It’s the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Henry James (books by this author) born in New York City (1843) and known for novels like The Portrait of a Lady (1881), about Isabel Archer, a young and spirited American woman who confronts her destiny in Europe. James’s novels often plumbed the depths of the female psyche and helped popularize realistic fiction. About writing, he once said, “The house of fiction has not one window, but a million.”
James was raised well-off, spending considerable amounts of his childhood abroad, being taught by tutors and governesses in London, Paris, Geneva, and Boulogne-Sur-Mer. His father believed the best education was a philosophical and scientific one, and, indeed, James’s brother, William, became a revered psychologist and philosopher. Henry James was not a particularly rapt student, and was quite shy, but he was big reader, and decided early on that writing would be his vocation. His parents sent him to law school, which he dutifully attended, but when he moved abroad, and began meeting his idols, like Robert Browning, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and Alfred Tennyson, he came into his own as a writer.
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, which he called “a supremely beneficent art.” He spent three decades of his life in Europe, writing novels like The American (1877), The Europeans (1878), and the novella Daisy Miller (1878), whose main character he based on his beloved cousin Minnie Temple, who died when she was young. The character of Daisy Miller appalled some critics, one of whom referred to her as “an outrage of American girlhood.”
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 exchanged with James, it was discovered that James was gay, which his family tried to hide for many years.
James is credited with popularizing the “international novel,” because his characters, mostly wealthy, move comfortably from America to Europe and back again. 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.” Poet T.S. Eliot famously deadpanned, “James has a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.”
During his final days, Henry James slipped in and out of delirium. He asked for a typewriter and began dictating sentences, imagining himself as Napoleon Bonaparte. His hands moved in the air, imitating the act of writing. His last words were rumored to be, “It’s the beast in the jungle, and it’s sprung.”
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.”