Henry James Biography

Early life

Henry James (1843–1916⁠), American author, was born in New York on the 15th of April 1843. His father was Henry James (1811–1882), a theological writer of great originality, from whom both he and his brother, Professor William James, derived their psychological subtlety and their idiomatic, picturesque English. Most of Henry’s boyhood was spent in Europe, where he studied under tutors in England, France and Switzerland.

Henry James biography

Best known writings

In 1860 he returned to America, and began reading law at Harvard, only to find speedily that literature, not law, was what he most cared for. His earliest short tale, “The Story of a Year,” appeared in 1865, in the Atlantic Monthly, and frequent stories and sketches followed. In 1869 he again went to Europe, where he subsequently made his home, for the most part living in London, or at Rye in Sussex, and became a proliferate writer.

Among his specially noteworthy works are the following: Watch and Ward (1871); Roderick Hudson (1875); The American (1877); Daisy Miller (1878); French Poets and Novelists (1878); A Life of Hawthorne (1879); The Portrait of a Lady (1881); Portraits of Places (1884); The Bostonians (1886); Partial Portraits (1888); The Tragic Muse (1890); Essays in London (1893); The Two Magics (1898); The Awkward Age (1898); The Wings of the Dove (1902); The Ambassadors (1903); The Golden Bowl (1904); English Hours (1905); The American Scene (1907); The High Bid (1909); Italian Hours (1909).

Writing genre

As a novelist, Henry James is a modern of the moderns both in subject matter and in method. He is entirely loyal to contemporary life and reverentially exact in his transcription of the phase. His characters are, for the most part, people of the world who conceive of life as a fine art and have the leisure to carry out their theories. Rarely are they at close quarters with any ugly practical task. They are subtle and complex with the subtlety and the complexity that come from conscious preoccupation with themselves. They are specialists in conduct and past masters in casuistry, and are full of variations and shadows of turning. Moreover, they are finely expressive of milieu; each belongs unmistakably to his class and his race; each is true to inherited moral traditions and delicately illustrative of some social code.

To reveal the power and the tragedy of life through so many minutely limiting and apparently artificial conditions, and by means of characters who are somewhat self-conscious and are apt to make of life only a pleasant pastime, might well seem an impossible task. Yet it is precisely in this that Henry James is pre-eminently successful. The essentially human is what he really cares for, however much he may at times seem preoccupied with the technique of his art or with the mask of conventions through which he makes the essentially human reveal itself. Nor has “the vista of the spiritual been denied him.” No more poignant spiritual tragedy has been recounted in recent fiction than the story of Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady.

His method, too, is as modern as his subject matter. He early fell in love with the “point of view,” and the good and the bad qualities of his work all follow from this literary passion. He is a very sensitive impressionist, with a technique that can fix the most elusive phase of character and render the most baffling surface. The skill is unending with which he places his characters in such relations and under such lights that they flash out in due succession their continuously varying facets. At times he may seem to forget that a character is something incalculably more than the sum of all its phases; and then his characters tend to have their existence, as Positivists expect to have their immortality, simply and solely in the minds of other people. But when his method is at its best, the delicate phases of character that he transcribes coalesce perfectly into clearly defined and suggestive images of living, acting men and women.

Doubtless, there is a certain initiation necessary for the enjoyment of Henry James. He presupposes a cosmopolitan outlook, a certain interest in art and in social artifice, and no little abstract curiosity about the workings of the human mechanism. But for speculative readers, for readers who care for art in life as well as for life in art, and for readers above all who want to encounter and comprehend a great variety of very modern and finely modulated characters, Mr. James holds a place of his own, unrivalled as an interpreter of the world of to-day. American writer Willa Cather referred to Henry James as a “mighty master of language and keen student of human actions and motives.”

Other writings

Apart from the many stories and novels he published in the Atlantic, James wrote a copious number of reviews, many of them unsigned. Along with those of Howells and other Atlantic critics such as J. T. Trowbridge, E. P. Whipple, Barrett Wendell, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, James’s reviews helped to formalize the aesthetics of literary studies.

An Atlantic reviewer of James’s Partial Portraits (1888) — which includes chapters on Emerson, Trollope, and Robert Louis Stevenson, as well as his landmark essay “The Art of Fiction” — called him an excellent “talker about books. . . . His knowledge is of the fullest, his resources of allusion and comparison are endless, [and] his demarcation of different schools of literature is exact.” James seemed “so perfectly at home in criticism,” said another reviewer, that he found it hard to remember he was also a productive novelist. James saw the “critic’s first duty” to be finding “some key to method, some utterance of his literary convictions, some indication of his ruling theory.” Looking at books from both a reader’s and a writer’s point of view, he shared with other Atlantic reviewers the belief that art and criticism went hand in hand.

Additional resources

For a list of the short stories of Mr. Henry James, collections of them in volume form, and other works, see bibliographies by F. A. King, in The Novels of Henry James, by Elisabeth L. Cary (New York and London, 1905), and by Le Roy Phillips, A Bibliography of the Writings of Henry James (Boston, Mass., 1906). In 1909 an édition de luxe of Henry James’s novels was published in 24 volumes.

Henry James was made famous by his numerous writings being published in the Atlantic Monthly. Henry James and the American Idea describes his relationship with the magazine.

Additional study resources available in the Library of America bookstore.


If you are using the Excellence in Literature curriculum, you will find Daisy Miller as an optional reading for the Honors track of American Literature, Module 3.7.

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