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Henry James, OM (April 15, 1843(1843-04-15) - February 28, 1916), son of theologian Henry James Sr. and brother of the philosopher and psychologist William James and diarist Alice James, was an American-born author and literary critic of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He spent much of his life in Europe and became a British subject shortly before his death. He is primarily known for novels, novellas and short stories based on themes of consciousness and morality.
James significantly contributed to the criticism of fiction, particularly in his insistence that writers be allowed the greatest freedom possible in presenting their view of the world. His imaginative use of point of view, interior monologue and possibly unreliable narrators in his own novels and tales brought a new depth and interest to narrative fiction. An extraordinarily productive writer, he published substantive books of travel writing, biography, autobiography and visual arts criticism.
Although any selection of James's novels as "major" must inevitably depend to some extent on personal preference, the following books have achieved prominence among his works in the views of many critics.
The first period of James's fiction, usually considered to have culminated in The Portrait of a Lady, concentrated on the contrast between Europe and America. The style of these novels is generally straightforward and, though personally characteristic, well within the norms of 19th century fiction. Roderick Hudson (1875) is a Künstlerroman that traces the development of the title character, an extremely talented sculptor. Although the book shows some signs of immaturity-this was James's first serious attempt at a full-length novel - it has attracted favorable comment due to the vivid realization of the three major characters: Roderick Hudson, superbly gifted but unstable and unreliable; Rowland Mallet, Roderick's limited but much more mature friend and patron; and Christina Light, one of James's most enchanting and maddening femmes fatales. The pair of Hudson and Mallet has been seen as representing the two sides of James's own nature: the wildly imaginative artist and the brooding conscientious mentor.
Although Roderick Hudson featured mostly American characters in a European setting, James made the Europe-America contrast even more explicit in his next novel. In fact, the contrast could be considered the leading theme of The American (1877). This book is a combination of social comedy and melodrama concerning the adventures and misadventures of Christopher Newman, an essentially good-hearted but rather gauche American businessman on his first tour of Europe. Newman is looking for a world different from the simple, harsh realities of 19th century American business. He encounters both the beauty and the ugliness of Europe, and learns not to take either for granted.
James did not set all of his novels in Europe or focus exclusively on the contrast between the New World and the Old. Set in New York City, Washington Square (1880) is a deceptively simple tragicomedy that recounts the conflict between a dull but sweet daughter and her brilliant, domineering father. The book is often compared to Jane Austen's work for the clarity and grace of its prose and its intense focus on family relationships. James was not particularly enthusiastic about Jane Austen, so he might not have regarded the comparison as flattering. In fact, James was not enthusiastic about Washington Square itself. He tried to read it over for inclusion in the New York Edition of his fiction (1907-09) but found that he could not. So he excluded the novel from the edition. But other readers have enjoyed the book enough to make it one of the more popular works in the entire Jamesian canon.
In The Portrait of a Lady (1881) James concluded the first phase of his career with a novel that remains to this day his most popular long fiction, if the Amazon sales rankings are any indication. This impressive achievement is the story of a spirited young American woman, Isabel Archer, who "affronts her destiny" and finds it overwhelming. She inherits a large amount of money and subsequently becomes the victim of Machiavellian scheming by two American expatriates. The narrative is set mainly in Europe, especially in England and Italy. Generally regarded as the masterpiece of his early phase, The Portrait of a Lady is not just a reflection of James's absorbing interest in the differences between the New World and the Old, but a profound meditation on the themes of personal freedom, responsibility, betrayal, and sexuality.
In the 1880s James began to explore new areas of interest besides the Europe-America contrast and the "American girl". In particular, he began writing on explicitly political themes. The Bostonians (1886) is a bittersweet tragicomedy that centers on an odd triangle of characters: Basil Ransom, an unbending political conservative from Mississippi; Olive Chancellor, Ransom's cousin and a zealous Boston feminist; and Verena Tarrant, a pretty protege of Olive's in the feminist movement. The story line concerns the contest between Ransom and Olive for Verena's allegiance and affection, though the novel also includes a wide panorama of political activists, newspaper people, and quirky eccentrics.
The political theme turned darker in The Princess Casamassima (1886), the story of an intelligent but confused young London bookbinder, Hyacinth Robinson, who becomes involved in far left politics and a terrorist assassination plot. The book is something of a lone sport in the Jamesian canon for dealing with such a violent political subject. But it is often paired with The Bostonians, which is concerned with political issues in a less tragic manner.
Just as James was beginning his ultimately disastrous attempt to conquer the stage, he wrote The Tragic Muse (1890). This novel offers a wide, cheerful panorama of English life and follows the fortunes of two would-be artists: Nick Dormer, who vacillates between a political career and his efforts to become a painter, and Miriam Rooth, an actress striving for artistic and commercial success. A huge cast of supporting characters help and hinder their pursuits. The book reflects James's consuming interest in the theater and is often considered to mark the close of the second or middle phase of his career in the novel.
After the failure of his "dramatic experiment" James returned to his fiction with a deeper, more incisive approach. He began to probe his characters' consciousness in a more insightful manner, which had been foreshadowed in such passages as Chapter 42 of The Portrait of a Lady. His style also started to grow in complexity to reflect the greater depth of his analysis. The Spoils of Poynton (1897), considered the first example of this final phase, is a half-length novel that describes the struggle between Mrs. Gereth, a widow of impeccable taste and iron will, and her son Owen over a houseful of precious antique furniture. The story is largely told from the viewpoint of Fleda Vetch, a young woman in love with Owen but sympathetic to Mrs Gereth's anguish over losing the antiques she patiently collected.
James continued the more involved, psychological approach to his fiction with What Maisie Knew (1897), the story of the sensitive daughter of divorced and irresponsible parents. The novel has great contemporary relevance as an unflinching account of a wildly dysfunctional family. The book is also a notable technical achievement by James, as it follows the title character from earliest childhood to precocious maturity.
The third period of James's career reached its most significant achievement in three novels published just after the turn of the century. Critic F. O. Matthiessen called this "trilogy" James's major phase, and these novels have certainly received intense critical study. Although it was the second-written of the books, The Wings of the Dove (1902) was the first published. This novel tells the story of Milly Theale, an American heiress stricken with a serious disease, and her impact on the people around her. Some of these people befriend Milly with honorable motives, while others are more self-interested. James stated in his autobiographical books that Milly was based on Minny Temple, his beloved cousin who died at an early age of tuberculosis. He said that he attempted in the novel to wrap her memory in the "beauty and dignity of art".
The next published of the three novels, The Ambassadors (1903), is a dark comedy that follows the trip of protagonist Lewis Lambert Strether to Europe in pursuit of his widowed fiancée's supposedly wayward son. Strether is to bring the young man back to the family business, but he encounters unexpected complications. The third-person narrative is told exclusively from Strether's point of view. In his preface to the New York Edition text of the novel, James placed this book at the top of his achievements, which has occasioned some critical disagreement. The Golden Bowl (1904) is a complex, intense study of marriage and adultery that completes the "major phase" and, essentially, James's career in the novel. The book explores the tangle of interrelationships between a father and daughter and their respective spouses. The novel focuses deeply and almost exclusively on the consciousness of the central characters, with sometimes obsessive detail and powerful insight.
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