Trivia : Henry James

Today is the birthday of Henry James who was born in New York City in 1843. He was raised in comfort, spending considerable amounts of his childhood abroad, being taught by tutors and governesses in London, Paris, Geneva, and Boulogne-Sur-Mer. He was not a particularly keen student, and he was shy, but he loved reading and he decided early on, that writing would be his vocation.

Henry James wrote steadily for more than 50 years, producing 20 novels, numerous short stories, 12 plays, and several volumes of travel writing and literary criticism. He was a true cosmopolite and he 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. He spent three decades of his life there but he retained his American citizenship until 1915 when he became an English citizen to protest America’s failure to enter the war against Germany.

With few exceptions, most of his works deal with some type of confrontation between an American and a European. His fundamental theme was the innocence and exuberance of the New World in clash with the corruption and wisdom of the Old, as illustrated in such works as Daisy Miller (1879), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Bostonians (1886), and The Ambassadors (1903).

In spite of his decision to live abroad, James remained essentially American in his sympathies. His central characters are almost always Americans. So are some of his most unpleasant characters. What is telling, though, is that the characters who change, mature, and achieve an element of greatness are almost always American.

Henry James has been called the first of the great psychological realists in our time. But his realism is of a special sort. He was not concerned with all aspects of life. There is nothing of the ugly, the vulgar or the common in his work. 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. 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.

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 a character in one situation, the reader can anticipate how that person will act in any other given situation.

Honoured as one of the greatest artists of the novel, Henry James is also regarded as one of America’s most influential critics and literary theorists.

He had his critics, though, like Virginia Woolf, who wrote to a friend: “Please tell me what you find in Henry James. We have his works here, and I read, and I can’t find anything but faintly tinged rose water, urbane and sleek, but vulgar and pale as Walter Lamb. Is there really any sense in it?”

Oscar Wilde was so bored by James’s writing, he quipped that James “wrote fiction as if it were a painful duty.” And T.S. Eliot famously deadpanned, “James has a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.”

Henry James was a prolific letter writer, penning more than 10,000 letters during his lifetime. He had a particularly long correspondence with the writer Edith Wharton, whose work was often compared to James’s. Wharton called him “Cher Maître” and he called her “Princesse Rapprochée” and “Dear and Unsurpassedly Distinguished Old Friend.”

In a fit of depression in 1909, James burned many of his letters. After his death, when his friend, sculptor Hendrick Christian Anderson, asked the James family for permission to publish the letters he had exchanged with Henry James, it was discovered that James had been gay, a fact that his family had tried to hide for many years.

Writing about the life of a novelist, Henry James once said: “We work in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

Sources:

The Writer’s Almanac

Cliff’s Notes

Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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On books

“It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass. Yet regardless of where they come from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them — with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself. Still illiterate, I was ready for them, committed to all the reading I could give them …”                                                                                                                                                                -Eudora Welty

                                                                                                                  

What I choose to read…

I’ve been away from this blog several months now. There was a time when I would review every book I read and post something new every day. I stopped because it felt like I’d run out of things to say and I wanted a little break which turned into a long one.

Anyway, I’m back because once again I have things I want to share and over the past week in particular, I found myself composing blog posts in my head. There’s been one thing on my mind a lot lately, and that is a significant change in my reading habits.

I say on the ‘about me’ page of this blog that

“I read a lot of books, mostly nonfiction…memoirs, biography, history, science, nature, travel and books about food. I don’t usually read fiction, but I will make an exception every now and then.”

That was very true when I wrote it three years ago. And it had been true for nearly twenty years at that point. But over the last three years I have found myself reading fiction more often than not.

It wasn’t a conscious decision to read more novels. It was something that just happened. I started this blog and then I was reading other book blogs and listening to book podcasts and picking up recommendations…

Reading and listening to other readers gush about certain books made me want to read them. And a lot of the books that I was hearing about were novels. The more I heard about these books and these writers, the more I realised how circumscribed my reading life has been.

I’ve always been quite open when it comes to non-fiction. I don’t stick to authors I know. I’m willing to pick up any book that sounds interesting and really, it is the subject that matters more than the author. As long as the writing is good and the subject is intriguing, I’ll read pretty much any writer.

But my fiction reading has been rather limited. In the sense that mystery novels meant Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen, thrillers began with Alistair MacLean and then there was Arthur Hailey and Jeffery Archer. Science fiction was Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov.

Fantasy meant Tolkien and Pratchett until I finally picked up the Harry Potter books. Throw in Wodehouse and Jane Austen and I’m done. That has been the sum of my fiction reading in the past. And I never considered how limiting it was because I didn’t read a lot of fiction anyway.

So there I was hearing about all these books and so many authors that I’d never heard of, who apparently wrote some very good books and I realised that I was missing out. My ‘I don’t read a lot of fiction’ stance started to sound a bit stupid. I mean why ever not? Why do I not read fiction? I had no good reason to offer other than…habit, perhaps.

So I started picking up a few of these books. The first book that I picked up because I heard about it on the radio was The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. Then I read The Martian by Andy Weir. Then there was A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving and Stardust by Neil Gaiman. All four utterly brilliant books that made me pick up others along the way and caused a fundamental shift in the books I choose to read.

I can no longer say that I read a lot of books, mostly nonfiction. I read a lot of books, period.