Henry James

Orfeas Katsoulis | Apr 30, 2023

Table of Content


Henry James, born April 15, 1843 in New York and died February 28, 1916 in Chelsea, is an American writer, naturalized British July 26, 1915.

A major figure of 19th century literary realism, Henry James is considered a master of the short story and the novel for the great refinement of his writing. He is best known for a series of important novels in which he describes America's encounter with Europe. His plots deal with personal relationships and the exercise of power they entail, as well as other moral issues. By adopting the point of view of a central character in the story, he explores the phenomena of consciousness and perception. The style of his late works has led to comparisons with an impressionist painter.

Henry James wanted to convince British and American writers to present their worldviews with the same freedom as French authors. His imaginative use of narrative point of view, interior monologue, and the mendacious narrator in his own short stories and novels brought new depth and interest to realist fiction, and foreshadowed the modern works of the 20th century. In addition to his extensive fiction, this prolific author also produced numerous articles, travel books, biography, autobiography, and literary criticism, as well as plays, some of which were staged during his lifetime with relative success. His dramatic work would have deeply influenced his last literary productions.

The son of Henry James Sr. one of the country's most famous intellectuals of the mid-nineteenth century and Mary Robertson Walsh, Henry was the second of five children (William, born in 1842, Garth Wilkinson, born in 1845, Robertson, born in 1846, and Alice born in 1848).

The fortune acquired by his grandfather, an Irish emigrant who arrived in the United States in 1789, sheltered the family from the servitudes of daily life. His older brother, William James, would become a professor at Harvard and become known for his pragmatist philosophy. Despite the strong bonds, the rivalry between the two brothers always created latent conflicts.

In his youth, James traveled constantly between Europe and America, educated by tutors in Geneva, London, Paris, Bologna and Bonn. From childhood he read the classics of English, American, French and German literature, as well as translations of Russian classics. After a five-year stay in Europe, the family moved to New England in 1860, where they remained during the Civil War.

At the age of 19, he briefly enrolled in Harvard Law School, but quickly dropped out in the face of a desire to be "simply literary. In 1863, he anonymously published his first short story, A Tragedy of Errors, as well as critical reviews for magazines. The Story of a Year, his first signed short story, appeared in the March 1865 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

From February 1869 to the spring of 1870, Henry James travels in Europe, first in England, then in France, Switzerland and Italy. Back in Cambridge, he published his first novel, The Watchful Eye, written between Venice and Paris. From May 1872 to March 1874, he accompanied his sister Alice and his aunt to Europe where he wrote travel reports for The Nation. In Rome, he began writing his second novel Roderick Hudson, published in January 1875 in the Atlantic Monthly, which inaugurated the "international" theme of the confrontation between the cultures of a refined and often amoral Europe and a more frugal, but more upright America. At this time, he also tackled the fantasy genre with the short story The Last of the Valerii (1874), inspired by Mérimée, before finding his own way in ghost stories, where he excelled, as evidenced in particular by The Turn of the Screw (1898).

After a few months in New York, he embarked again for Europe on October 20, 1875. After a stay in Paris, where he befriended Tourgueniev and met Flaubert, Zola, Maupassant and Alphonse Daudet, he settled in London in July 1876. The five years he spent there were fruitful: in addition to numerous short stories, he published The American, The Europeans, an essay on French poets and novelists, etc. Daisy Miller brought him fame on both sides of the Atlantic. After Washington Square, Portrait of a Lady is often considered a masterful conclusion to the writer's early work.

His mother died in January 1882, while James was in Washington. He returned to London in May and made a trip to France (from which was born, under the title A Little Tour in France, a small guidebook that would serve several generations of travelers in the regions of the Loire and the Midi). He returned to the United States in a hurry where his father died on December 18, before his arrival. He returned to London in the spring of 1883. The following year, his very neurotic sister Alice joined him in London where she died on March 6, 1892.

In 1886, he published two novels, Les Bostoniennes and La Princesse Casamassima, which combine political and social themes (feminism and anarchism) with the search for a personal identity. Two short novels followed in 1887, Reverberator and The Papers of Aspern, then The Tragic Muse in 1890.

Although he had become an author of recognized talent, the income from his books remained modest. In the hope of greater success, he decided to devote himself to the theater. In 1891, a dramatic version of L'Américain was a minor success in the provinces, but received a more mixed reception in London. He then wrote several plays that were not staged.

In 1895, Guy Domville's premiere ended in confusion and booing. After this failure, he returned to the novel, but gradually applied the new technical skills he had acquired during his short dramatic career.

In 1897, he published The Spoils of Poynton and What Maisie Knew. Then, between 1902 and 1904, came the last great novels: The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors and The Golden Cup.

In 1903, James is sixty years old and a "passionate homesickness" invades him. On August 30, 1904, he arrived in New York for the first time in twenty years. He left the United States on July 5, 1905, after having given numerous lectures throughout the country. His impressions will be collected in an essay entitled The American Scene.

Before his return to England, he finalized, with Scribner Publishers, the project of a definitive edition of his writings, The Novels and Tales of Henry James, New York Edition, which would eventually include twenty-six volumes. Between 1906 and 1909, he worked on the texts, not hesitating to make significant corrections to his earliest works, and wrote eighteen prefaces that gave penetrating views on the genesis of his works and his literary theories. The lack of success of this enterprise affects him permanently.

His portrait by John Singer Sargent was commissioned to celebrate James' seventieth birthday by a group of 269 subscribers. Eventually, the artist, a fellow American and friend, waived his fee. When finished, James declared the portrait "a living likeness and a masterpiece of painting." He almost breathed his last before most people had a chance to see it for themselves. When the portrait was shown at the Royal Academy exhibition in May 1914, a suffragette named Mary Wood cut the canvas three times with a meat cleaver, hitting the area around James' right eye three times before it was apprehended.

In 1915, disappointed by the initial neutrality of the United States in the face of the First World War raging on the continent, he applied for and obtained British nationality. He had a stroke on December 2, followed by a second one on December 13. He received the Order of Merit on New Year's Day 1916, and died on February 28.

Literary career

Henry James had early ambitions for a career as a man of letters. His first published work was a review of a performance, which reflected his lifelong interest in the art of acting. From childhood he read, critiqued and learned classics of English, American, French and German literature, as well as translations of Russian classics.

Until he was 50, James made a living from his writing, mainly through contributions to British and American illustrated monthlies, but after his sister's death in 1892, his royalties were added to a modest income from the family's Syracuse property. His novels appeared in installments before being published in book form. He wrote with a regularity that prevented later revisions.

To increase his income, he was also frequently published for newspapers, writing until his death in a wide variety of genres in different media. In his reviews of fiction, theater and painting, he develops the idea of the unity of the arts. He wrote two long biographies, two volumes of memoirs about his childhood and a long fragment of autobiography; 22 novels, two of which were unfinished at his death, 112 stories and short stories of various lengths, fifteen plays, and dozens of thematic essays or other travelogues.

His biographies and literary criticism list Ibsen, Hawthorne, Balzac, and Turgenev as his major influences. He revised his major novels and numerous short stories for the anthology edition of his fiction, the twenty-three volumes of which constitute his artistic autobiography, which he called "The New York Edition" to reaffirm his lifelong ties to his native city. In his essay The Art of Fiction, as well as in the preface to each volume of The New York Edition, the writer explains his vision of the art of fiction, emphasizing the importance of realistic characters and descriptions through the eyes and thoughts of a narrator involved in the story.

At various times in his career, Henry James wrote plays, beginning with one-act plays for magazines between 1869 and 1871, and the dramatic adaptation of his famous short story Daisy Miller in 1882.

From 1890 to 1892, he devoted himself to succeeding on the London stage, writing six plays, of which only the adaptation of his novel The American was produced. This was performed several years in a row by a repertory company and successfully in London, but did not prove very lucrative for its author. His other plays were not produced. After the death of his sister Alice in 1892, he stopped working in the theater. Wanting to improve his income, he noticed the failure of his enterprise.

However, in 1893, he responded to the request of the actor-impresario George Alexander who commissioned him to write a serious play for the reopening of the St. James's Theatre after renovation. Henry James wrote the drama Guy Domville, which George Alexander produced. The evening of the premiere, January 5, 1895, ended with the public whistling. The author was affected by this, but the incident was not repeated: the reviews were good and the play was performed for five weeks before being replaced by Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, for which George Alexander predicted a better future for the coming season.

Henry James no longer wanted to write for the theater. But in the following weeks, he agreed to write a curtain raiser for Ellen Terry. This will be the one-act play Summersoft, which he will then adapt into a short story, entitled Covering End, before making a longer version for the stage, The High Bid, briefly produced in London in 1907. Returning to playwriting, he then wrote three new plays. Two of them were in production at the time of the death of Edward VII on May 6, 1910, which plunged London into mourning and led to the closure of theaters.

Discouraged by failing health and the stress of theatrical work, Henry James did not renew his efforts, but recycled his plays into successful novels. The Tollé was a best-seller when it was published in the United States in 1911. During his theatrical involvement, from 1890 to 1893, he also served as a critic and helped Elizabeth Robins and others translate and mount Henrik Ibsen for the first time on a London stage.

Personal and sentimental life

Henry James never married. Living in London, he presented himself as a confirmed bachelor and regularly rejected any suggestion of marriage. After his death, critics questioned the reasons for his celibacy. In his writings on the James family, F. W. Dupee speculated that he was in love with his cousin Mary ("Minnie") Temple, but that a neurotic fear of sex prevented him from admitting his feelings: "Henry James's health problems were symptoms of his fear or disgust of the sexual act."

Dupee relies on a passage from the writer's memoirs, A Small Boy and Others, in which he recounts a nightmare that followed a visit to the Louvre, where he saw paintings of Napoleon. He gives this dream as an example of James's romantic idea of Europe, a pure world of Napoleonic fantasy where he sought refuge.

Such an analysis seemed to vindicate literary critics such as Van Wyck Brooks and Vernon Parrington, who at the time condemned the way Henry James had left the United States and criticized his work as that of an effeminate uproot. Leon Edel made of this neurosis the premise of a remarkable biography that was authoritative for a long time. But Dupee did not have access to the James family archives, having consulted mainly the Memoirs of his elder brother and the edition of part of his correspondence by Percy Lubbock, which consisted mainly of letters from the end of his life. It is perhaps for this reason that Dupee's portrait shows Henry James moving directly from childhood with his older brother to the health problems of middle age.

As archival material, including the diaries of contemporaries and hundreds of sentimental and sometimes erotic letters written by James to men younger than himself, comes to light, the figure of the neurotic bachelor gives way to that of the shameful homosexual. As author Terry Eagleton stated, "...gay critics debate how repressed his (probable) homosexuality was..."

Henry James' letters to the expatriate sculptor Hendrik Christian Andersen have received special attention. James met the 27-year-old artist in Rome in 1899, when he was 56 years old, and wrote him some particularly impassioned letters:

In a May 6, 1904 letter to his brother William, he defined himself as "your Henry still hopelessly unmarried though in his sixties." The truth of this assertion has been the subject of controversy among the author's biographers, but the letters to Andersen are at times almost erotic: "Let me place, my dear boy, my arm around you, that you may feel the pulse of our bright future and your admirable gift."

James writes to his homosexual friend Howard Overing Sturgis: "I repeat, without secrecy, that I could have lived with you. Instead I can only try to live without you," and it is only in letters to young men that James declares himself their "lover." Many of his close friends are homosexual or bisexual. After a long visit to Howard Sturgis, he refers to their "merry little congress of two." In his correspondence with Hugh Walpole, he plays with words about their relationship, seeing himself as an "elephant" who "paws at you, with such good grace" and goes on to talk about his friend's "expressive old trunk. His discreetly reproduced letters to Walter Berry have long been appreciated for their slightly veiled eroticism.

However, the reproduction of letters does not prove or modify the personality of the author in search of high feelings and justice, having throughout his novels a true sense of ethics; we will forgive him the voluptuous poetry of his correspondence to his friends of all origins. We must not forget that Henry James was originally depressed like Roderick Hudson, an illness that could provoke, as in his protagonist, the incoercible need to create, and therefore, to write letters (and novels) to his acquaintances, and it seems that he betrayed no one, not even the mediocre and curious people he knew how to portray so well.

Style and topics

Henry James is one of the major figures of transatlantic literature. His work most often features characters from the Old World (Europe), embodying a feudal, refined, and often corrupt civilization, and the New World (the United States), where people are more impulsive, open, and peremptory and embody the virtues - of freedom and morality - of the new American society. This is what is known as the international theme. Henry James thus explores the conflicts of cultures and personalities in stories where personal relationships are hindered by a more or less well exercised power. His protagonists are often young American women facing oppression or denigration. As his secretary Theodora Bosanquet noted in her monograph Henry James at Work: "When he escaped from the refuge of his work to see the world around him, he saw only a place of torment, where predators are constantly sinking their claws into the quivering flesh of doomed and helpless children of the light...His novels are but a recurring exposition of this weakness, a passionate and reiterated plea for the full freedom of development, safe from blind and barbarous stupidity. "

The great novels

Although any selection of Henry James' novels is inevitably based on a certain subjectivity, the following books have received special attention in many reviews and studies.

The first period of Henry James' fiction, of which Portrait of a Lady is considered the peak, focuses on the contrast between Europe and America. The style of these novels is rather direct and, despite its own character, quite within the norms of nineteenth-century fiction. Roderick Hudson (1875) is a novel in the world of Art that follows the journey of the title character, a very talented sculptor. Although the book shows some signs of immaturity, it is James's first major novel and was well received for its lively portrayal of the three main characters: Roderick Hudson, talented but unstable and volatile; Rowland Mallet, Roderick's boss and friend, who is more mature than he is; and Christina Light, a femme fatale who is as delightful as she is infuriating. The Hudson-Mallet duo was interpreted as the two sides of the author's personality: the artist with a fiery imagination and the mentor embodying his conscience.

Although Roderick Hudson already placed American characters in a European setting, the writer based his next novel on an even more explicit Europe-America contrast. It is even the main subject of The American (1877). The book mixes melodrama with social comedy, in the adventures and misadventures of Christopher Newman, a happily-natural but rather gauche American businessman on his first trip to Europe. Newman is in search of a world different from his 19th century business world in the United States. While discovering the beauty and ugliness of Europe, he learns to distrust appearances.

Henry James then wrote Washington Square (1880), a relatively straightforward tragi-comedy about the conflict between a sweet, submissive, awkward daughter and her brilliantly manipulative father. The novel is often compared to Jane Austen's work for the grace and clarity of its prose, and the focused description of family relationships. Since Henry James was not particularly enthusiastic about Jane Austen, he probably did not find the comparison flattering. In fact, he was not very pleased with Washington Square either. When he tried to reread it for inclusion in the New York Edition of his fiction (1907-09), he found that he could not. So he excluded it from that anthology. But enough readers enjoyed the novel to make it one of his most popular works.

With Portrait of a Lady (1881), Henry James completed the first phase of his career with a work that remains his best-known novel. It is the story of a lively young American woman, Isabel Archer, who "confronts her destiny" by finding it stifling. Heiress to a fortune, she becomes the victim of a Machiavellian trap set by two American expatriates. The story takes place mainly in Europe, especially in England and Italy. Often considered the masterpiece of the first period of Henry James' work, Portrait of a Lady is not only a reflection on the differences between the New World and the Old, but deals with themes such as personal freedom, moral responsibility, betrayal and sexuality.

In the following years, Henry James wrote The Boston Women (1886), a bittersweet tragi-comedy featuring Basil Ransom, a conservative Mississippi politician; Olive Chancellor, Ransom's cousin, a zealous Boston feminist; and Verena Tarrant, Olive's pretty protégé in the feminist movement. The plot revolves around the struggle between Ransom and Olive to win Verena's interest and affection, although the novel also includes a broad exposé of political activists, journalists and eccentric opportunists.

Henry James then published The Princess Casamassima (1886), the story of an intelligent but indecisive young London bookbinder, Hyacinth Robinson, who finds himself involved in anarchist politics and a terrorist plot. This novel is quite unique in Jamesian work, in terms of its subject matter; but it is often associated with The Boston Women, which also evokes the political milieu.

At the time when Henry James was making one last attempt to conquer the stage, he wrote The Tragic Muse (1890). The novel offers a broad and pleasing panorama of English life, following the fortunes of two aspiring artists: Nick Dormer, torn between a political career and his efforts to become a painter, and Miriam Rooth, an actress desperate for commercial and artistic success. Many secondary characters help and hinder them from achieving their dreams. This book reflects Henry James's consuming interest in the theater, and is often considered the last story of the second phase of his fictional career.

After his failed attempts as a playwright, the author returns to fiction and begins to explore the consciousness of his characters. His style became more complex in order to deepen his analysis. The Spoils of Poynton (1897), seen as the first example of this last period, is a shorter novel than the previous ones that describes the confrontation between Mrs. Gereth, a widow of impeccable taste and iron will, and her son Owen around a mansion filled with valuable antique furniture. The story is told by Fleda Vetch, a young woman in love with Owen, but also empathizing with her mother's anguish over the loss of the possessions she patiently collected.

Henry James continues his more involved and psychological approach to his fiction with What Maisie Knew (1897), the story of the sensible daughter of irresponsible divorced parents. The novel has a contemporary resonance with this determined tale of a dysfunctional family; but it also features a notable tour de force by the author, who has us follow the main character from her early childhood to her early maturity.

The third and last period of Henry James reached its fullness in three novels published in the early twentieth century. The critic F. O. Matthiessen sees in this trilogy the major phase of the author, and these novels have been the subject of numerous studies. The first published one was written in the second: The Wings of the Dove (1902) tells the story of Milly Theale, a wealthy American heiress suffering from a serious illness that condemns her, and the impact it has on those around her. Some people around her do not think ill of her, while others act out of self-interest. In his autobiographies, Henry James reveals that Milly was inspired by Minny Temple, his beloved cousin who died prematurely of tuberculosis. He says he tried to honor her in the "beauty and dignity of art."

The second published novel in this trilogy, The Ambassadors (1903), is a dark comedy that follows protagonist Lambert Strether's journey to Europe in pursuit of his fiancée's son, whom he must bring back into the family fold. The third-person narrative is told from Strether's point of view only, as he faces unexpected complications. In the preface to its publication in New York Edition, Henry James places this book at the top of his achievements, which provoked some disapproving remarks. The Golden Cup (1904) is a complex and intense study of marriage and adultery that concludes this "major phase" of James's fictional work. The book explores the relational tensions between a father and daughter and their respective spouses. The novel delves deeply and almost exclusively into the consciousness of the main characters, with an obsessive sense of detail and a strong inner life.


Throughout his career, Henry James was particularly interested in what he called the "beautiful and blessed short story," or stories of intermediate size. He wrote 112 of them. These include many very concise short stories, in which the author manages to deal with complex subjects in few words. At other times, the story approaches a short novel, although the number of characters remains limited. Daisy Miller, The Aspern Papers, The Pattern in the Rug and The Turn of the Screw are representative of his talent in the short fiction format.

The short stories follow roughly the same creative phases as James's novels, although there are several fantasy stories along the way. Until A Bundle of Letters (1879), the short stories first show the various influences on the young Henry, then his more personal style is established, especially in the texts that deal with the international theme: A Passionate Pilgrim, Daisy Miller, An International Episode.

The second period, which began in 1882, when James had not published any short stories for more than two years, saw the multiplication of experiments on the narrative point of view and the deepening of psychological themes, as evidenced by The Papers of Aspern and The Liar. From 1891, the year of the publication of The Student, James' short stories reached a narrative density, a technical virtuosity and a diversity of tones that announced his maturity. During this decade of the 1890s, when James was particularly prolific in the short story, some texts, such as The Authentic Thing, The Private Life or The Altar of the Dead, seem in many ways exercises in pared-down style, as the unfolding of the events is limited to a slow, subtle and unique reversal of the situations and characters. Other stories, while using various registers, have the writer as their subject (The Master's Lesson, Greville Fane, The Death of the Lion) or even literature itself (The Pattern in the Rug), whose "social value" or "artistic essence" they question. James produced few fantasy texts, but his ghost stories resolutely freed themselves from the conventional effects of the genre in favor of emotional relationships and subjectivity, as Sir Edmund Orme and Owen Wingrave prove.

The last phase, which gradually took hold from 1891 onwards, and of which Les Amis des amis and Le Tour d'écrou are the effective gateways, contains short stories with often troubled and disenchanted worlds, sometimes illuminated by some biting satire (La Maison natale), through the use of a carefully elaborated composition technique. The dialogue passages of a very theatrical style are followed by a narrative that is at the same time eloquent in the discourse and very sparing in the unfolding of the facts, where fatality and regret form the double recurrent theme, as illustrated by La Bête dans la jungle and Le Coin plaisant.


James translated several texts by Prosper Mérimée and Alfred de Musset's Lorenzaccio in the 1870s, without finding a publisher. Nearly twenty years later, at the request of Harper's Monthly Magazine and for food reasons, he translated Alphonse Daudet's Port-Tarascon, which had just been published in France. His work was serialized in the American monthly from June to November 1890. The researcher Fabienne Durand-Bogaert described these few experiences as "a surprising choice of texts, to say the least.

Film adaptations

Three of his novels have been adapted by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory's Merchant-Ivory Productions:

Television adaptations

- Complete short stories : Henry James, 3V, Édition La Pléiade Gallimard, Paris.1994.


  1. Henry James
  2. Henry James
  3. ^ See e.g. Cheryl Torsney, Constance Fenimore Woolson: The Grief of Artistry (1989, "Edel's text ... a convention-laden male fantasy").
  4. (en) « Henry James », sur National Portrait Gallery (consulté le 13 mars 2022)
  5. « Miss Maggie Mitchell in Fanchon the Cricket, » en 1863, Novick (1996) p. 431.
  6. James reconnut sa dette à leur égard. Ainsi dans la préface à Portrait de femme dans la New York Edition, où il reconnaît l'influence de Tourgueniev, et The Lesson of Balzac au sujet de l'écrivain français. James a écrit d'importants essais critiques sur ces quatre auteurs. De récentes études comme celle de Cornelia Sharp et Edward Wagenknecht ont noté les influences spécifiques sur les œuvres de James : Eugénie Grandet de Balzac pour Washington Square, Le Faune de marbre de Hawthorne pour Roderick Hudson, et Terres vierges de Tourgueniev pour La Princesse Casamassima. En 2007, Novick précise l'influence d'Ibsen sur son œuvre de fiction.
  7. 1955-, Tóibín, Colm,; Declan,, Kiely,; Library,, Pierpont Morgan. Henry James and American painting. ISBN 9780271078526. OCLC 965347306.
  8. ^ L'incontro tra Henry James e Constance F. Woolson, su raicultura.it. URL consultato il 22 maggio 2021.
  9. ^ Constance Fenimore Woolson - Visioni veneziane, su wsimag.com. URL consultato il 22 maggio 2021.

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