Henry James

Henry James (1843-1916) was an American-British author. He was a profoundly transatlantic figure - born in New York City; he died in London a year after becoming a British citizen. His work often dealt with the complex relationship between old Europe and new America, portraying the social interactions between citizens of both worlds. He is generally considered a link between literary realism and modernism - a transitional author. 

Henry James Henry James

Create learning materials about Henry James with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account
Contents
Table of contents

    Realism is a style in art or literature that shows things and people as they are in real life.¹ It was established in the 19th century in Europe. Common features in realism works include realistic plots and in-depth descriptions of settings and characters. Works of realism are character-driven and focus on their day to day lives.

    Modernism is a cultural movement in literature and art that started in Europe in the 20th century. It developed as a break away from the established art forms. Works of modernism are characterised by experimentation and symbolism.

    Henry James biography

    Let's get to know Henry James a little better.

    Early Life

    Henry James was born in New York City on 15 April 1843. His parents were well-off, privileged, and educated. His mother came from a rich New York family, and his father was a philosopher, lecturer, and academic who had inherited money from his father, a banker. His father provided a varied cultural education for the young Henry.

    As a shy, bookish youth, he travelled widely with his family throughout his childhood, spending time in Geneva, Paris, and London. They spent the most time in France, where James learned French. He had a rich, multicultural childhood and was exposed to many European influences.

    Interestingly, he spoke English with a stutter, but he had no stutter when he spoke in French.

    Adulthood

    Henry James' adult life can be split in two parts, his life before fame and his life after fame.

    Life before fame

    At 19, Henry James enrolled at Harvard Law School but mainly spent his time reading literature, including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Balzac. His first story appeared anonymously two years later in the New York Continental Monthly.

    He befriended the American novelist William Dean Howells, and together they helped establish and define the movement of American Realism.

    In 1869-70, he spent 14 months travelling around Europe, meeting influential literary figures of the day, including John Ruskin, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and William Morris. He tried to establish himself as a freelance writer in Paris and Rome, returning to America when these efforts failed.

    He was a studious and patient writer and spent ten years writing short stories and journalistic pieces before attempting a full-length novel.

    Life after fame

    After 1875, he spent almost all of his time in Europe, finding it was more suited to his work and temperament than America, to which he only returned a couple of times during the rest of his life.

    His first notable novel was Roderick Hudson, published in 1975. It was the beginning of a long and prolific career. The Portrait Of A Lady (1881) is widely regarded as his first masterpiece.

    After a period during which French Realist writers heavily influenced him, James attempted to write for the theatre. His dramatic work was poorly received, which led to him completely changing his approach to develop his prose style.

    After his attempt in theatre, his work became more symbolic and abstract, much less definably realist in style, and pointing the way towards the early 20th century modernist novel.

    Henry James died on 28th February 1916 in London.

    Henry James never married, leading some critics to hypothesise that he was homosexual. He was a distant, private figure that tended not to become involved with people, preferring to observe from a distance.

    Notable works and quotes from Henry James

    Let's discuss some of his famous works and memorable quotes.

    Books

    We'll look at two novels and briefly mention Henry James' short stories.

    The Portrait Of A Lady (1881)

    You must save what you can of your life; you mustn't lose it all simply because you've lost a part.Chapter 55

    Henry James’ first notably successful novel, The Portrait Of A Lady, is one of his most popular and critically acclaimed works. It was originally published as a serial in The Atlantic Monthly and Macmillan’s Magazine in 1880-81, before being published as a book in 1881. Set in England and Italy, it deals with the life of a passionate American woman named Isabel Archer, who inherits a sizable fortune and falls victim to the schemes of two Americans who intend to steal the money from her. Like many of James’ books, it addresses the tensions between Europe and America's old and new worlds.

    The Turn Of The Screw (1898)

    All roads lead to Rome, and there were times when it might have struck us that almost every branch of study or subject of conversation skirted forbidden ground. Chapter 13

    The novella The Turn Of The Screw is a ghost story with gothic horror elements.

    Gothic fiction is a literary genre that started at the end of the 18th century in Europe. Works of gothic fiction usually feature an ominous setting, mysterious characters and events, and a scary atmosphere.

    It tells the tale of a young woman working in her first job as a governess on a remote estate. The estate is being haunted by ghostly apparitions that seem to have dark intentions for the two children that are her responsibility. As the governess attempts to protect them from these sinister, ghoulish figures, we are left unsure whether the ghosts are real or whether she has gone insane. It is a masterpiece and probably the book for which Henry James is best known.

    The Turn of the Screw has been adapted many times, including the critically acclaimed 1961 film The Innocents.

    Short stories

    During his lifetime, Henry James wrote many short stories. Let's take a look at some of them:

    • 'The Liar' (1888)
    • 'Brooksmith' (1891)
    • 'The Real Thing' (1892)
    • 'The Figure in the Carpet' (1896)
    • 'Mrs Medwin' (1901)

    Henry James: common themes

    Some of the recurring themes in Henry's works were: the old world vs the new world, freedom, and secrets.

    Old world vs new world

    Henry James’ main theme is the contrast between the old, traditional, corrupt, wise world of Europe and America's exuberant, industrious, youthful, new-moneyed world. He was interested in how the past influences the present in these settings. His works frequently feature expatriate American characters in European countries - a natural way to explore this theme.

    In The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer is an American woman who travels to Europe.

    Freedom

    In his works, Henry James explores the freedom or lack thereof of the individual. This freedom is related to independence. In The Portrait of a Lady, the protagonist, Isabel Archer, values her independence as a woman in a man's world. She turns down a marriage proposal from Lord Warburton because she doesn't want to give up her freedom to live her life on her own terms. Lord Warburton himself sees things differently - he assumes that by offering her wealth and stability, he's allowing her to secure freedom. However, Isabel views freedom not as security but as a constant exploration.

    Secrets

    Most of the characters in Henry James' works are secretive. The stories revolve around the things that they hide. This theme is significant in The Turn of the Screw. The governess's secrets destroy her relationship with the children she looks after. If the governess had shared her secrets, this could have led to a different outcome of the story. Henry James offers a look at the psychology of hiding secrets - he explores our need to conceal what we know.

    Henry James: literary movement

    Realism was the dominant literary movement of the 1800s, which attempted to portray the real world. Modernism was the dominant movement of the early twentieth century. It was partly a response to technological developments and the horrors of the First World War. Modernism expressed a sense of emptiness and a loss of faith in old ideas and truths. Modernist literature tended towards experimental forms and techniques and stylistic innovations.

    Henry James’ earlier works were much more grounded in realism; they attempted to paint every intricate detail of a situation. His later work left out details to create a psychologically complex, subjective style influenced by theatrical storytelling techniques. In creating this new style, he paved the way for the modernist 20th-century novel.

    Henry James - Key takeaways

    • Henry James was an influential novelist that bridged the gap between the literary realism of the 19th century and the literary modernism of the early 20th century.
    • Notable works by Henry James include The Turn Of The Screw (1898) and The Portrait Of A Lady (1881).
    • Henry James tended to write stories that contrasted the old world of Europe and the new world of America.
    • He spent almost all of his life in Europe, despite being born and raised in America.

    ¹ Realism, Oxford English Dictionary: oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/american_english/realism

    Frequently Asked Questions about Henry James

    What is Henry James known for?


    Henry James is known for his literary works, such as the novel The Portrait Of A Lady (1881) and the novella The Turn Of The Screw (1898).

    Henry James is also known for being a transitional author - a link between literary realism and modernism.

    What is Henry James' greatest novel?


    Henry James' greatest novel is considered to be The Portrait Of A Lady (1881).

    What is Henry James' style of writing?


    Henry James' earlier works are grounded in realism while his later works are more modernist.

    Why was Henry James called 'the Master'?


    Henry James was called 'the Master', mainly by American critics, for his mastery of technique and for his literary achievements.

    Did Henry James have a wife?


    Henry James didn't have a wife, he never married. This led some critics to hypothesise that he was homosexual.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following is not the name of a ghost at Bly?Miss Jessel.Mrs Grouse.Peter Quint.

    How many years before his death did Henry James become a British citizen?

    Where was Henry James born?

    Next

    Discover learning materials with the free StudySmarter app

    Sign up for free
    1
    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team English Literature Teachers

    • 9 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    Get unlimited access with a free StudySmarter account.

    • Instant access to millions of learning materials.
    • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams, AI tools and more.
    • Everything you need to ace your exams.
    Second Popup Banner