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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Henry James

With his lifelong productivity, his saturation in the world of contemporary fiction, including his knowledge of British and French literature, his attentiveness to style and technique, his rejection of America in favor of the Old World, and his coolness toward democratic aspirations and reforms, Henry James stands alone among nineteenth-century United States writers. The first writer in English to see the high artistic potential of the novel as a form, he was also the first to produce a distinguished body of critical analysis of fiction—his own as well as others'. His fiction has attracted many sophisticated readers, who generally regard him as a master craftsman and renowned critic of American culture; but his work has also attracted negative comment because of its distance from common life. His best work, which includes Daisy Miller and "The Beast in the Jungle," offers shrewd insights into human psychology, including a penetrating interrogation of his own aloofness.

Born in New York City, James was named after his father, an independently wealthy thinker who obsessively devised and promoted his own theological system. James Sr. emphasized the role of suffering, submission, and rebirth in human life, and he insisted on a conservative view of marriage and the difference between the sexes. "Woman," he preached, was not truly a person but a "form of personal affection," and her mission was to redeem man from his natural egotism and brutality. His self-effacing wife, Mary, devoted herself to him and to their five children. According to most reports, the Jameses enjoyed extremely close and intense relationships among themselves. But their family life also had an oppressive aspect, and although Henry, Jr. wrote about it with great affection, he eventually moved to England partly to escape it.

James's two younger brothers fought in the Union Army, one of them participating in the charge on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, that inspired Robert Lowell's great poem "For the Union Dead." His one sister, Alice, though gifted, was incapacitated by depression and rage, partly because of the restrictions imposed on her as a woman. William, the eldest son, bright, aggressive, and adventurous, had an extraordinary influence on Henry, who tried throughout boyhood to catch up with him. William became a pioneering psychologist and the world-renowned philosopher of pragmatism.

The Jameses were educated by a series of governesses and tutors and in private and public schools in America and Europe. As a boy, Henry was fascinated by the European spectacle, especially by the obvious distinctions between social classes and the display of leisurely aristocratic civilization. The most valuable part of his education came from the fiction writers, esteemed as well as popular, he devoured on his own—Hawthorne, Balzac, George Sand, Turgenev, George Eliot, and many others. Later, a professional writer himself, he often rewrote what he'd read. Biographer Leon Edel has shown that when James wrote his famous ghost story, "The Turn of the Screw," he made use of a sensational novel first serialized when he was eleven. In writing The Portrait of a Lady he reworked a story-line common in women's novels of the 1860s and 1870s, the story of the independent-minded heroine who enters a marriage that proves unbearable. But James's resolution of the heroine's predicament was founded less on fictional models than on his father's conservative theories of women and marriage.

It was by writing for the major American magazines of his day, in his early twenties, that James got started in his career. When he was twenty-six he crossed the Atlantic for a fifteen-month sojourn in England, Switzerland, and Italy. This, his first independent foray away from home, resulted in "A Passionate Pilgrim" (1871), his best story until then. Like the later "Madame de Mauves" (1874), the story tells of an American abroad burdened by an enraptured but deceptive vision of the European past. In 1875, at thirty-two, James permanently moved to the Old World and in the next few years wrote a number of moderately realistic novels that contrast the American and European social orders—Roderick Hudson (1875), The American (1877), and The Portrait of a Lady (1881). The American protagonists of these works are noble, intrepid, and full of dangerous illusions about the complex European order. James concentrated on the international scene to get at the peculiarities of American character, to design spectacular moral dramas involving the innocent and the experienced.

James's realistic period ran from about 1875 to 1889. During this time, James, who was a prolific and innovative essayist on the subject of the novel itself, wrote one of his best essays, "The Art of Fiction" (1884). In this piece, he treats the novel as an art form worthy of serious discussion and criticism. Speaking from his position as an active practitioner, he focuses on problems of craft and execution. As a realist writer, James claims that "the only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life." In this way, he conceives of the novelist's undertaking as similar to that of the historian. Beyond the requirements that a writer proceed from a working idea, his or her donnée, and that the novel "be interesting," he dismisses any notion of a set of rules necessary for successful writing. In his estimation, rules impede the novelist's imagination. A fine example of James's theory at work is Daisy Miller: A Study, a short novel about an expatriate's effort to understand and deal with a charming, independent, but uninformed heroine who poses a strong challenge to conservative manners. In the end, the story's emphasis is not so much on social portraiture as on the tragic effects of class distinction.

James wrote few novels set in the United States. One, Washington Square (1880), tells of a stolid young woman's victimization by a tyrannical father and an opportunistic lover. Like James's best work of this period, this short novel combines social realism with psychological exploration of a set of oppressive relationships. The Bostonians (1886), an ambitious novel with a substantial set of characters, represents what James saw as the conflicting commercial and idealistic strains of postbellum American society. His focus was on the lives of contemporary women—on the movement to grant women the vote and even more on the supposed decline of gender differences and sexual attraction. Writing with insight, condescension, and hostility, James set forth a conservative, biting critique of democratic culture.

In the 1890s, with demand for his fiction declining, James unsuccessfully tried his hand at writing popular, money-making plays for the British stage. During the final years of the century he produced a series of difficult fictions unlike anything previously written—The Spoils of Poynton (1897), What Maisie Knew (1897), The Turn of the Screw (1898), and The Awkward Age (1899). His protagonists in these works were females, often immature, and their lives entailed deep difficulties and frustrations and a conspicuous element of sexual innuendo. What Maisie Knew, the best of these works, tells of a young girl who is neglected by most of the adult world beginning with her divorced parents. But the narrative focuses less on her victimization than on her resistance, her passionate effort to understand the queer adult order and to operate in it.

Leon Edel has argued that in novels like Maisie, James was privately reworking his own traumas and that this labor made possible his formidably polished late novels—The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904). Like the international novels James had written in his first maturity, these introduced a rather innocent American hero or heroine into a circle of cosmopolitans. But in these later works, there was no question of social realism. Instead, James deployed a labyrinthine style, the artful use of imagery and symbolism, and systematically restricted points of view in order to focus with hypnotic concentration on what had been his essential subject all along—the struggle to make sense of ambiguous and corrupting social situations. For many readers these late James novels constitute formal literary perfection, the kind of art that shows supreme stylistic discrimination and structural control. For others they seem too remote from human life.

"The Beast in the Jungle" (1903) may well represent James's late manner at its best. Like the much earlier Daisy Miller it tells of love frustrated by a certain masculine aloofness. The cold reserve each work looks at so critically may, indeed, be the author's own coldness—in which case that coldness produced its greatest writing precisely by criticizing itself.

Alfred Habegger

In the Heath Anthology
Daisy Miller: A Study (1879)
The Art of Fiction (1884)
The Beast in the Jungle (1903)

Other Works
Portrait of a Lady (1881)
The Bostonians (1886)
The Princess Cassamassima (1886)
The Wings of the Dove (1902)
The Ambassadors (1903)
The Golden Bowl (1904)

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Adrian Dover's Henry James Web Site
Provides many of his works for online reading.

Hollywood to spotlight the stories of Henry James, a master of shadow
A New York Times article about Henry James film adaptations.

The Henry James Review
Includes several issues of the Review.

The Henry James Scholar's Guide to Web Sites
An incredibly comprehensive portal to James resources on the web.

The Subtext of Violence in Henry James' "The Wings of The Dove": The Sacrificial Crisis
An academic paper on Wings written by Kathryn Zervos.

Secondary Sources

Lous Auchincloss, Reading Henry James, 1975

John R. Bradley, ed., Henry James and Homo-Erotic Desire, 1999

Gert Buelens, ed., Enacting History in Henry James: Narrative, Power and Ethics, 1997

Kelly Cannon, Henry James and Masculinity: The Man at the Margin, 1996

F.W. Dupee, Henry James, 1956

Leon Edel, Henry James: A Life, 1985

Daniel Mark Fogel, Daisy Miller: A Dark Comedy of Manners, 1990

Daniel Mark Fogel, ed., A Companion to Henry James Studies, 1993

Jonathan Freedman, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Henry James, 1998

Wendy Graham, Henry James's Thwarted Love, 1999

Alfred Habegger, Henry James and the "Woman Business," 1989

Richard Hall, "The Sexuality of Henry James," New Republic (April 28 and May 5), 1979

Beverly Haviland, Henry James's Last Romance: Making Sense of the Past and the American Scene, 1997

Carol Holly, Intensely Family: The Inheritance of Family Shame and the Autobiographies of Henry James, 1995

Roslyn Jolly, Henry James: History, Narrative, Fiction, 1993

Vivien Jones, James the Critic, 1985

David McWhirter, ed., Henry James's New York Edition: The Construction of Authorship, 1995

Collin Meisner, Henry James and the Language of Experience, 1999

Adrien Poole, Henry James, 1991

Julie Rivkin, False Positions: The Representation Logic of Henry James's Fiction, 1996

John Carlos Rowe, The Other Henry James, 1998

Richard Salmon, Henry James and the Culture of Publicity, 1997

Arthur Sherbo, Henry James in the Periodicals, 1997

Tony Tanner, Henry James: The Writer and His Work, 1985

Tony Tanner, Henry James and the Art of Nonfiction, 1995

Philip M. Weinstein, Henry James and the Requirements of the Imagination, 1971