Biographical essays henry james

Comic-book movies, family-friendly animated adventures, tales of adolescent heroism and comedies of arrested development do not only make up the commercial center of 21st-century Hollywood. They are its artistic heart. This is where the essay becomes a little confused, in my opinion. If we really are living through the decline of the cultural authority of the straight white male, that seems like a rich and appropriate subject for a sophisticated work of narrative art.

In fairness to Scott, he acknowledges this by devoting a good part of the essay to a discussion of how much American art over the years has taken as its subject the unwillingness to grow up. One way of putting this is that Judd Apatow did not invent the bromance. This happens to be another conversation in which Henry James has a key part to play. Scott suggests that James, along with Edith Wharton, is something of an outlier in this story, because he wrote European-style novels of marriage.

The archetypal Jamesian character is a young American woman—Daisy Miller, Isabel Archer, Milly Theale, Maggie Verver—whose innocence is manipulated and ultimately destroyed by the forces usually British or European of experience. It is often suggested that James, perhaps because of his own homosexuality, was incapable of writing about heterosexual sex. There is a reticence surrounding the topic, but this seems very much related to the horror of sexual maturity felt by so many of his characters, a horror not much different from the sort that Fiedler sees in Huck Finn.

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Why is it, then, that we rightly recognize in James a maturity absent from so much of American culture not just today but a hundred years ago? It is, I think, in part because he treats the passage into adulthood as not just painful or costly but also as necessary, and he looks that necessity straight in the face. This is perhaps too often lost sight of, only to produce interminable confusions and cross-purposes. Naturally I do not mean that we are bound to like it or find it interesting: in case we do not our course is perfectly simple—to let it alone.

We may believe that of a certain idea even the most sincere novelist can make nothing at all, and the event may perfectly justify our belief; but the failure will have been a failure to execute, and it is in the execution that the fatal weakness is recorded. And it does seem that many books have the Y.

After all, there is little cost to a publisher for labelling something Y. On the other hand, the label is sometimes wielded to make a real literary distinction. It is obviously possible to give a subject a treatment that is more appropriate for a young audience. For the most part, this involves simplifying things—first the diction and syntax, but finally the whole picture of life.


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There is nothing dishonorable about this simplification—it is a way to make material accessible to children. Nor does it strike me as shameful for adults to spend a lot of time reading these simplified treatments. But it does strike me as strange. In some sense, you might even think he was missing out, that the simplified treatments of history that we give to children are not just less true but less interesting because of their lack of complexity. To be interesting—James called this the one obligation that every novel has. When the champion of adult culture is portrayed, even by himself, as an old curmudgeon yelling at the kids to get off his lawn, it suggests that this adult culture is one of the unfortunate but necessary costs of coming into adulthood.

We give up the pleasures of entertainment for the seriousness of art. After considering various ways in which an author might attempt to improve a work, he concludes,. The ideally handsome way is for him to multiply in any given connexion all the possible sources of entertainment—or, more grossly expressing it again, to intensify his whole chance of pleasure. To some—not just now but in his own time—it represents the point at which that refinement veers into sterility.

While he came from middle-class and provincial beginnings seen from the perspective of European polite society he worked very hard to gain access to all levels of society, and the settings of his fiction range from working class to aristocratic , and often describe the efforts of middle-class Americans to make their way in European capitals. He confessed he got some of his best story ideas from gossip at the dinner table or at country house weekends.

Henry James - Wikipedia

He was furthermore a man whose tastes and interests were, according to the prevailing standards of Victorian era Anglo-American culture, rather feminine, and who was shadowed by the cloud of prejudice that then and later accompanied suspicions of his homosexuality. These poets are not, like Dickens and Hardy , writers of melodrama—either humorous or pessimistic, nor secretaries of society like Balzac , nor prophets like Tolstoy : they are occupied simply with the presentation of conflicts of moral character, which they do not concern themselves about softening or averting. They do not indict society for these situations: they regard them as universal and inevitable.

They do not even blame God for allowing them: they accept them as the conditions of life. It is also possible to see many of James's stories as psychological thought-experiments. In his preface to the New York edition of The American he describes the development of the story in his mind as exactly such: the "situation" of an American, "some robust but insidiously beguiled and betrayed, some cruelly wronged, compatriot In many of his tales, characters seem to exemplify alternative futures and possibilities, as most markedly in " The Jolly Corner ", in which the protagonist and a ghost-doppelganger live alternative American and European lives; and in others, like The Ambassadors , an older James seems fondly to regard his own younger self facing a crucial moment.

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. Although the book shows some signs of immaturity—this was James's first serious attempt at a full-length novel—it has attracted favourable comment due to the vivid realisation 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. In The Portrait of a Lady James concluded the first phase of his career with a novel that remains his most popular piece of long fiction. The story is 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 described as a psychological novel , exploring the minds of his characters, and almost a work of social science, exploring the differences between Europeans and Americans, the old and the new worlds.

The second period of James's career, which extends from the publication of The Portrait of a Lady through the end of the nineteenth century, features less popular novels including The Princess Casamassima , published serially in The Atlantic Monthly in —, and The Bostonians , published serially in The Century Magazine during the same period.

The third period of James's career reached its most significant achievement in three novels published just around the start of the 20th century: The Wings of the Dove , The Ambassadors , and The Golden Bowl Critic F.


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Matthiessen called this "trilogy" James's major phase, and these novels have certainly received intense critical study. It was the second-written of the books, The Wings of the Dove that was the first published because it attracted no serialization. Some of these people befriend Milly with honourable motives, while others are more self-interested.

I embraced Henry James’s fight against complacency | Colm Toíbín

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". James was particularly interested in what he called the "beautiful and blest nouvelle ", or the longer form of short narrative.

Still, he produced a number of very short stories in which he achieved notable compression of sometimes complex subjects. The following narratives are representative of James's achievement in the shorter forms of fiction. At several points in his career James wrote plays, beginning with one-act plays written for periodicals in and [57] and a dramatisation of his popular novella Daisy Miller in This play was performed for several years by a touring repertory company and had a respectable run in London, but did not earn very much money for James.

His other plays written at this time were not produced. In , however, he responded to a request from actor-manager George Alexander for a serious play for the opening of his renovated St. James's Theatre, and wrote a long drama, Guy Domville , which Alexander produced. There was a noisy uproar on the opening night, 5 January , with hissing from the gallery when James took his bow after the final curtain, and the author was upset. The play received moderately good reviews and had a modest run of four weeks before being taken off to make way for Oscar Wilde 's The Importance of Being Earnest , which Alexander thought would have better prospects for the coming season.

After the stresses and disappointment of these efforts James insisted that he would write no more for the theatre, but within weeks had agreed to write a curtain-raiser for Ellen Terry. This became the one-act " Summersoft ", which he later rewrote into a short story, " Covering End ", and then expanded into a full-length play, The High Bid , which had a brief run in London in , when James made another concerted effort to write for the stage. Discouraged by failing health and the stresses of theatrical work, James did not renew his efforts in the theatre, but recycled his plays as successful novels.

The Turn of the Screw

The Outcry was a best-seller in the United States when it was published in During the years — when he was most engaged with the theatre, James wrote a good deal of theatrical criticism and assisted Elizabeth Robins and others in translating and producing Henrik Ibsen for the first time in London. Leon Edel argued in his psychoanalytic biography that James was traumatised by the opening night uproar that greeted Guy Domville , and that it plunged him into a prolonged depression. The successful later novels, in Edel's view, were the result of a kind of self-analysis, expressed in fiction, which partly freed him from his fears.

Other biographers and scholars have not accepted this account, however; the more common view being that of F. Matthiessen, who wrote: "Instead of being crushed by the collapse of his hopes [for the theatre] Beyond his fiction, James was one of the more important literary critics in the history of the novel. In his classic essay The Art of Fiction , he argued against rigid prescriptions on the novelist's choice of subject and method of treatment.

He maintained that the widest possible freedom in content and approach would help ensure narrative fiction's continued vitality. James wrote many valuable critical articles on other novelists; typical is his book-length study of Nathaniel Hawthorne , which has been the subject of critical debate. Richard Brodhead has suggested that the study was emblematic of James's struggle with Hawthorne's influence, and constituted an effort to place the elder writer "at a disadvantage.

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When James assembled the New York Edition of his fiction in his final years, he wrote a series of prefaces that subjected his own work to searching, occasionally harsh criticism. He would write, in all, over essays and book, art, and theatre reviews for the magazine. For most of his life James harboured ambitions for success as a playwright.

He converted his novel The American into a play that enjoyed modest returns in the early s.

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In all he wrote about a dozen plays, most of which went unproduced. His costume drama Guy Domville failed disastrously on its opening night in James then largely abandoned his efforts to conquer the stage and returned to his fiction. In his Notebooks he maintained that his theatrical experiment benefited his novels and tales by helping him dramatise his characters' thoughts and emotions.

James produced a small but valuable amount of theatrical criticism, including perceptive appreciations of Henrik Ibsen. With his wide-ranging artistic interests, James occasionally wrote on the visual arts. Perhaps his most valuable contribution was his favourable assessment of fellow expatriate John Singer Sargent , a painter whose critical status has improved markedly in recent decades.

Henry James: Biographical context Lamb House 2

James also wrote sometimes charming, sometimes brooding articles about various places he visited and lived in. His most famous books of travel writing include Italian Hours an example of the charming approach and The American Scene most definitely on the brooding side. James was one of the great letter-writers of any era.