b. Washington Square, 1843; d. London, 1916
Henry James identified the middle of the 19th century as the "golden age" for Americans abroad. Whether this is a valid historical assessment or merely a nostalgic glance backward is hard to say. Born in his family's Washington Square house in 1843, and the second of five children of Mary and Henry James Sr., he spent the middle of the 19th century traveling back and forth between America and Europe with the family, attending school in New York and Paris, Newport and Geneva. This movement between the New World and the Old was to become a constant in his adult life, too, and Henry's own uneasy marriage of American energy and European refinement would dictate the course of much of his memorable fiction.
An Early Start
Henry found his vocation early. Even as an adolescent his brothers and sisters were well aware that he often preferred to withdraw in solitude to write and read. Little else seemed capable of absorbing him for long. He loathed engineering and mathematics, which his father had required him to study in Switzerland. Later he tried Law School at Harvard but left after one term in 1862 and 1863. Finally, he set his sights on a career in writing, though he was still uncertain whether his pen could successfully emancipate him from financial dependence on his family.
His earliest stories, written toward the end of the Civil War, often took the war as their subject. In addition to the few stories he published in mid-1860s, he also wrote reviews and "international sketches" for prestigious magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly and The Nation. Henry, perhaps taking a cue from his father, viewed journalism as hack work, but as hack work necessary to making him enough money so that he could establish himself in Europe and devote his primary energies to more serious literary work.
In 1874, after traveling in Europe for more than a year with his sister Alice and their Aunt Kate, Henry did just that, situating himself in Italy to begin his second novel, Roderick Hudson (his first, a slight though disturbing story about age and innocence called Watch and Ward, had been published in the Boston based Atlantic in 1870).
Paying His Own Way
After returning from Italy to live briefly in New York, Henry relocated to Paris in 1875, again using newspaper work -- letters to the New York Tribune -- to pay his way. There he met the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, who introduced him to the French writers Flaubert, Zola, and Maupassant (all of whose realist influence is evident in Henry's early works). In Paris, Henry began The American, another serialized novel for The Atlantic, about an American millionaire whose attempts to penetrate French society through his courtship of an impoverished aristocrat prove disastrous. The tale's conclusion sounded a theme that reverberates throughout his career, a theme that his father had frequently espoused: the need for self-renunciation to produce a finer good.
With his audience growing, but his own attempts to penetrate French society proving as futile as his hero's, Henry moved to London in 1876. Then, traveling in Italy and visiting Paris, he published "Daisy Miller," perhaps his best known story about the "international situation," in which the corruption of Italy dooms the American ingenue Daisy Miller. Upon its publication in 1878, "Daisy Miller" secured Henry James's literary reputation in both Europe and America. In the same year The Europeans played another variation on the international theme in a somewhat lighter key, portraying the misadventures of a pair of Europeanized Americans setting foot on their native soil once again. To audiences on both sides of the Atlantic Henry was now firmly established as an acute observer and trenchant critic of European and American culture.
Public Renown and Personal Privacy
The crowning achievement of his early career, The Portrait of a Lady, appeared first in serial form in 1880 and then a year later as a book. In it, one of his most vivid creations, the American Isabel Archer, is endowed by a European benefactor with the independent means to steer her own course -- a rare opportunity for a young 19th-century woman. Despite her intelligence and determination, she becomes ensnared in a web of duplicity woven by the man she chooses to marry. Again, renunciation is the outcome.
Through all this time Henry's own personal life remained enigmatic in several respects. Highly social, he was nevertheless extremely private and reserved. Repeatedly encouraged to marry by members of his family, he steadfastly refused. His intimate relationships are still shrouded in mystery. In his teens and early 20s he had been greatly attached to his vivacious and unconventional cousin, Minny Temple, who died quite young from tuberculosis. She became the model for Isabel Archer. Later on he had several close women friends, one of whom, the writer Constance Fenimore Woolson, he lived with briefly, and apparently chastely (she died in 1894 in a possible suicide, an event which devastated Henry and which he memorialized in the 1895 story "The Altar of the Dead"). He was often attracted to young and handsome men, but there is no clear evidence that he was sexually active with either men or women.
In the early 1880s he returned to the States to settle his parents' affairs after their deaths, and then settled himself more permanently in England. He brought his troubled but brilliant sister over to be near him and watched over her from a close distance until her death in 1892.
The Spotlight Fades
He continued to write throughout the 1880s, and a 14-volume set of his novels and stories was published in London in 1883, but his popularity and critical acclaim peaked shortly after The Portrait of a Lady was published. Seeking greater financial security and renewed popular success, he turned to the theater. He adapted The American for the London stage in 1890 and 1891 and achieved some limited success, but further efforts to broaden his public appeal proved futile. Though critics remained respectful, the public ridiculed his original period drama, Guy Domville, in 1895, and his dream of theatrical triumph faded. A period of despair and loneliness followed, but he returned to the task of writing fiction. Famous though he was, because he lacked a broad popular audience, his output had to remain high for him to make ends meet.
In the early years of the 20th century, Henry James published three novels that are today considered among his finest: The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904). Densely written and highly nuanced, their complexity appeals to a select audience, but they remain the epitome of Henry James's art. Two of the three have been very recently adapted for the screen, The Wings of the Dove in 1997 and The Golden Bowl, due in theaters early next year. These opulently produced films may finally convey many of the subtleties of James's late work to a broader popular audience.
The Valley of the Shadow
After a lecture tour of the United States in 1905 -- his first visit to his native country in 20 years -- Henry began the arduous four-year task of editing and revising a number of his novels for the 24-volume "New York Edition." Most altered was The American. Working on the "New York Edition" from his English homes in Rye and London, Henry felt reassured that his standing as a transatlantic literary genius was firmly in place, and that his old age would be financial secure at last. He wrote an extraordinary series of introductions to the volumes, today considered among the finest of literary essays, but he was stunned when his first royalty check for the edition amounted to only $211. The public had turned indifferent to his sensibility.
A long spiral downwards into deep depression began. He ceased to write. In 1910, his older brother, William, in precarious health himself but now America's most famous philosopher and psychologist, traveled to Europe with his wife to try and lift his brother's darkened spirits. While they were with him, word arrived that their youngest brother Bob had died. All three returned to America. Before summer was over William was dead as well, worn out by his final effort on his brother's behalf.
Henry lived on and revived slowly, returned to England and received further honors, kept company with writer Edith Wharton (who looked out for him financially) and with other friends. He wrote another novel -- a weak one -- worked on two more, wrote several memoirs of his earlier life, and was captured brilliantly on canvas by John Singer Sargent for his 70th birthday in 1913.
He lived on to experience the outbreak -- and the heartbreak -- of the Great War, never entirely recovering from the despair that had gripped him in 1909. Henry James died in his London home in 1916.
One year earlier, disgusted with the United States' reluctance to enter the war in Europe, he had renounced his American citizenship to become a British subject, and received the Order of Merit shortly before his death. He is buried, however, in the James family plot in the Cambridge Cemetery in Massachusetts.