Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement/James, Henry

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JAMES, HENRY (1843–1916), novelist, was born at 2 Washington Place, New York, 15 April 1843. He came of a stock both Irish and Scotch, established in America from the eighteenth century. His father, Henry James, senior, was an original and remarkable writer on questions of theology. His mother’s name was Mary Walsh. Henry James the younger was the second son, the elder being the distinguished philosopher William James. They received a very desultory education, at first in New York, afterwards (during two lengthy visits of the family to Europe) in London, Paris, and Geneva. Henry James entered the law school at Harvard in 1862, and lived with his parents at Cambridge, near Boston, until he finally settled in Europe in 1875. From 1865 onwards he was a regular contributor of reviews, sketches, and short stories, to several American periodicals; his life as a writer began from that year, and owed much to his acquaintance, soon a close friendship, with the novelist W. D. Howells. James’s first piece of fiction long enough to be called a novel, Watch and Ward, appeared serially in 1871; his first volume of short stories was published in 1875, and Roderick Hudson, the novel which definitely marked the end of his literary apprenticeship, in 1876.

It was during the years spent in Europe as a boy that James had absorbed once for all what he afterwards called the ‘European virus’, the nostalgia for the old world which made it impossible for him to live permanently elsewhere. In 1869, and again in 1872, he came to Europe as a tourist, lingering chiefly in Rome, Florence, and Paris. These visits intensified his desire to find a fixed home on this side of the Atlantic; and when he came again, in 1875, it was with the decided intention of remaining for good. He proposed at first to settle in Paris; but after a year there he began to see that London (which he then knew very slightly) was the place where he could best feel at home, and he removed thither in 1876. He lived constantly in London, in lodgings off Piccadilly or in a flat in Kensington, for more than twenty years. In 1898 he moved to Lamb House, Rye, Sussex, where he mainly lived for the rest of his life, and where all his later novels were written. He was never married.

Henry James was thus thirty-three years old when he established himself in the country he was to make his own, and the fact is important for an understanding both of his character and his work. His youth, so far as it was European, had been almost entirely continental; his culture was French; he was a highly civilized, very critical and observant young citizen of the world. He came to England almost as a stranger, in spite of the fact that English life seemed to him in many ways barbarously insular; and he came because he was convinced that here only could an American really strike root in European soil. He accordingly proceeded with intense application to study and assimilate his chosen world—a narrow world, it may be said, for it was practically bounded by the social round of well-to-do London, but quite large enough, as he felt, to task his powers of absorption and to give him what he sought, a solid home in his expatriation. This was one side of the matter. The other concerned the exercise of his keen and unresting imagination, which found in London, and even in a small section of London, the inexhaustible material that it needed.

It is commonly said that James’s work as a novelist falls into three distinct ‘periods’ or ‘manners’; and the classification is convenient, though it may tend to obscure the unbroken steadiness with which his art was developed from book to book. In the first of these periods he was chiefly occupied with the ‘international’ subject, the impact of American life upon the older, richer, denser civilization of Europe; and it was not until he had been living for a good many years in England that he felt ready to drop the many possibilities of this fruitful theme and to treat a purely English subject. By that time he had written all those of his novels which were ever likely to be popular with the public at large; and though their simplicity may seem rather thin and their art ingenuous compared with his later work, books like Roderick Hudson (1875), The American (1877), Daisy Miller (1879), and more especially The Portrait of a Lady (1881), have a charm of freshness and neatness, which their author himself recognized when many years later he re-read and to some extent revised them. He had come to Europe at the right moment for the effect of the contrast which he found so pictorial, the clash of new and old, while the American in Europe (particularly the American girl) was still inexperienced and unfamiliar enough to create a ‘situation’, seen against the background of London or Paris or Rome. In half a dozen novels and a long series of shorter pieces James recurred to this situation, so rich in variety and so expressive of national character.

The Tragic Muse (1890) may be said to inaugurate James's second period, partly because the peculiar development of his art begins to show plainly in this book, partly because he here for the first time treated on a large scale a subject from English life, social, political, and artistic. In The Spoils of Poynton (1897), What Maisie Knew (1897), The Awkward Age (1899), and in several volumes of short stories, he continued to explore the field of English character, though it remained true that the England of his knowledge was confined to a comparatively small circle of London life. His sensitive appreciation of the minute distinctions, the fine shades, the all but inaudible tones, in the intercourse of very civilized people, together with his now complete mastery of his craft, began to give his work the strange and deeply individual aspect which it wore increasingly to the end. His style, matching the extreme subtlety of his perceptions and discriminations, developed an intricacy which might sometimes appear perversely obscure, though at its best it is really the simple expression of the effects he sought—suggestive, evocative effects, that gradually shape out a solid impression. (It is worth mentioning that all his later books were dictated by him to his secretary, a practice that fostered and perhaps exaggerated the natural amplitude of his style.) His fiction thus passed imperceptibly into its final phase, culminating in his three last novels, The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (written before The Wings, but not published till 1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904). In these books he returned once more to the ‘international’ theme, the contrast of American and European character, bringing the maturity of his experience and his imagination to bear on the subject which had occupied so much of his early work. After The Golden Bowl he wrote no more fiction, save a few short stories, till 1914, when he began to work upon two long novels, The Ivory Tower, and The Sense of the Past, both of which he left unfinished at his death. These two fragments were published posthumously in 1917, together with the extremely interesting notes which he had composed for his own guidance—a kind of leisurely rumination over the subject in hand which more than anything else reveals the working of his imagination.

For the revised and collected edition of his novels and tales, the issue of which began in 1907, James wrote a series of prefaces, partly reminiscent, mainly critical, which are of the highest importance as a summary of his view of the art of fiction. This view he had elaborated by degrees through many years of uninterrupted work; and he was certainly the first novelist in any language to explore with such thoroughness the nature and the possibilities of the craft. Even the passionate absorption in technical matters of such a writer as Flaubert seems slight and partial compared with the energy, the concentration, and the lucidity of James's thought upon the question of the portrayal of life in a novel. The form and design of a story had preoccupied him from the first; and if much of his early work was curiously thin, as though he were shy of plunging into the depths of human nature, it was largely because he would not attempt anything that he felt to be beyond his means, while he was engaged in consciously perfecting these. The most obvious influences under which he began to write were those of Hawthorne and Turgenev; but he was soon pursuing his own way in the search for a manner of presentation that should satisfy his more and more exacting criticism. It is not possible to describe in a few words the complexity of the art which reached its highest point, to the author's mind, in The Ambassadors; but what is perhaps most characteristic in it is the rhythmical alternation of ‘drama’ and ‘picture’ (they are James's words) in the treatment of the subject. By ‘picture’ he meant the rendering of life as reflected in the mind of some chosen onlooker (as the hero, Strether, in The Ambassadors), watching and meditating upon the scene before him; by ‘drama’ the placing of a scene directly before the reader, without the intervention of any reflecting, interpreting consciousness. All his later books (with one exception) are built up by the use of these contrasted methods, the old-fashioned device of ‘telling’ the story (‘on the author's poor word of honour’, as he put it) being entirely discarded. The single exception is The Awkward Age, in which the dramatic method alone is used, and there is no ‘going behind’ any of the characters, to share their thought. It may be said very roughly that he employs ‘picture’ for the preparation of an effect, ‘drama’ for its climax; the purpose throughout being to make the story show itself (instead of being merely narrated), to the enhancement of its force and weight. It was only when this process had been carried so far as to leave no relevant aspect of the subject in hand unillustrated and unaccounted for that he could regard the story as truly and effectually ‘done’—a favourite word of his, expressing his highest praise. But, for a full understanding of the originality of his methods of criticism and creation it is necessary to study carefully the prefaces written for the collected edition.

Even the most enthusiastic admirers of James's later work have sometimes felt that the importance of his subjects was hardly equal to the immense elaboration of his treatment of them—a judgement more crudely expressed by saying that ‘nothing happens’ in his books, for all their densely packed extent. It is true that his central theme, baldly stated, is often a small affair, and that he seldom allows a glimpse of the fiercer passions that are the common stock-in-trade of the novelist. But this criticism implies some misunderstanding of his view of a subject—the importance of which he held to depend primarily on the value, the intelligence, and the sensibility, of the people involved. An event is nothing in itself; the question is what a fine mind will make of it; and more and more, in James's books, the characters tended to become men and women of rare and acute perception, capable of making the utmost of all their experience. A very simple theme, entrusted to a few such people, would give him more than enough for dramatic development; and if their deeper feelings remain all but hidden under the delicate surface-play of their reflections and reactions, it was because the last results and furthest implications of a thing were to him always more significant, more charged with history, than the thing itself in its nakedness could possibly be. Hence his dislike of the raw, the crude, the staring, his love of the toned and seasoned and civilized, both in literature and in life. In the immense procession of characters that he created, while it is the American girl (Daisy Miller, Isabel Archer of The Portrait, and many more) who predominates in his earlier books, the type nearest his mind in his later fiction is perhaps the ‘poor sensitive gentleman’ of stories like The Altar of the Dead, The Great Good Place, Broken Wings, with Strether of The Ambassadors at the head of them—elderly men, slightly worn and battered and blighted in the struggle of life, but profoundly versed, to use another characteristic phrase of James's, in the ‘wear and tear of discrimination’.

Besides some twenty novels and nearly a hundred short stories, James published several volumes of sketches of travel and of literary criticism. He also wrote a number of plays; indeed for several years, from about 1890 to 1894, he devoted himself almost entirely to a determined attempt to win fame and fortune as a dramatist. The venture, which on the whole was certainly against the set of his genius, was not successful; very few of his plays have been acted, and none has had any lasting success on the stage. In The American Scene (1906) he recorded the profusion of impressions that he received from a visit to America after an absence of twenty years. Towards the end of his life he wrote two volumes (and part of a third) of reminiscences of his childhood and youth, an evocation of early days in America and Europe which shows how intense had been the activity of his imagination from his earliest years. A collection of his singularly rich and copious letters was published in 1920.

During the earlier years of his life in London, James probably seemed to those who knew him but slightly a somewhat critical onlooker, highly correct in style and manner, with a cautious reserve not easily to be penetrated. He was engaged in exploring the social world that readily opened to him; he was seen at innumerable dinner-parties and country-house visits, observantly making his way; but it was long before he felt able to lay aside the guarded prudence of a stranger and to take his ease in his acquired home. Meanwhile, among a host of acquaintances his intimate friends were few—among them may be named Burne-Jones, George du Maurier, J. R. Lowell, R. L. Stevenson; and perhaps it was only to his own family, and particularly to his brother William, to whom he was very deeply attached, that he freely confided his mind. Gradually a remarkable change took place in him; after twenty years of England he seemed at last to feel at home, and no one who met him in later days could think of him as other than the most genial, expansive, and sympathetic of friends. To a wide and ever increasing circle he became a figure uniquely impressive for the weight, the authority, the luxuriant elaboration of his mind, and lovable to the same degree for his ripe humour, his loyalty, his inexhaustible kindness—as also for something more, for a strain of odd and unexpected simplicity, that survived in him after a lifetime of ironic observation and experience. Yet those who knew him best remained conscious of something secluded and inaccessible in his genius, sufficient to itself and shared with no one.

James's published letters give a very complete picture of his habit of life, which from the time of his settlement in England varied little from year to year. The chief break was made in 1898, when Rye became his head-quarters instead of Kensington; but he was never very long absent from London, and he retained a room at the Reform Club for his frequent visits. Both there and in his charming old house at Rye he was lavish in entertainment of his many friends; as a host his standard of hospitality was very high—so high, indeed, as to make him at times impatient of the consequences it entailed. He could take nothing lightly, and the burden of sociability roused him to much eloquent lamentation. Yet he soon missed it in solitude, and he was easily tempted by any congenial call; he was not less generous as a guest than as a host, and in a circle which was not exactly that of society or of the arts or of the professions, but mingled of all three, he enjoyed himself and gave enjoyment. Nothing, however, not even his occasional excursions abroad, to Paris and Italy, was ever allowed to interrupt the industrious regularity of his work. Though his health was sometimes a difficulty and always a matter of a good deal of anxiety to himself, his constitution was remarkably strong, and he never seemed to feel the need of a holiday. In his seventy-second year, at the outbreak of the European War, his zeal in his work was as keen as ever, and his imagination teemed with material to be turned into art before it should be too late.

His portrait by J. S. Sargent, R.A., now in the National Portrait Gallery, was presented to him by a large group of friends in 1913, in commemoration of his seventieth birthday; and in 1914 a bust of him was executed by Mr. Derwent Wood. The portly presence, the massively modelled head, the watchful eye, the mobile expression, recall him as he was in his later years (till about 1900 he wore a close beard, and Mr. William Rothenstein made and possesses a drawing showing him with a moustache and beard), and may suggest the nature and manner of his talk. This, in a sympathetic company, where he could take his time to develop a topic or a description in his own way, was memorably opulent and picturesque. To listen to him was like watching an artist at work; the ample phrases slowly uncoiled, with much pausing and hesitating for the choice word, and out of them was gradually constructed the impression of the scene or the idea in his mind; when it was finished the listener was in possession of a characteristic product of Henry James's art. It was hardly to be called conversation, perhaps; it was too magnificent, too deliberate, for the give-and-take of a mixed gathering; but his companionable humour, his quick sensibility, his ornate and affectionate courtesy, set it further still from any appearance of formality or display. Though in any company he was certain to be the dominant, preponderant figure, his interest and his participation in the life around him were unfailing, and he seemed to have the gift of creating a special, unique relation with every one who came his way.

The shock of the War fell very heavily upon him; but he withstood it in a passionate ardour of patriotism that brought him at last, after nearly forty years of life in England, to take a step which he had never contemplated before. In July 1915 he became naturalized as a British subject. At the following new year he was awarded the order of merit: but by that time he was already lying ill and near his death. Three years before he had acquired a flat in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, and it was there that he died on 28 February 1916. His body was cremated, and a commemorative tablet placed in Chelsea Old Church, close to his last home by the London riverside.

[Correspondence, published and unpublished; the autobiographical volumes, A Small Boy and Others, 1913, Notes of a Son and Brother, 1914, The Middle Years, 1917 (the dates and order of events in these books are not always to be relied on); personal knowledge. A bibliography of Henry James's works (to 1905), compiled by Le Roy Phillips, was published in America in 1906.]

P. L.