong to the middle or the upper social class. Unlike the fiction of Charles Dickens or Thomas Hardy, James’s stories never concern themselves with the poor and the deprived. On the other hand, most readers and critics agree on the subtlety of James’s realism and on his descriptive and narratorial craftsmanship and delicacy. Many of the twenty-two novels and the more than a hundred tales, short stories and travelogues that he wrote have now become landmarks of American literature and heritage.