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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Henry James was born in 1843 to Henry and Mary James, an independently wealthy couple, who had five children, four boys and one girl. Henry Sr., was an extremely conservative thinker who spent his time working out his own theological system. This system prescribed roles for women and men which emphasized the view that women were non-persons, nothing but a "form of personal affection" and that men were naturally brutish. Women, as Mr. Touchett in The Portrait of a Lady believes, are morally useful for civilizing and constraining men.
The James siblings were quite close. The most famous of them, aside from Henry, was William James, the eldest. He became a famous psychologist and pragmatic philosopher. His sister, Alice, was a gifted thinker, but suffered the effects of living under an oppressive patriarchy throughout her life.
Henry James was educated by private tutors and in private and public schools in the States and in Europe. In his childhood and youth, he lived in New York, Geneva, London, Paris, and Newport. In 1862, he went to Harvard Law School. He left Harvard soon after and began writing. He published his first short story when he was twenty-one years old.
When he was thirty-three, James moved to England and when he was seventy-two, he became a British citizen. He did so as a sign of his support of England during World War I. He died shortly afterwards.
When he died, he was a critically successful writer, but certainly not a popular one. Most of his works had gone out of print. Many Americans didnít like his writing out of a sense of patriotism; they were offended by his portrait of Americans as cloddish and naive against the superior and sophisticated if sometimes perverse Europeans of his fiction. Many of those who read his novels didnít like them because their subject matter was so limited to the upper class world of country estates and arranged marriages. The style of his late period didnít help him gain any democratic followers. That style was so elaborately sophisticated, spent such exquisite time on the minute workings of momentary social interactions, that people were either bored or frustrated. James recognized by this time that his writing was "insurmountably unsaleable."
He was better treated after his death. His critical popularity has been steadily growing since the 1930s and 1940s. His experimentation with fiction writing is said to have freed the novel of its heritage in journalism and romance. He is now known as a psychological or social realist par excellance.
Henry James began his writing career in magazine publications during his twenties. When he was thirty-two years old, James moved to Europe permanently. He wrote Roderick Hudson (1875), The American (1877), and The Portrait of a Lady (1881). These novels have in common their interest in contrasting American and European values. They are novels of transplanted Americans who struggle in the Old World between its realities and their romantic preconceptions of it. These novels are usually placed in what critics call Jamesís realistic period (1875-1889).
Henry James wrote The Portrait of a Lady in 1880-81 and later, in 1908, revised the novel. He was in his thirties when he wrote the first draft. He had just come out with Daisy Miller with great success and looked forward hopefully to a productive career as a writer. He revised The Portrait of a Lady almost thirty years later when he was writing prefaces to all his major works for the definitive New York Edition of his works. He wrote The Portrait initially in two steps. He began it, then put it aside to write Washington Square and then he returned to it after a trip to Florence in 1880 and worked on it for a year. He began publishing it in serial form in Macmillanís Magazine beginning in October of 1880 and also in the American magazine, The Atlantic Monthly before he had finished it. He published the book as a whole in November of 1881.
Henry Jamesís favorite writers included Hawthorne, Balzac, Flaubert, George Sand, Turgenev, and George Eliot. James did a critical study of Nathaniel Hawthorneís novel The Scarlet Letter in 1879. He doesnít much like Hawthorneís heavy use of symbolism and his narrative method, but he admires what he calls Hawthorneís treatment of "the subtleties and mysteries of life, the moral and spiritual maze." In this appreciation, the reader recognizes Henry Jamesís own fictional preoccupation with moral and spiritual mazes.
He also read a great deal of popular fiction. He often reworked popular stories in his own work. One such work is The Portrait of a Lady. It contains the germs of a very common plot used by womenís novels of the 1860s and 1870s of the independent woman who is ruined by an oppressive marriage. Jamesís own twist on this common plot was to resolve the conflict by making his heroine submit to her marriage vows, sacrificing her happiness, a plot resolution his conservative father would have approved of.
Henry James developed his own version of literary realism. His realism has been admired by those who see it as a subtle critique of American culture and it has been denigrated for its subject matter--upper class people and their social conflicts. Henry James had a life-long interest in the workings of social class. His famous short story Daisy Miller: A Study focuses on an upper class manís attraction to a young woman of the new American rich. Her violation of social conventions results in her ostracism from the circles of the American expatriates of old wealth who are living in Europe, and, eventually, her death.
James set most of his fiction in Europe. However, several of his novels feature the American scene. Washington Square (1880) explores the oppression of a young woman, The Bostonians (1886) also focused on womenís rights, specifically their struggle for the vote. In it, he largely demonizes feminists and suffragists.
In his later writing, James became interested in drama, but was never successful in writing plays. He did, however, incorporate a dramatic sense in his late novels. The Spoils of Poynton (1897), What Maisie Knew (1897), The Turn of the Screw (1898), and The Awkward Age (1899) each contains a strong structural sense of drama. They all focus on a very young woman who struggles with the often-perverse world of adult sexuality and conventionality.
Jamesís last novels are his most polished and also his most difficult. The Wings of a Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904) come back to the theme of the innocent American among sophisticated Europeans. James leaves behind social realism in these novels. The style is extremely complex and the focus is on extremely ambiguous social situations drawn out in great and often painstaking detail. The famous short story The Beast in the Jungle (1903) is written in this late style. It explores some element never named which keeps the hero aloof and unable to express love.