Happy Birthday

henry james

Happy Birthday, Henry James, Novelist, Short Story Writer and Critic

April 15, 2010
by Rachel Balik
Henry James bridged the gap between the Old and New World with his highly perceptive novels and short stories. An enigmatic, introverted figure who nevertheless socialized with some of society’s leading figures, he made psychological ambiguity an essential component of modern fiction.

Henry James’ Early Days

Henry James was born on April 15, 1843, in Washington Square, New York City, which is where one of his more famous novels would take place. His family was extremely wealthy; his grandfather was the second richest man in New York after Jacob Astor. James’ own father used his great financial resources for the purpose of giving his children excellent educations.

To Henry James Sr., a good education necessitated going abroad. James Sr. vacillated a great deal in his preference for Europe vs. America, and the family spent much of James’ childhood moving back and forth between Europe, Manhattan and Newport, Rhode Island.

At age 19, he began attending Harvard Law School, but preferred spending time in the library reading books of his own choosing. During this time period, he published his first short story.

James’ Notable Accomplishments

James is famous for novels such as “The Portrait of a Lady,” “Washington Square,” “Daisy Miller” and “The Bostonians.” As an author, he explored the shift from the old world to the new and celebrated the new freedoms afforded by society’s transition. He drew on his experience of upper-class society in Newport and New York.

He was also an accomplished and popular author of short stories by the time he was in his 20s. The Henry James Scholar’s Guide to Web sites links to various e-text versions of James’ novels and short stories, as well as extensive commentary sites from other James scholars. Another Web site, The Ladder, offers e-texts of several of James’ lesser-known works.

Many of his short stories were “potboilers” destined for magazine publication; James often struggled to make ends meet, and needed to publish such stories to make a living. His famously chilling, nuanced ghost story, “The Turn of the Screw” was a notable departure from those works.

Not only did James possess a remarkable ability to chronicle the trends and sentiments of his own time, but he also set the standard for the 20th-century novel with his later works. Although he would not always get the recognition he craved while alive, his impact proved lasting. While James was criticized in his own time for writing too much about thoughts and not enough action, the use of “psychological ambiguity” became essential for all modern writers after him, the Guardian writes.

James spent several years trying to write for theater, but was never able to achieve the acclaim he achieved with his books and stories.

The Rest of the Story

James never married. Rumors have circulated that he was homosexual, but there is little concrete evidence for this assertion.

James spent his later years at an old home in Sussex, England. He rarely returned to America, and when World War I threatened to make travel difficult for foreigners in England, he opted to become a naturalized citizen. He disliked the way American life had evolved and felt no need to return to it.  But he did agree to write an epic collection of his work, called the New York Edition. He reworked his old novels for inclusion, spending three years doing so.

Although James was not popular in the years immediately following his death in 1915, he had a resurgence after World War II, and he has reigned over a captive audience to this day. The 1995 Broadway production of “The Heiress,” a play based on “Washington Square,” earned lead actress Cherry Jones a Tony award. Several of his novels have also been adapted for film, including “Washington Square,” “Portrait of a Lady,” “Wings of the Dove” and “The Golden Bowl.”

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