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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Henry James, like most of his characters, was born into wealth and was able to travel extensively in both his youth and adulthood. He was educated, largely by tutors or in private schools, in New York, London, Paris, Geneva, and Bonn. He was also taught by his influential father and at an early age participated in intellectual conversations with both Americans and Europeans. As a result of his international schooling and travels, he become a citizen of the world, feeling equally comfortable in social circles of America and Europe. His knowledge of both continents influenced his writing, and much of his fiction, like Daisy Miller, is concerned with an innocent American becoming involved at some level with an experienced European.
Henry James, Jr. was born in New York on April 15, 1843, the first of five children. As a child, he traveled to Europe regularly with his family, as his father pursued new ideas. His father lived a life of economic independence which allowed him to engage in the gentlemanly pursuits of extended study, especially in theology and philosophy. After extensive travels, Henry James, Sr. chose to settle in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the center of American learning. Many intellectual luminaries of the nineteenth century were visitors to the James household, including Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and George Ripley. Calvinist and intellectual, Henry James, Sr. instilled in all his children an appreciation of the imaginative and the unconventional--with an awareness of the attendant dangers of such. Fiercely interested in the physical and moral implications of evil, he conveyed to Henry Jr. a sense of man's ultimate helplessness.
Although Henry Jr. had little formal education as a child, he was challenged at home and through his travels. As a result, he was able to attend Harvard Law School, but he chose to withdraw before completion in order to pursue his writing career. His brother, William James, also attended Harvard, but continued his studies and became one of America's preeminent philosophers. William's writings on philosophy and psychology are still read today.
In 1860, Henry James suffered a serious back injury that caused him pain throughout his life and forced him into a less active existence. He also never married. As a result of these two events, he devoted himself to his writing, mastering the creation of short stories, nouvelles, novels, plays, literary criticism, and travel books. By his mid-twenties, Henry had published a number of articles and tales.
In 1876, he published Roderick Hudson, his first novel in which a wealthy and intelligent American discovered the contrast in manners and morals between America and Europe; this would be the subject of many later novels as well, including Portrait of a Lady (1881) and The Ambassadors (1903). In addition to Daisy Miller (1878), his nouvelles include Washington Square (1881), The Aspern Papers (1888), and The Spoils of Poynton, 1897. His most famous stories are The Beast in the Jungle, The Jolly Corner, and The Turn of the Screw, a psychological horror tale. James' travel books include The American Scene (1907) and Italian Hours (1909). In addition, he wrote three autobiographical books: A Small Boy and Others (1913), Notes of a Son and Brother (1914), and The Middle Years (1917).
In spite of his numerous and varied pieces of literature, Henry James was never a really popular writer with the public. His complex prose style, deliberate slowness, and subtle psychological character studies were often too difficult for the average reader, who found nothing in common with the people in James' novels. His characters are always wealthy and usually refined, seldom average, and never poor. They are interested in high society, complex ideas, and subtle differences. In spite of his rejection by the general public, he was praised by the critics, who recognized the remarkable range and versatility of his works, his mastery of style and structure, the intensity of his themes and plots, and the outstanding development of his characters.
Throughout his life, Henry James traveled back and forth between America, England, and the Continent. In 1875 and 1876, he lived in Paris, where he was friends with several important European writers, including Flaubert, Turgenev, and Zola. In 1876, he moved permanently to London, England where he felt he could do his best writing. In spite of his British residence, his writing continued to reflect his American past; most of his main characters, including the most charming and the most unpleasant, are Americans. In fact, James remained an American citizen until 1915, when in protest of America's reluctance to enter the war against Germany, he became a naturalized British subject. He was awarded the Order of Merit by King George V in January 1916. In late February of the same year, he died, leaving two novels unfinished.