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James, Henry

Category: Writer

Henry James [left] with William James his brother by Marie Leon
Bromide print, early 1900s
Given to the NPG London by Royal Historical Society, 1935

Henry James, (1843 – 1916) was an American-born writer,  son of Henry James, Sr. and the brother of philosopher and psychologist William James.  James was born in New York City into a wealthy family. At the age of 19 he briefly attended Harvard Law School, but preferred  literature to studying law.  He alternated between America and Europe for the first 20 years of his life, after which he settled in England, becoming a British subject in 1915, one year before his death.

James's work was popular and has remained popular in the UK, but there seems to be an ambivalent attitude towards him in the USA.  Some American critics have expressed hostility towards James, simply because he left America and became a British citizen.


James often explored the contrast between Europe and America and the clash between the Old World and the New.  Vernon Parrington, composing a canon of American literature, condemned James for having 'cut himself off from America'.

James is principally known for his novels -  The Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove, The Spoils of Poynton,  What Maisie Knew,  The Princess Casamassima, The Bostonians,  The Tragic Muse, Washington Square,  Roderick Hudson, and The American, for example.  But it is rarely realised how versatile and prolific he was.  

James was only twenty-two when he wrote The Noble School of Fiction for The Nation's first issue in 1865. He wrote, in all, over two hundred essays and book, art and theatre reviews for the magazine. James also wrote about a dozen plays, most of which went unproduced. 


He wrote many valuable critical articles on other novelists.  He wrote a large number of short stories, for example,  "The Turn of the Screw" ;  “Daisy Miller”; "The Beast in the Jungle" ;  and "The Jolly Corner", a ghost story.  He wrote articles about various places he visited and lived in. He was also a  great letter-writer. More than ten thousand of his personal letters are extant, and over three thousand have been published. 

Very late in life James began a series of autobiographical works: A Small Boy and Others, Notes of a Son and Brother, and the unfinished The Middle Years. He describes himself as a person  who was passionately interested in artistic creation, was a great observer of life, but who was very reluctant to get involved in life's normal struggles.

And this indeed is a good summation of Henry James.  He was an exceptional observer of human beings, so observant that he did not want to get involved with them. 


The Golden Bowl, for example,  is a complex, intense study of marriage and adultery and the tangle of interrelationships between a father and daughter and their respective spouses.  The Wings of the Dove tells the story of Milly Theale, an American heiress stricken with a serious disease, who is befriended by people with both honourable and dishonourable motives.

Then there is What Maisie Knew the story of the sensitive daughter of divorced and irresponsible parents, a novel that has great contemporary relevance as an unflinching account of a wildly dysfunctional family. In essence, James wrote 'psychological novels', exploring the minds of his characters, almost works of social science.

What he saw of human beings fascinated him, but he appears not to have wanted to get too involved with them, as a result.  James regularly rejected suggestions that he marry, and after settling in London proclaimed himself "a bachelor." F. W. Dupee, believed he had been in love with his cousin Mary ("Minnie") Temple.  Minnie died from tuberculosis and he wrote a novel in her memory.  Another reason to distance yourself from humanity – avoid the hurt and pain of loss.


His secretary Theodora Bosanquet remarked in her monograph ‘Henry James at Work’:

When he walked out of the refuge of his study and into the world and looked around him, he saw a place of torment, where creatures of prey perpetually thrust their claws into the quivering flesh of doomed, defenseless children of light ...

His novels are a repeated exposure of this wickedness, a reiterated and passionate plea for the fullest freedom of development, unimperiled by reckless and barbarous stupidity.


There are a number of people who have concluded from his letters that he was gay.  To quote:


As more material became available to scholars, including the diaries of contemporaries and hundreds of affectionate and sometimes erotic letters written by James to younger men, the picture of neurotic celibacy gave way to a portrait of a closeted homosexual. 
James's letters to expatriate American sculptor Hendrik Christian Andersen are intensely emotional: "I hold you, dearest boy, in my innermost love, & count on your feeling me—in every throb of your soul" and "I put, my dear boy, my arm around you, & feel the pulsation, thereby, as it were, of our excellent future & your admirable endowment." To his homosexual friend Howard Sturgis, James could write: "I repeat, almost to indiscretion, that I could live with you. Meanwhile I can only try to live without you."  His many letters to the young gay men who made up a large fraction of his close male friends are more forthcoming. In a letter to Howard Sturgis, following a long visit, James refers jocularly to their "happy little congress of two" and in letters to Hugh Walpole he pursues convoluted jokes and puns about their relationship, referring to himself as an elephant who "paws you oh so benevolently" and winds about Walpole his "well meaning old trunk".


To counter this assertion however,  he corresponded in almost equally extravagant language with his many female friends, writing, for example, to fellow-novelist Lucy Clifford:

Dearest Lucy! What shall I say? When I love you so very, very much, and see you nine times for once that I see Others! Therefore I think that—if you want it made clear to the meanest intelligence—I love you more than I love Others.


To his New York friend Mary Cadwalader Jones:


Dearest Mary Cadwalader. I yearn over you, but I yearn in vain; & your long silence really breaks my heart, mystifies, depresses, almost alarms me, to the point even of making me wonder if poor unconscious & doting old Célimare [Jones's pet name for James] has "done" anything, in some dark somnambulism of the spirit, which has ... given you a bad moment, or a wrong impression, or a "colourable pretext" ... However these things may be, he loves you as tenderly as ever; nothing, to the end of time, will ever detach him from you, & he remembers those Eleventh St. matutinal intimes hours, those telephonic matinées, as the most romantic of his life ...

He had a  long friendship with American novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, in whose house he lived for a number of weeks in Italy in 1887, and his shock and grief over her suicide in 1894 is well documented.


I think he loved but he never got involved.  Distance gave protection.  He was emotional and sensitive and fearful of the pain people could inflict.  He was fascinated by humanity and in some cases loved deeply, but I think he was frightened of the hurt humanity could inflict.

This is what William James wrote of his brother Henry:

Mathiesen – The James Family
Harry is as nice and simple and amiable as he can be.  He has covered himself, like some marine crustacean, with all sorts of material growths, rich sea weeds and rigid barnacles and things, and lives hidden in the midst of his strange alien manners and customs; but these are all but ‘protective resemblances’; under which the same dear, old, good, innocent and at bottom very powerless feeling Harry remains, caring for little but his writing and full of dutifulness and affection for all gentle things.

 James suffered a stroke on 2 December 1915, and it soon became apparent that his prognosis was not good. The novelist, now seriously ill, was awarded the Order of Merit, bestowed on 1 January 1916. His health continued to decline and he died in London on 28 February 1916.


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