Henry James Biography


Personal Background

Henry James was a true cosmopolite. He was a citizen of the world and moved freely in and out of drawing rooms in Europe, England, and America. He was perhaps more at home in Europe than he was in America, but the roots of his life belong to the American continent. Thus, with few exceptions, most of his works deal with some type of confrontation between an American and a European.

Henry James was born in New York in 1843. His father, Henry James, Sr., had inherited a considerable sum of money and spent his time in leisured pursuit of theology and philosophy. The father often wrote essays and treatises on aspects of religion and philosophy and developed a certain degree of mysticism. Among the guests in the James household were some of the most famous minds of the mid-nineteenth century. Henry James was able to hear his father converse with people like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and George Ripley. The father was insistent that his children learn to approach life with the broadest possible outlook.

In the strictest sense of the word, Henry James had no formal education. As a youth, he had private tutors. Then in his twelfth year, his father took the entire family to Europe, where they moved freely from Switzerland to France to Germany in pursuit of stimulating conversation and intellectual ideas. The world of Europe left an everlasting impression on young Henry James. He was ultimately to return and make his home in Europe.

When the family returned from Europe, the elder James decided to settle in New England. He chose Cambridge because this was the center of American intellectual thought. Many of the writers of Cambridge, Boston, and nearby Concord, where Emerson and Thoreau lived, were often visitors in the James household. It was in Boston that James met the first great influence on his literary career. He established a close friendship with William Dean Howells, who as editor of one of America's leading magazines, was able to help James in his early efforts to write and publish.

In Boston, Henry James enrolled briefly in the Harvard Law School but soon withdrew to devote himself to writing. His older brother, William James, the most famous philosopher and psychologist America had yet produced, was also a student at Harvard, where he remained after graduation to become one of the most eminent lecturers in America.

By the late 1860s, James had done some reviewing and had sold one work of fiction to the Atlantic Monthly. He also went to Europe on his own, to see the continent as an adult. He returned again to Cambridge and New York in the hope of continuing his literary career, but he gradually came to the realization that Europe was more suitable for his writings. Thus, in 1876, when he was in his thirty-third year, James made the momentous decision to take up residence abroad. With the exception of short trips to various parts of the world, he lived the rest of his life in and near London. Until 1915, he retained his American citizenship, but when World War I broke out, he became a naturalized citizen of England in protest over America's failure to enter the war against Germany.

James' life and background were ideally suited for the development of his artistic temperament. Even though he was not extremely wealthy, he did have sufficient independent means to allow him to live a leisured life. His father's house provided all the intellectual stimulation he needed. The visitors were the most prominent artists of the day, and James was able to follow the latest literary trends. In his travels, he moved in the best society of two continents and came into contact with a large variety of ideas.

With such a life, it is natural that James' novels are concerned with a society of people who are interested in subtle ideas and subtle refinements. There are no really poor people in his novels. He wrote about people who had enough money to allow them to develop and cultivate their higher natures. His novels develop with a deliberate slowness and conscientious refinement. Many critics and readers resent the deliberate withholding of information and the slow development found in the Jamesian novel, but James' life was lived with a high degree of leisure and refinement. And finally, James was the first American qualified to develop the theme of the American in Europe. By the time he made his decision to settle in Europe, he had made several trips there and had lived and attended school in several parts of Europe. Thus, the subject matter of most of James' works is concerned with an American of some degree of innocence meeting or becoming involved with some European of experience.

In spite of his decision to live abroad, James remained essentially American in his sympathies. His greatest characters (or central characters) are almost always Americans. But at the same time, some of his most unpleasant characters are also Americans. But the important thing is that the characters who change, mature, and achieve an element of greatness are almost always Americans.

The Realism of Henry James

Henry James has had a tremendous influence on the development of the novel. Part of this influence has been through the type of realism that he employs. On the other hand, the most frequent criticism against James has been that he is not realistic enough. Many critics have objected that James does not write about life, that his novels are filled with people whom one would never meet in this world. One critic (H. L. Mencken) suggested that James needed a good whiff of the Chicago stockyards so as to get a little life into his novels. Others have suggested that James' world is too narrow and incomplete to warrant classification as a realistic depiction of life.

Actually James' realism is of a special sort. By the early definitions, James is not a realist. The early definitions stated that the novelist should accurately depict life and that the novel should "hold up a mirror to life"; in other words, the realist was supposed to make an almost scientific record of life.

But James was not concerned with all aspects of life. There is nothing of the ugly, the vulgar, the common, or the pornographic in James. He was not concerned with poverty or with the middle class who had to struggle for a living. Instead, he was interested in depicting a class of people who could afford to devote themselves to the refinements of life.

What then is James' special brand of realism? When we refer to James' realism, we mean James' fidelity to his own material. To best appreciate his novels and his realism, we must enter into James' special world. It is as though we ascended a ladder and arrived at another world. Once we have arrived at this special world and once we accept it, then we see that James is very realistic. That is, in terms of his world, he never violates his character's essential nature. Thus, James' realism, in the truest sense, means being faithful to his character. In other words, characters from other novels often do things or commit acts that don't seem to blend in with their essential nature. But the acts of the Jamesian character are always understandable in terms of that character's true nature,

James explained his own realism in terms of its opposition to romanticism. For James the realistic represents those things which, sooner or later, in one way or another, everyone will encounter. But the romantic stands for those things that, with all the efforts and all the wealth and facilities of the world, we can never know directly. Thus, it is conceivable that one can experience the same things that the characters are experiencing in a James novel, but one can never actually encounter the events narrated in the romantic novel.

When James, therefore, creates a certain type of character early in the novel, this character will act in a consistent manner throughout the entire book. This is being realistic. The character will never do anything that is not logical and acceptable to his realistic nature, or to our conception of what that character should do.

Writing about realism in later years, James maintained that he was more interested in a faithful rendition of a character in any given situation than in depicting all aspects of life. Accordingly, when he has once drawn Winterborne's or Daisy Miller's character in one situation, the reader can anticipate how that person will act in any other given situation. Likewise, the governess' actions, even in view of possible unrealistic apparitions, are always consistent. We are always able logically to understand all the actions of any character. Thus James' realism would never allow the characters to perform actions that would be inconsistent with their true natures.

Structure of Henry James' Novels

Almost all of James' novels are structured in the same way. There must be a center — something toward which all the lines point and which "supremely matters." This is essentially James' own explanation of his structure. The thing that "supremely matters" is the central idea of the novel or that idea around which the novel functions. In Daisy Miller, the thing that "supremely matters" is Winterborne's attempt to discover how innocent Daisy really is. That is, could she possibly be a mistress of the art of deception and in truth be essentially an improper girl, or is she simply responding so innocently and spontaneously to life that she ignores all the rules of decorum? Thus, every scene is structured to illustrate something more about Daisy's personality. Likewise, in The Turn of the Screw, the thing that "supremely matters" is the innocence of the young children. Consequently, every scene and every action is designed to further illuminate this question. We are constantly pondering the relative innocence or evil of the young children.

James' creative process is also important to understanding the structure of his works. He begins his novels with a situation and a character. Many writers — like Nathaniel Hawthorne — would begin with an idea or theme in mind and then would create a situation and, characters to illuminate the basic idea, but James' technique is just the opposite. He created a certain situation, and then he would place his characters in it. James would then, in effect, sit back and simply observe what would happen when a character was confronted with this new situation. Often, James said, he had no particular ending in mind when he began a novel. Instead, he would let the character and situation determine the outcome. This allowed him more freedom and allowed him the opportunity of "getting to know" his character by observing him in a series of scenes.

Thus, the central situation in Daisy Miller is the arrival in Europe of a charming young girl who feels restricted by the formalized rules of behavior in Europe. Owing to her failure to observe certain social restrictions, she is considered improper by many people. But others recognize that her actions are a part of her free American ways and maintain that she is innocent. Consequently, Daisy is placed in various situations where we can observe her actions and determine to what degree she is innocent and spontaneous.

The central situation in The Turn of the Screw involves the governess' view of her charges. Consequently, certain situations are created so that we may watch the governess react to the innocence or evil of her pupils.

We have said that all lines must point toward the thing that supremely matters, but these lines do not follow a straight course. This is not the way James structures his novels. Everything in the novel is aimed at the central situation, but he moves toward the center by exploring all the related matters. In other words, the structure could be best described by a series of circles around the center. Each circle is an event that illuminates the center, but highlights only a part of it. Each circle then is often a discussion by several different people. For example, one character observes something and then goes to another person to discuss his observation. Then two other characters might discuss the same event. By the end of the various discussions, James has investigated all the psychological implications inherent in this particular situation. This would represent one circle. Then, we go to another event or situation, which will be fully discussed before proceeding to the next. Thus by the end of the novel, James has probed and examined every moral, ethical, and psychological aspect of the central situation, and the reader has heard the views of many people on the same subject.

Consequently, the structures of James' novels are circular in approach to the central subject, but every circle in some way illuminates the thing that supremely matters. Every incident functions to tell us more about a character or situation. There is nothing that is superfluous or extraneous.

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