Henry James (1843-1916) helps in his subtle way to lead us from the 19th into the 20th century, just as he leads us from America to Europe. His principal interest, especially in his many fine novels, is the confrontation of American and European culture. He is also concerned with the clash between the old and the new, between the dying century and the one just beginning.
James was born in New York City, the second child of wealthy, somewhat aristocratic parents. His father, Henry James Sr., was a philosopher and psychologist. Henry James Sr. disapproved of most schools and consequently sent his sons to a variety of tutors and European schools in search of the best education for them. The children received the major part of their education at home, however, in lively conversations with their father and the other children. The James family's travels in Europe were another source of education for Henry.
When he was growing up in New York, Henry was given a great deal of independence, so much in fact, that he felt isolated from other people. A quiet child among exuberant brothers and cousins, Henry was more often an observer than a participant in their activities. When, as a young man, a back injury prevented his fighting in the Civil War, he felt even more excluded from the events of his time. While the adult Henry James developed many close friendships, he retained his attitude of observer, and devoted much of his life to solitary work on his writing.
Henry's family lived for a time in Boston, where he became acquainted with New England authors and friends of his father, began his friendship with William Dean Howells, and attended Harvard Law School. After 1866, James lived in Europe much of the time and in 1875 decided to make it his permanent home. He lived in Paris for a year, where he met Turgenev, Flaubert, and Zola. The next year he settled in London and lived there and in the English countryside for the rest of his life. In 1915, a year before his death, to show his support of England in World War I, James became a British citizen.
Henry James first achieved recognition as a writer of the "international novel"¡Xa story which brings together persons of various nationalities who represent certain characteristics of their country. The Europeans in James' novels are more cultured, more concerned with art, and more aware of the subtleties of social situations than are James' Americans. The Americans, however, usually have a morality and innocence which the Europeans lack. James seemed to value both the sophistication of Europe and the idealism of America.
Of the prominent New England writers who had dominated American literature, James preferred Hawthorne, with his recognition of the evil present in the world, to the Transcendentalists, whose optimism seemed unrealistic to him. James' later books put less emphasis on the international theme and are more concerned with the psychology of his characters. His most mature, and perhaps his best, novels are considered to be in last three: The Golden Bowl, The Ambassadors, and The Wings of the Dove. James himself considered The Ambassadors his best work.