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Kicking Off Tombstones: Henry James' Life and Work

By Leah Dobrinska. Apr 29, 2019. 9:00 AM.

Topics: Legendary Authors, Book Collecting

Henry James was born in New York City on April 15, 1843. He had three brothers and one sister, and his parents were rich, thanks to their inheritances. Though he held no official job of his own, Henry James’ father, Henry Sr., used his wealth to move his family abroad when Henry was just twelve years old. His motivation was to ensure his children had the best academic opportunities provided for them. The result was a four year tour of Europe where the family sought out the best schools and tutors for the James children. Henry Jr. ended up as a primarily self-taught young man. The influence of his European childhood—as well as his time spent living abroad throughout the majority of his adult years—can be seen in his works, both in his style of writing and in the subject matter he explores.

Henry_James_by_William_M._Vander_Weyde_pd-6Throughout all his studies, James was a keen student of literature and an avid reader. He became fluent in French and took as his mentors several of the biggest names in letters of his day including publishers and editors like James and Annie Fields. Although he attended Harvard Law School briefly, it didn’t take long for Henry James to settle on writing as his career. Initially, he wrote reviews before more consistently contributing fiction and non-fiction pieces to journals like The Nation and Atlantic Monthly.

On a trip Rome when James was in his late twenties, he met George Eliot and Charles Dickens, among others. He also got to know publishers who would serialize his early work. He officially settled abroad in London in December, 1876. He would make London his home base for the remainder of his life. He immersed himself into European culture, and found himself in prominent literary social circles almost immediately. Indeed, Henry James fit in well in Europe. He became close friends with writers such as H.G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Ivan Turgenev.

Though Henry James had work published before, in 1878, the publication of Daisy Miller: A Study thrust him under the literary microscope both in America and Europe. The book was Henry James’ breakthrough novel. At the time of publication, James drew harsh criticism from his homeland. Many American pundits saw it as a satirical attack on American manners through its portrayal of young American Daisy Miller as uncultured and ignorant. Indeed, over the course of his career, Henry James was criticized by many Americans for abandoning his home country in favor of Europe.

According to Henry James scholar Christopher Moore, James held his homeland in high esteem and only escaped to seek the “artistic level” he craved. Likewise, due to a back injury, James couldn’t serve alongside his countrymen in the Civil War which left him feeling ostracized. In America, he lacked this significant shared experience with his peers. This lack was rectified in his move to Europe, where, as noted, he made like-minded and life-long friends in the literary world.

Let’s take a closer look at four of the books that exemplify some of the different periods of Henry James career and the light he shone upon society and place in each.

Daisy Miller: A Study

Daisy Miller: A Study was published in 1878. The story’s protagonist, Daisy Miller, is traveling abroad with her family when she meets a fellow American by the name of Winterbourne. Winterbourne is struck by Daisy’s beauty and begins to pursue her; however, he’s also aware of young Daisy’s continual social gaffes and the way in which she’s looked down upon by their fellow expatriates and European society at large. Winterbourne’s own aunt calls Daisy “a dreadful girl”. Daisy is obviously an outsider in the society she keeps. Through her, James is able to explore the prejudices we hold in connection to those who are “other” or different from ourselves. In this case, James experiments particularly with the disparity between Europeans and Americans. While throughout the story Daisy is a flirt, the aforementioned James scholar Christopher Moore explains further:

“But as Giovanelli says at the end of the story, Daisy ‘was the most beautiful lady I ever saw, and the most amiable…Also—naturally—the most innocent.’ James said that “the keynote of her character is her innocence.” The focus of the story is the disparity between appearance and reality, but James is also exploring the theme in the social context of Americans confronting Europe’s cultural milieu when the appearance of virtue was more important than the reality.” (page ix)

The Portrait of a Lady

henry_james_autobiography-258482-editedWhile Daisy Miller remained popular and is the book that brought Henry James onto the scene, The Portrait of a Lady cemented his place as one of the greats. Published in 1881, The Portrait of a Lady is considered Henry James best work. It has remained immensely popular, and in many ways, it takes up the same sorts of themes James explored in Daisy Miller. In this case, James’ protagonist is Isabel Archer, a poor American who is introduced to European society by her more affluent aunt and uncle. Isabel is innocent and as she learns more and more about the culture she is a part of, she realizes the less than desirable aspects of it.

In The Portrait of a Lady, James treats readers to the detailed, inner workings of his main characters’ minds. We see their motivations, dreams, instincts, and ideas. In his Preface to the novel, James details the significance of a particularly poignant moment of the workings of Isabel’s inner life:

“The interest was to be raised to its pitch and yet the elements to be kept in their key; so that, should the whole thing duly impress, I might show what an "exciting" inward life may do for the person leading it even while it remains perfectly normal. And I cannot think of a more consistent application of that ideal unless it be in the long statement, just beyond the middle of the book, of my young woman's extraordinary meditative vigil on the occasion that was to become for her such a landmark. Reduced to its essence, it is but the vigil of searching criticism; but it throws the action further forward that twenty "incidents" might have done. It was designed to have all the vivacity of incidents and all the economy of picture. She sits up, by her dying fire, far into the night, under the spell of recognitions on which she finds the last sharpness suddenly wait. It is a representation simply of her motionlessly SEEING, and an attempt withal to make the mere still lucidity of her act as "interesting" as the surprise of a caravan or the identification of a pirate. It represents, for that matter, one of the identifications dear to the novelist, and even indispensable to him; but it all goes on without her being approached by another person and without her leaving her chair. It is obviously the best thing in the book, but it is only a supreme illustration of the general plan.”

The Aspern Papers

The Aspern Papers is significant for many reasons. The Aspern Papers is based on a true story James heard in Italy in the late 1800s about a certain sea captain attempting to acquire the personal papers of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. The two authors were possessed by Claire Clairmont, one of Byron’s mistresses and Shelley’s wife’s stepsister, whom he also entertained romantic feelings towards. Rather than use Byron’s name—and Shelley’s name, for that matter, for his papers, too, were in question in the original story—James invented a fictional, famous poet: Jeffrey Aspern. The story is told from the perspective of a greedy publisher, who learns of Aspern’s papers and seeks to use any means necessary to gain access to them and then make himself a profit from them.

The novella was originally published in 1888 in The Atlantic Monthly. James thought incredibly highly of this tale, and notable Henry James scholar Leon Edel praised it for its pacing, mysterious edge-of-your-seat content, and the resulting dramatic effect.

In The Aspern Papers, James at once cries for an author’s right to his own work and at the same time, for the pursuit of artistic truth by those who consume it. The Aspern Papers was recently adapted into a film starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Joely Richardson, and Vanessa Redgrave.

The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw was published in 1898, and it is one of the greatest ghost stories in history. James’ contemporary, Oscar Wilde described The Turn of the Screw as “a most wonderful, lurid, poisonous little tale.” The story is told from the perspective of a governess and a framing device is employed as initially an unnamed man is hearing the governess’ written account of the story read to him.

The governess takes a position tending to the niece and nephew of an absent man. Soon after arriving to the estate where she is to stay, the governess sees two ghost-figures around the grounds. She suspects the children see and potentially communicate with the ghosts. Readers are left to wonder if the ghosts are real or if the governess is crazy…neither of which is a particularly settling conclusion. We don’t ever really know the truth, though critics have long tried to figure out what James intended.

As Brad Leithauser argues in his piece in The New Yorker titled “Even Scarier: On The Turn of the Screw”:

"All such attempts to “solve” the book, however admiringly tendered, unwittingly work toward its diminution. Yes, if we choose to accept the reality of the ghosts, “The Turn of the Screw” presents a bracing account of rampant terror. (This is the way I first read it, in my teens.) And if we accept the governess’s madness, we have a fascinating view of a shattering mental dissolution. (That’s the way I next read it, under a professor’s instruction in college.) But “The Turn of the Screw” is greater than either of these interpretations. Its profoundest pleasure lies in the beautifully fussed over way in which James refuses to come down on either side. In its twenty-four brief chapters, the book becomes a modest monument to the bold pursuit of ambiguity. It is rigorously committed to lack of commitment. At each rereading, you have to marvel anew at how adroitly and painstakingly James plays both sides.”

Indeed, the readers’ confusion and uncertainty upon reading The Turn of the Screw is, in fact, just James giving us all another "turn of the screw."

Henry James was nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1911, 1912, and 1916. Astonishingly, he was never awarded the prize. However, his work speaks for itself. And James also spoke for himself. He predicted: “some day, all my buried prose will kick off its various tombstones at once.” He was correct. While he may not have been as acclaimed in his lifetime as fellow novelist Mark Twain, and while he may not have been given one of Literature’s highest honors in the Nobel Prize, James’ work pushed the boundaries of what was known and accepted in literature. James mastered the “show don’t tell” method of story crafting. And we’re all—readers, writers, literary critics and enthusiasts—better for it.

 Browse Henry James Books

Sources: Adelaide University ebooks, The New Yorker, Leon Edel

Leah Dobrinska
Writer, editor, and lover of a good sentence, a happy ending, and the smell of books, both old and new. Enjoys reading children's lit to her daughters, home-improvement magazines with her husband, and Shakespeare by herself.


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