For several decades Henry James’ essays have been collected and studied by scholarly connoisseurs, and are now attracting the wider audience for which they were intended.
The Library of America Editions of his literary criticism (1984) and his travel writings (1993) have rescued many pieces from the obscurity of earlier anthologies and periodicals. Further, the recent attention paid to his works of cultural criticism notably The American Scene (1907) and Italian Hours (1909)—has enhanced his status as an observer of national types and the play of differences. Cognizant of the power of richly textured language, James was equally aware of the limits of his own mastery. Even his most polemical efforts (e.g. “The Question of Our Speech,” 1905) are characterized by their self-conscious use of the first person. And his prefaces to his fiction, once read as a formalist manifesto, are best appreciated as personal essays tinged with uncertainty as well as fond reminiscence.
Ironically, the young critic was far more dogmatic than the seasoned writer known to his disciples as “cher maître.” British and American novels, he complained in his early reviews, were dull and formless; French fiction was “intolerably unclean” (review of Goncourt’s La Fille Elisa, 1877); the mass public consisted of “jolly barbarians of taste who read …only for what they call the ‘story’” (“Marian Rooke,” 1865). His occasional reviews of drama and art exhibitions likewise reflect the brashness of an aspiring elitist whose model was Matthew Arnold, and whose sense of cultural mission was fostered by the journals to which he contributed: the Atlantic Monthly, the Galaxy, the Nation, and the North American Review.
However, James’ critical judgments became more flexible, especially following his expatriation from the United States in 1875. Writing to Thomas S.Perry, he had expressed his hope for “a vast intellectual fusion and synthesis of the various National tendencies of the world” (20 September 1867); yet, as he admitted in “Paris Revisited” (1878), an “uncomfortable consequence” of being a cosmopolitan was “seeing many lands and feeling at home in none.” Reviewers of his French Poets and Novelists (1878) were struck by the inconclusiveness of such pieces as the essay on Balzac, criticized for being “morally and intellectually so superficial” but lauded for his “incomparable power.”
Eventually James focused on the subjects he found personally compelling. In a letter he told his British publisher, Frederick Macmillan, that the title of Partial Portraits (1888)—his most important collection of essays on other writers—contains a pun, suggesting “both that the picture is not down to the feet, as it were, and that the appreciation is favourable” (21 March 1888). Balancing sympathy with judgment, he paid tribute to his elders (Emerson, George Eliot, Turgenev) while also considering younger contemporaries (Alphonse Daudet, Guy de Maupassant) whose “cases” he found instructive. Appropriately, the volume concludes with “The Art of Fiction” (1884), which is less a defense of realism than a paean to the artist’s mind: “Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spiderweb of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every airborne particle in its tissue.” As Mark Spilka (1973) has noted, James was aware of his growing distance from his audience, but he opened the way for himself and other writers to create a new audience of “uncommon readers.” And as William Veeder (1985) has observed, James became more generous—especially to such “unclean” authors as Zola— when he replaced “the rigidity of a priori propositions with the suppleness of metaphor.”
This style is the hallmark of James’ prefaces to the New York edition of his novels and tales (1907–09). Whereas detractors were bemused by his late manner, admirers sought to abstract theories from his richly metaphorical prose. A disciple, Percy Lubbock, expounded the principle of “showing, not telling” in The Craft of Fiction (1921); and R.P.Blackmur, who collected the prefaces in The Art of the Novel (1934), presented them as “an essay in general criticism.” But contemporary readers have noticed James’ disclaimers of formalist mastery: his confessions to lapses of memory as he tells “the story of [his] story,” his statement that the novel appears “more true to its character as it strains or tends to burst, with a latent extravagance, its mould,” and his admission that there were “more of the shining silver fish afloat in the deep sea of [his] endeavour than the net of widest casting could pretend to gather in.” Here as in his later travel writings, the “restless analyst” creates a first-person narrative which undermines definitive interpretation.
“Is There a Life After Death?” (1910), James’ most philosophical essay, affirms his desire for ongoing process rather than closure. Despite the apparent finality of death, he refuses to regard the question as settled because—“speaking for myself only and keeping to the facts of my experience—it is above all as an artist that I appreciate this beautiful and enjoyable independence of thought” which “refers me to realizations I am condemned as yet but to dream of… I reach beyond the laboratory-brain.” For James and his many followers, uncertainty itself becomes the basis of a humanistic tradition. And his advice to aspiring authors—“Oh, do something from your point of view” (“Letter to the Deerfield Summer School,” 1889)—echoes through today’s classrooms and writing workshops.
Born 15 April 1843 in New York City. Brother of the philosopher William James.
Studied at the Richard Pulling Jenks School, New York; traveled in Europe with his family during youth, studying with tutors in Geneva, London, Paris, Boulogne, and Bonn, 1855–60; lived with family in Newport, Rhode Island, 1860–62. Studied at Harvard Law School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1862–63. Contributor to the Nation and the Atlantic Monthly, 1866–69 (art critic, 1871–72). Traveled in Europe, 1869–70, then returned to Cambridge. Lived in Europe, 1872–74, and Cambridge, 1875. Moved to Paris, 1875; contributor to New York Tribune, Paris, 1875–76; lived in England for the rest of his life, first in London, from 1876, then in Rye, Sussex, from 1896; traveled in the United States, 1904–05. Became a British citizen, 1915.
Awards: honorary degrees from Harvard and Oxford Universities; Order of Merit, 1916. Died in Rye, 28 February 1916.
Essays and Related Prose
Transatlantic Sketches, 1875; revised edition, as Foreign Parts, 1883
French Poets and Novelists, 1878; revised edition, 1883; edited by Leon Edel, 1964
Portraits of Places, 1883
A Little Tour in France, 1884; revised edition, 1900
Partial Portraits, 1888
Essays in London and Elsewhere, 1893
English Hours, 1905; edited by Alma Louise Lowe, 1960
The American Scene, 1907; edited by Leon Edel, 1968, and John F. Sears, 1994
Views and Reviews, 1908
Italian Hours, 1909; edited by John Auchard, 1992
Notes on Novelists with Some Other Notes, 1914
Within the Rim and Other Essays 1914–1915, 1919
The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces, edited by R.P.Blackmur, 1934
The Scenic Art: Notes on Acting and the Drama, 1872–1901, edited by Allan Wade, 1948
The Art of Fiction and Other Essays, edited by Morris Roberts, 1948
The Painter’s Eye: Notes and Essays on the Pictorial Arts, edited by John L.Sweeney, 1956
The American Essays, edited by Leon Edel, 1956
The Future of the Novel: Essays on the Art of the Novel, edited by Leon Edel, 1956; as The House of Fiction: Essays on the Novel, 1957
Parisian Sketches: Letters to the New York Tribune, edited by Leon Edel and Ilse Dusoir Lind, 1957
Literary Reviews and Essays on American, English, and French Literature, edited by Albert Mordell, 1957
The Art of Travel: Scenes and Journeys in America, England, France and Italy, edited by Morton Dauwen Zabel, 1958
French Writers and American Women: Essays, edited by Peter Buitenhuis, 1960
Selected Literary Criticism, edited by Morris Schapira, 1963
Literary Criticism (Library of America Edition), edited by Leon Edel and Mark Wilson, 2 vols., 1984
The Art of Criticism: Henry James on the Theory and Practice of Fiction, edited by William Veeder and Susan M.Griffin, 1986
The Critical Muse: Selected Literary Criticism, edited by Roger Gard, 1987
Collected Travel Writing (Library of America Edition), 2 vols., 1993
Traveling in Italy with Henry James, edited by Fred Kaplan, 1994
Other writings: many novels (including The Europeans, 1878; Washington Square, 1881; The Portrait of a Lady, 1881; The Bostonians, 1886; What Maisie Knew, 1897; The Sacred Fount, 1901; The Wings of the Dove, 1902; The Ambassadors, 1903; The Golden Bowl, 1904), novellas (including Daisy Miller, 1878; The Aspern Papers, 1888; The Spoils of Poynton, 1897; The Turn of the Screw, 1898), short stories, several plays, correspondence, and works on travel, literature, and art.
Collected works edition: The Novels and Tales (New York Edition; includes the prefaces), 24 vols., 1907–09.
Bradbury, Nicola, An Annotated Critical Bibliography of Henry James, Brighton: Harvester, 1987
Budd, John, Henry James: A Bibliography of Criticism, 1975–1981, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1983
Edel, Leon, Dan H.Laurence, and James Rambeau, A Bibliography of Henry Jatnes, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982
McColgan, Kristin Pruitt, Henry James, 1917–1959: A Reference Guide, Boston: Hall, and London: Prior, 1979
Ricks, Beatrice, Henry James: A Bibliography of Secondary Works, Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1975
Scura, Dorothy McInnis, Henry James, 1960–1974: A Reference Guide, Boston: Hall, and London: Prior, 1979
Taylor, Linda J., Henry James, 1866–1916: A Reference Guide, Boston: Hall, 1982
Auchard, John, Introduction to Italian Hours by James, edited by Auchard, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992; London: Penguin, 1995
Blackmur, R.P., Introduction to The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces by James, New York: Scribner, 1934
Daugherty, Sarah B., The Literary Criticism of Henry James, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1981
Fogel, Daniel Mark, editor, A Cotnpanion to Henry James Studies, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1993
Gervais, David, “Deciphering America: The American Scene,” Cambridge Quarterly 18 – 1989):349–62
Good, Graham, “Henry James: Patterns of Art and Life,” in his The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay, London and New York: Routledge, 1988:90–111
Griffin, Susan M., The Historical Eye: The Texture of the Visual in Late James, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991
Jones, Vivien, James the Critic, London: Macmillan, 1984; New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985
Leitch, Thomas M., “The Editor as Hero: Henry James and the New York Edition,” Henry James Review 3 (1981–82):24–32
Lubbock, Percy, The Craft of Fiction, London: Cape, and New York: Scribner, 1921
MacDonald, Bonney, Henry James’ Italian Hours: Revelatory and Resistant Impressions, Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1990
Maini, Darshan Singh, “Henry James: The Writer as Critic,” Henry James Review 8 (Spring 1987):189–99
Miller, James E., Jr., editor, Theory of Fiction: Henry James, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972
Roberts, Morris, Henry James’s Criticism, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1929
Rowe, John Carlos, The Theoretical Dimensions of Henry James, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984; London: Methuen, 1985
Schwarz, Daniel R., The Humanistic Heritage: Critical Theories of the English Novel from James to Hillis Miller, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, and London: Macmillan, 1986
Spilka, Mark, “Henry James and Walter Besant: ‘The Art of Fiction’ Controversy,” Novel 6 (Winter 1973):100–19
Veeder, William, “Image as Argument: Henry James and the Style of Criticism,” Henry James Review 6 (Spring 1985):171–81
Wellek, René, “Henry James’s Literary Theory and Criticism,” American Literature 30 (November 1958):293–321
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