Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
This article is about the writer; for the politician who was almost his contemporary see Henry James, 1st Baron James of Hereford.
Henry James (April 15 1843 - February 28, 1916), son of Henry James Sr. and younger brother of the philosopher and psychologist William James, was an American author (although he spent much time in Europe and became a British citizen near the end of his life) and critic of the late 19th and early 20th century, known for novels and novellas based upon themes of consciousness.
As a writer James is generally held to be one of the great figures of trans-Atlantic literature. His works are frequently based on the juxtaposition of characters from different worlds -- the Old World, simultaneously artistic, corrupting, and alluring; and the New World, where people are often brash, open, and assertive.
He favored internal, psychological drama, and his work is frequently about alienation. His earlier work is considered Realist, but in fact throughout his long career he maintained a strong interest in a variety of artistic effects and movements. In the late 20th century, many of James's novels were filmed by the team of Ismail Merchant & James Ivory, and this period saw a small resurgence of interest in his works. Among the best known of these are the short works Daisy Miller, Washington Square, and The Turn of the Screw, and the novels The Portrait of a Lady, The Golden Bowl, The Ambassadors, and The American .
James's middle to late prose style is frequently marked by long, digressive sentences and highly descriptive passages that defer the verb for a longer space than is usual. James's style seems to change during his career from a straightforward style early on and a more languid style later, and biographers have noted that the change of style occurred at approximately the time that James began employing an amanuensis.
Henry James was afflicted with a mild stutter. He overcame this by cultivating the habit of speaking very slowly and deliberately. Since he believed that good writing should resemble the conversation of an intelligent man, the process of dictating his works may, perhaps, account for a shift in style from direct to conversational sentences. The resulting prose style is at times baroque. (His friend Edith Wharton, who admired him greatly, admitted that there were some passages in his works which were all but incomprehensible.) His short fiction (such as The Aspern Papers and The Turn of the Screw) is often considered to be more readable than the longer novels, and early works tend to be more accessible than later ones. It should be noted that The Turn of the Screw is itself one of James' later works. Broad brush comments about the "accessibility" of James' fiction are suspect, at best. Many of his later short stories, for instance, are briefer and more straightforward in style than some tales of his earlier years.
For much of his life he was an expatriate, an outsider, living in Europe. Much of The Portrait of a Lady was written while he lived in Venice, a city whose beauty he found distracting; he was better pleased with the small town of Rye in England. This feeling of being an American in Europe came through as a recurring theme in his books, which contrasted American innocence (or a lack of sophistication) with European sophistication (or decadence) — see for example The Portrait of a Lady or The Golden Bowl.
He made only a modest living from his books, yet was often the houseguest of the wealthy. While not really one of them, James had grown up in a wealthy family and was able to observe them at close range and to sympathize with their problems. (He said he got some of his best story ideas from dinner table gossip.) He was a man whose sexuality was indefinite and whose tastes and interests were, according to the prevailing standards of Victorian Anglo-American culture, rather feminine. It is often asserted that James's being a permanent outsider in so many ways may have helped him in his detailed psychological analysis of situations — one of the strongest features of his writing. He was never a full member of any camp. (See The Bostonians, especially Verena's speech about always looking at the world from behind a sheet of glass.)
The analytical strain in his work is quite strong. It is possible to see many of his 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; alternatively, it has been suggested that the storyline was inspired by Charles Darwin's theory of sexual selection. The novella The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story that deals with the psychological impact on an unmarried (and possibly sexually repressed) young governess who stumbles into an ongoing tragic love affair complicated by the fact that the lovers are dead.
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, 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 harbored 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 benefitted his novels and tales by helping him dramatize his characters' thoughts and emotions. James produced a small but interesting body of theatrical criticism, including a perceptive appreciation of Henrik Ibsen.
With his wide-ranging artistic interests, James occasionally wrote on the visual arts. Perhaps his most valuable contribution was his favorable 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).
Finally, 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. His correspondents included celebrated contemporaries like Robert Louis Stevenson and Joseph Conrad, along with many others in his wide circle of friends. The letters range from the "mere twaddle of graciousness" to serious discussions of artistic, social and personal issues.
James' critical reputation fell to its lowest point in the decades immediately after his death. Some American critics, such as Van Wyck Brooks, expressed hostility towards James' long expatriation and eventual naturalization as a British citizen. Others complained about the supposed difficulty and obscurity of James' style, or his alleged squeamishness in the treatment of sex and other possibly controversial material.
Although these criticisms have by no means abated completely, James is now widely valued for his psychological insight, his masterful creation of situations and storylines that reveal his characters' deepest motivations, his low-key but playful humor, and his assured command of the language.
The Portable Henry James, New Edition (2004), edited by John Auchard
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