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JAMES, Henry, Jr.

JAMES, Henry, Jr.

From Hart and Leininger's Oxford Companion to American Literature, 6th ed.



JAMES, HENRY, JR. (1843-1916), son of Henry James, Sr., was born in New York City, and, with his brothers William, Garth (1845-83) and Robertson (1846-1910), received a remarkably cosmopolitan, eclectic education. The father, desiring his sons to be citizens of the world, believed that they should avoid forming definite habits of living or of intellect, until prepared to make wise choices of their own. Accordingly, Henry was privately educated by tutors until 1855, when the family went to Europe for a three-year stay. He also lived for a time in Newport (1858, 1860-62) before he entered Harvard Law School (1862). After 1866, although he lived mostly in Europe, his American home was at Cambridge. His conception of himself as a detached spectator of life was maturing, as was his idea that the American scene was hostile toward creative talent and offered no adequate subject matter.

For the time being, however, he divided his interest between European and American materials. During the late 1860s, encouraged by Howells, C. E. Norton, and others, he wrote critical articles and reviews, exhibiting admiration for the technique of George Eliot , and also produced short stories, frequently showing the influence of Hawthorne, one of his masters; a realistic novelette, "Watch and Ward" (Atlantic Monthly, 1871; in book form, 1878), concerned with a guardian who loves and marries his ward; and a farce, "Pyramus and Thisbe" (1869). His first important fiction was "A Passionate Pilgrim" (1871), in which he deals with the first of his great themes, the reactions of an eager American "pilgrim" when confronted with the fascinations of the complex European world of art and affairs.

The author himself during this period was often a pilgrim to the transatlantic world, which he came to regard as his spiritual fatherland, moving there permanently in 1875. During a year in Paris he associated with such masters of his art as Turgenev and Flaubert, but after 1876 he made his home mainly in London, with which much of his writing is concerned. His first novel, following A Passionate Pilgrim and Other Tales (1875) and Transatlantic Sketches (1875), mainly treating his views of England and Italy, was Roderick Hudson (1876), concerned with the failure of an American sculptor in Rome, resulting from a lack of inner discipline. Other novels and tales of this early London period, when James's course of life was still for him a matter of doubt and self-questioning, include The American (1877), contrasting French and American standards of conduct; The Europeans (1878), reversing the situation by bringing Europeans into a New England background; Daisy Miller (1879), whose wide popularity is probably owing to its portrayal of a charming, ingenuous American girl; An International Episode (1879), a novelette showing the reactions of Englishmen to the American scene and of an American heiress to aristocratic Britain; The Madonna of the Future and Other Tales (1879); and Confidence (1880), a romantic, melodramatic novelette about a group of expatriated Americans.

In Washington Square (1881), James again revealed American character, this time in its native environment, but after The Bostonians (1886), a satirical novel of New England reformers and philanthropists, he devoted himself to British and continental themes. The Portrait of a Lady (1881), the first of his mature masterpieces, is a triumph of his method of psychological realism, analyzing the relations of a young American woman with a group of European and expatriated Americans, who objectify her conscientious moral attitude, her sensitive appreciation, and her endurance under suffering. In nearly all of James's fiction, the environment is one of affluence and leisure, in which the preoccupations are with manners and the appreciation of character and the arts, including that of conversation. He treats this society with an infinite refinement of particulars, and in a prose style considered to be unapproached in English for subtlety of phrase and rhythm.

Following The Portrait of a Lady, James temporarily turned from the writing of novels. He collected his fiction (14 vols., 1883), and published several new works: a dramatization of Daisy Miller (1883); The Siege of London (1883), short stories, Portraits of Places (1883), a travel book; Tales of Three Cities (1884); A Little Tour in France (1885); and Stories Revived (3 vols., 1885), reprinting earlier tales.

He returned to the novel with The Princess Cassamassima  (1886), a melodramatic story of revolutionaries and lower-class life in London, told, as all of James's later fictions are, through the observations of one character, who usually remains outside the events. This was followed by The Reverberator (1888), a novelette concerned with American travelers on the Continent; The Aspern Papers  (1888), a novelette which tells of the attempt of a critic to gain a celebrated poet's letters; A London Life  (1889), short stories; The Tragic Muse (1880), a novel dealing with the lives of artists in English society; The Lesson of the Master (1892), short stories; The Real Thing and Other Tales  (1893); The Private Life (1893) and The Wheel of Time (1893), collections of tales. At this time he also wrote four comedies, collected in Theatricals (2 vols., 1894-95), but none of them was successful in the theater, owing perhaps to his essentially cerebral attide towards life, his extreme refinement of motive and situtation, and his unlifelike dialogue and inability to create dramatic simplifications.

His next series of fictional works includes Terminations (1895) and Embarrassments (1896), books of stories, the latter containing "The Figure in the Carpet"; The Other House (1896), an unsuccessful melodramatic novel; The Spoils of Poynton (1897), a tragic novel of mean passions magnified by the excellence of their object, a household of precious objects of art; What Maisie Knew  (1897), a novel told through the medium of a little girl's mind; In the Cage (1898), in which a telegraph clerk observes his aristocratic patrons ; The Two Magics (1898), containing the fine tale of the supernatural "The Turn of the Screw"; The Awkward Age (1899), portraying a British society girl between adolescence and marriage; The Soft Side (1900), a collection of tales; The Sacred Fount (1901), a novelette that seems to satirize the typical "detached observer" of James's novels; The Wings of the Dove (1902), another of his masterpieces in subtle character portrayal; The Better Sort (1903), short stories; The Ambassadors (1903), a novel that shows the author's genius for formal structure, as well as his discernment of the values of Old World culture; and The Golden Bowl (1904), his last completed novel, which also exhibits him at the height of his artistry.

With the addition of two volumes of stories, The Altar of the Dead (1909) and The Finer Grain (1910), and two unfinished novels, The Ivory Tower (1917) and The Sense of the Past  (1917), this completed his prolific output of fiction. He edited a second collection of his novels and tales (1907-9), which included the valuable critical prefaces, and other writings of the last decade include William Wetmore Story and His Friends (2 vols., 1903); English Hours (1905), essays; The Question of our Speech, and The Lesson of Balzac (1905), two lectures delivered in the U.S.; The American Scene (1907), a descriptive work written after a long journey through the U.S.; Views and Reviews (1908), essays, and the autobiographical books, A Small Boy and Others (1913), Notes of a Son and Brother (1914), and The Middle Years (1917). He also returned to playwriting, but of three plays only The High Bid was produced (1908).

These last years were troubled ones, saddened by deaths, including that of his brother William, and at the outbreak of World War I he was particularly agitated. To show allegiance to the Allied cause, he became a British subject in 1915. Always strongly conscious of the formal and thoretical phases of his work, he kept Notebooks (published 1948) and wrote criticism of his own practice and that of other masters of fiction. Even his Letters (3 vols, 1974, 1975, 1980), edited by Leon Edel, display his creative and critical turn of mind. His formal critical writings, sufficient in themselves to establish an author's reputation, were published in French Poets and Novelists (1878); Hawthorne (1879); Partial Portraits (1888), including the essay "The Art of Fiction"; Picture and Text (1893); Essays in London and Elsewhere (1893); Notes on Novelists (1914); Within the Rim and Other Essays (1918); and Notes and Reviews (1921). Thus he fulfilled his cosmopolitan destiny, detached even from the art that absorbed him, for his self-judgements are as subtle and well formed as is the substance of his fiction.

His artistry was conscious at every point, but his intellectual perceptivity in later life seemed to make him a rarefied observer, apparently largely out of touch with many of the more commonplace realities of his times. His eminence in the realm of his choice, however, is unquestioned, as is his influence in the history of the novel, in which he was a pioneer of psychological realism and formal architectonics, and the master of a rich, highly complex prose style and an extremely sensitive appreciation of values of character.






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