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.”
The Writer’s Almanac