Henry James was one of the most prolific of major American writers, having written more than four million words of fiction and about the same amount of nonfiction; in addition, about fifteen thousand letters are extant. Since James's fiction, whether long or short, is descriptive, pictorial, and dramatic, it is somewhat arbitrary not only to separate the work into subgenres but even to distinguish it totally from his travel writing, critical pieces, letters, and plays. In prefaces to the New York Edition of his fiction (1907-1909), and elsewhere, James tried to define various types of short fiction. For him the tale or short story (he employed the terms interchangeably) is most often a "picture" or "anecdote." Though the distinction between the anecdote and the picture is not always clearcut, the picture is the shorter of the two, and, as James noted, it is intended to create "richly summarised and foreshortened effects ...." The anecdote, James Kraft explains, "is an idea that is too complex for this small canvas of the picture, yet is only directed toward a single character and situation."
A representative "picture" is "The Chaperon" (Atlantic Monthly, November and December 1891; collected in The Real Thing and Other Tales, 1893). Characterized by summary and foreshortening, it depicts a socially ostracized widow who is chaperoned by her spunky daughter back into social acceptance, while Victorian hypocrisy is limned in the background. "The Jolly Corner" (English Review, December 1908; collected in volume 17 of the New York Edition) is a typical "anecdote." The American hero of the story so wonders what he would have been like if he had not expatriated himself to Europe that he actually sees his New York alter ego. Despite clear differences between the two stories, the pictorial tale "The Chaperon" is partly anecdotal, while the fictive anecdote "The Jolly Corner" includes intense pictorial moments. As James once wrote, "I rejoice in the anecdote, but I revel in the picture; though having doubtless at times to note that a given attempt may place itself near the dividing-line."
James also applied the French term nouvelle to some of his short fiction. As Kraft says, "its flexibility does not necessitate for James the restrictions in length ... that he feels apply to the English terms 'short story' or 'tale.'"
Of what James calls "on the dimensional ground-for length and breadth-our ideal, our beautiful and blest nouvelle ," he named as representative "The Death of the Lion" (Yellow Book, April 1894) and "The Coxon Fund" (Yellow Book, July 1894), both collected in Terminations (1895), and "The Next Time" (Yellow Book, July 1895), collected in Embarrassments (1896). They are, respectively, 13,400, 21,300, and 15,100 words in length. Other stories by James, both longer and shorter than these three, might be nominated as better nouvelles. One of the best, "The Beast in the Jungle" (first published in The Better Sort, 1903), succeeds in meeting James's stated challenge for the "blest" genre: "to do the complicated thing with a strong brevity and lucidity-to arrive, on behalf of the multiplicity, at a certain science of control." Dramatizing the numbing fate of the one person in the world to whom nothing happens, the 16,700-word tale displays temporal complication, episodic multiplicity, and pictorial lucidity, and with it controlled compression--given its breadth and range of psychological action. The collection published as The Better Sort also includes two other previously unpublished nouvelles of great power: "The Birthplace" (20,200 words) and "The Papers" (35,000).
Despite these distinctions, Kraft notes "that for James the tale could be whatever he created as long as it is not so extended and inclusive as to enter the complexity and breadth of the novel.The important concern for the short fiction is its economy of purpose. The richness of insight possible within this economy makes the tale fascinating to James." Indeed, as essential as James's definitions are to the analysis of his writings, it is still valuable to categorize his fiction by length. By this criterion James may be said to have written one hundred short stories (under twenty-five thousand words), twelve long short stories (up to fifty thousand words), eleven short novels (up to seventy-five thousand words), and eleven novels (more than seventy-five thousand words). It is worth nothing that James's shortest novel, The Reverberator (1888), at fifty-three thousand words, is more than twelve thousand words longer than his longest story, "A London Life" (Scribner's Magazine, June-September 1888; collected in A London Life, The Patagonia, The Liar, Mrs. Temperly, 1889).
Henry James, Jr., was born at 21 Washington Place (near Waverly Place), in the Greenwich Village section of New York City, on 15 April 1843, the second child of Henry James, Sr., a rich, eccentric philosopher, and Mary Walsh James. The family eventually included four other children: William (1842-1910), Garth Wilkinson (1845-1883), Robertson (1846-1910), and Alice (1848-1892). The future fiction writer's earliest memory was significant: under two years old and in Paris with his parents, he looked out of their carriage and saw the "tall and glorious column" in the Place Vendome. This moment was the start of his lifelong love affair with Europe. By 1861 he had crossed the Atlantic Ocean six times, his purposely rootless parents having by then taken the family to live in France, England, Switzerland, Germany, and New England. Young James studied literature and languages, including French, which he spoke with enviable fluency.
The most psychic experience of his life occurred during his Parisian residence of 1856-1857, when James first visited the Galerie d'Apollon of the Louvre. The gallery was a blaze of titanic art, and at first James regarded it all as a "bridge over to Style," where he "inhaled ... a general sense of glory." But a few years later this lush memory triggered what he described as "the most appalling yet most admirable nightmare of my life." He dreamed of being trapped in a room, with a "creature or presence" on the other side of the locked door and trying to force its way in. James resisted with his shoulder at first, but then became the aggressor, broke out, and pursued "the awful agent," amid lightning and thunder, down a "glorious hall" resembling the Galerie d'Apollon. As Leon Edel analyzes this dream, "Sublimity was indeed the word for it: to resist nightmare, to turn the tables and counter-attack, was consonant with the sense of triumph and glory and conquest and power. Henry James had fought back. And he had won."
In September 1860 the James family returned to America, settling in Newport, Rhode Island, so that William could study painting. During this transitional time Henry James sketched a little, turned to more French literature, and made friends with several brilliant young people in the general region. During the Civil War, William abandoned art, turned to science, and enrolled at Harvard University. Wilky and Bob James joined the Union Army, but Henry stayed out of the war because of an injury. He tried studying at Harvard Law School for the academic year 1862-1863, but he had no intention of pursuing a legal career; instead he attended James Russell Lowell's literature lectures and read in the library. By that time his American friends included John La Farge, Thomas Sergeant Perry, Charles Eliot Norton and his sister Grace Norton, Oliver Wendell Holmes , Jr., William Dean Howells, John Hay, and E.L. Godkin.
At the age of twenty-one he broke into print with an unsigned short story ("A Tragedy of Error," Continental Monthly, February 1864; collected in volume one of The Complete Tales of Henry James, 1962-1964) and an unsigned book review (North American Review, October 1864). He had written more reviews and a dozen more short stories by early 1869, when he began his first adult trip to Europe, going from England to Switzerland to Italy, ultimately his favorite country. This trip helped to form his lifelong pattern of travel, observation, and writing; solitude; friendships with artistic people; and homesickness coupled with an unending puzzlement as to where his true home was. His fourteen months abroad were scarred by the news, received in March 1870, that his beloved cousin Minny Temple had died of tuberculosis. As James remarked in his autobiography, written almost half a century later, his cousin's death marked the end of his youth.
James arrived home in May 1870, went abroad again for two years (May 1872-August 1874), then spent a productive but lonely winter in New York, and finally made the momentous decision to live permanently abroad. By the time he left for Paris in autumn 1875 James had published in periodicals a total of twenty-six short stories and two novels: his first, weak novel, Watch and Ward ( Atlantic Monthly, August-December 1871; published as a book in 1878), and his first mature novel, Roderick Hudson ( Atlantic Monthly. January-December 1875; published as a book in 1876). He had also completed a book of travel essays, Transatlantic Sketches (1875), and collected six tales in A Passionate Pilgrim, and Other Tales (1875).
In Paris he met Ivan Turgenev (who would be his closest professional friend), Gustave Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant, Emile Zola, Edmund de Goncourt, Ernst Renan, and Alphonse Daudet; but he moved to London in December 1876. In London James met or renewed his acquaintance with Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, George Eliot, William Morris, Anthony Trollope, James Anthony Froude, Leslie Stephen, and other literate. He soon gained notoriety, even fame, with his somewhat shocking short stories "Daisy Miller: A Study" (Cornhill Magazine, June and July 1878; published separately in early October of that year, though dated 1879) and "An International Episode" (Cornhill Magazine, December 1878 and January 1879; published separately later in 1879). James also wrote the first book-length biographical-critical treatment of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1879) and then began his master-piece, The Portrait of a Lady (1881).
After completing this great novel, James returned to America in October 1881 but soon found himself a stranger there except to his family. In a notebook he wrote, "I needed to see again les miens, to revive my relations with them .... Apart from this I hold it was not necessary I should come to this country .... I have made my choice ... the old world-my choice, my need, my life." While he was still in America, his mother died, in January 1882. So he stayed on a while, comforting his father, then returned to London in May, only to be summoned across the wintry Atlantic, arriving a few days after the death of his father in December 1882. This time James remained until the following August, helping to settle his parents' estate; but England was now his home; Europe, his professional orientation.
The 1882-1895 period, which James called his "Middle Years," is marked by no fewer than thirty-eight short stories-including many of his finest-as well as "The Art of Fiction" (Longman's Magazine, September 1884), his finest critical essay; three long political novels, The Bostonians (1886), The Princess Casamassima (1886), and The Tragic Muse (1890), all of which were unsuccessful with the public; and half a decade of mostly ineffectual play writing, which climaxed with the disastrous staging of his Guy Domicile in early 1895. James turned again to fiction, writing in his notebook: "I take up my own old pen again-the pen of all my old unforgettable efforts and sacred struggles."
From 1896 until the beginning of World War I James was intensely active. In the summer of 1896 he first saw Lamb House while he was vacationing in Rye, a Sussex coastal town southeast of London. Leasing the solid eighteenth-century mansion the following year (he later bought it for two thousand pounds), he made it his home, his retreat, his sacred sanctuary, and his place of literary business for virtually the rest of his days. In February 1897, seven months before he signed a twenty-one-year title to Lamb House, he published The Spoils of Poynton (serialized in the Atlantic Monthly, as The Old Things, April-October 1896), and What Maisie Knew (serialized in the Chap Book, 15 January-1 August 1897) followed in October. Somewhere between these two novels he shifted into the prolix style of the period F.O. Matthiessen labeled his "major phase." Once settled in Lamb House he wrote William Wetmore Story and His Friends (1903), a biography of an American sculptor in Rome, and then his best travel book, The American Scene (1907), based on his canny observations of his native land during a visit that had lasted from August 1904 to July 1905. Most important, he produced a steady stream of splendid fiction. His short stories from this period include "The Turn of the Screw," "The Beast in the Jungle," "The Birthplace," and "The Jolly Corner." He also wrote two somewhat weak novels, The Awkward Age (1899) and The Sacred Fount (1901), but the most important works of the period are his three monumental major-phase novels: The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904).
From 1896 through 1900 James published some twenty-two short stories; the years 1901-1910 saw a mere fifteen more, partly because James was also writing novels and a biography, partly also because he had undertaken the Herculean, problematic task of selecting and revising fiction for his twenty-four-volume New York Edition (1907-1909), but mostly because at last the Master was beginning to age.
James suffered a prolonged nervous sickness starting in 1909. William James, though also sick, and his charming wife, Alice James, visited James at Lamb House in 1910, and the three vacationed on the Continent that summer. William James grew worse, and the three returned to America, where William died in New Hampshire, August 1910. Desolated by the loss, James remained in America for a year, then returned to Lamb House, to travel no more. He dictated his autobiographical memoirs: A Small Boy and Others (1913), Notes of a Son and Brother (1914), and the incomplete third volume The Middle Years (posthumously published in 1917).
The start of World War I could not silence James the writer, but it did make him indifferent about bringing his autobiography up to the present or about writing of the contemporary scene. He abandoned a novel, which he had titled The Ivory Tower (added in fragmentary form to the New York Edition in 1917). Next, James returned to his long-deferred novel The Sense of the Past (added as a fragment in 1917 to the New York Edition), begun about fifteen years earlier, in his excitement following the notoriety surrounding his "The Turn of the Screw," but in December 1915 James sustained a paralytic stroke. His brother's widow, Alice, crossed the Atlantic Ocean to remain with him until the end. In his final delirium, James dictated palace-renovation orders and signed them Napoleon. And The Louvre, that treasure chest of European art, was again on James's mind long after his dream of its Galerie d'Apollon. On 28 February 1916 Henry James died quietly, technically of edema. After a funeral service in Chelsea Old Church, London, his ashes were deposited in the James family plot, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Most commentators agree that James went through three stages in his fiction writing: a long period of apprenticeship (1864-1881), the middle years (1882-1895), and his major phase (1896-1916). Critics have also attempted to group his themes into categories, which overlap and tend to blur. In 1948 Osborn Andreas treated each of the novels and stories under one of ten thematic categories: emotional cannibalism, consideration for others, love as a deterrent to the full life, the sense of the past, the artistic homage versus the lure of power, attacks on the sheltered life, the mystery of personal identity, false values, the international theme, and fables for critics. Obviously, a given work of fiction, no matter how short, may dramatize two or more of these themes. For example, "Owen Wingrave" (Graphic, Christmas number, 1892, collected in The Private Life, The Wheel of Time, Lord Beaupré, The Visits, collaboration, Owen Wingrave, 1893) features a hero too sensitive to continue his family's tradition of militarism despite pressure from relatives and his financee. The themes of this story include emotional cannibalism (Owen's fiancée meddles), love as a deterrent to a richer emotional life, the sense of the past (Owen reviles his imperialistic forebearers' gory history), the false value of blatant patriotism, and even art versus power (Owen prefers a life of the mind to one of courage-carnage). Despite such overlapping, Andreas's thematic categories are immensely helpful. More recently, in 1975, Gordon Pirie divided James's best stories into four groups according to subject: international tales, stories of artists, tales about children and parents, and stories of middle-aged and old people.
The most significant critic to deal with James's short fiction is Leon Edel. In his general introduction to his twelve-volume edition of James's stories, he characterizes the tales of each of James's three main periods. The early stories "contain a good deal of apprentice-work" about "failure in love, renunciation, the reticence of young men, the unfathomableness of young women, the general fickleness of the female sex." They are often melancholy, romantic, lugubrious, painterly, and reflective; are set mostly in America; and concern personal relations more than plot. Edel characterizes the stories of the middle years as typically studies of international manners, which wittily contrast vulgar American egalitarianism with the rudeness and arrogance of British high society. In these stories James concentrates, according to Edel, on studying the American woman "with a mixture of affection, awe, and profound mistrust." Like most other commentators on James's major phase, Edel notes that beginning in the mid 1890s (the start of the so-called major phase) the Master became less concerned with minute descriptions and with discussions of social behavior, and more interested in studying "states of feeling and ... dilemmas of existence" and in analyzing the unlived life. In these late stories James approaches the existentialist, even the absurdist; he depicts not the visitable, recoverable, and usable past but the empty, useless past, and his realism turns inward, often becoming bleak. At the same time, Edel continues, James delightfully excoriates "the public for its Philistinism."
James published thirty-seven stories between 1864 and 1879. Three of his earliest ones--"The Story of a Year" (Atlantic Monthly, March 1865; collected in The American Novels and Stories of Henry James, 1947), "Poor Richard" ( Atlantic Monthly, June 1867; collected in Stories Revived, 1885), and "A Most Extraordinary Case" (Atlantic Monthly, April 1868; collected in Stories Revived)--were inspired by the Civil War. Since James almost never wrote about types of action or specific locales he did not know at first hand, he deals with the Civil War tangentially, reflexively. "The Story of a Year" and "Poor Richard" focus on selfish nonparticipants. The first story concerns a shallow girl whose faithlessness to her soldier-lover vindicates his coldly distrustful mother. The titular hero of the second story is a weak, alcoholic young civilian whose rich young female neighbor prefers uniformed men to him; Richard lies to one of her army suitors and warns her about another. Each story not only hints at James's personal unease during the war years but also prefigures his developing literary powers; furthermore, both stories concern the dangers of love and meddling. "A Most Extraordinary Case" inchoately contrasts the horrible aftereffects of war on men and the poignant charm of women left behind; in it, war is, in a sense, also a metaphor for the inartistic, materialistic jungle in which most people live.
Some of the other early stories are related to these tales of love lost in war. "The Story of a Masterpiece" (Galaxy, January and February 1868; collected in Eight Uncollected Tales, 1950) is the first of James's works to suggest the vital power of art. Seeming to be following a lead from Hawthorne's "Prophetic Pictures," James's story deals with a jilted lover's painting of his former girlfriend, which reveals her opprobrious inner nature to her present suitor. "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes" (Atlantic Monthly, February 1868; collected in A Passionate Pilgrim, and Other Tales ) is also Hawthornean. As Edel says, James "places the real before us, squarely and objectively, and then skillfully mingles it with the unusual and the eerie, after the fashion of his predecessor [Hawthorne]." In James's tale a man's wife seems to return from the dead to take revenge on the man and her sister, whom he has married in defiance of a vow made to the first wife. A better supernatural tale is "De Grey: A Romance" ( Atlantic Monthly, 1868; collected in Travelling Companions, 1919), which follows the surprising effects of a family curse: all male De Greys are said to vampirize their true loves, but in the story Paul De Grey is drained by Margaret's love for him and dies. This weird story first presents James's sacred-fount theory: that in any sexual relationship one partner ruinously taps the fount of vital energy in the other.
Most of these early pieces, flawed though they are, hint that James was gathering power both stylistic and thematic, but Kraft is correct in nothing that their "worst faults ... are their frequent romantic or melodramatic situations which are often ludicrous, and their unintentionally humorous or mock-sophisticated tone, as if James were not confident enough of what he wanted to say to be serious." Nonetheless, as Edel reports, in 1868 a reviewer for the Nation exclaimed after reading "The Story of a Masterpiece" that "within the somewhat narrow limits to which he confines himself, Mr. James is the best writer of short stories in America."
From 1869 through 1872 James published seven more tales. Of these, "A Light Man" (Galaxy, July 1869; collected in Master Eustace, 1920) is technically the most challenging. As in many of Edgar Allan Poe's tales (including "Ligeia," for example), "A Light Man" contains two stories-one told in the first person by a Europeanized American narrator and the other submerged beneath the lines of his narrative, revealing his contemptible qualities and the dangers of his foreign pseudopolish. Edel notes that in this neglected work James anticipated Joycean stream-of-consciousness by half a century. Better because gentler are "Travelling Companions" (Atlantic Monthly, November and December 1870; collected in Travelling Companions) and "A Passionate Pilgrim" (Atlantic Monthly, 1871; collected in A Passionate Pilgrim, and Other Tales), which build on James's first adult trip to Europe. As Cornelia Pulsifer Kelley shows, "Travelling Companions" "is a mixture of travel report and art criticism with the story incidental and not ... necessary." "A Passionate Pilgrim" may be mainly important because it is the earliest tale which James chose to include in his New York Edition. In "A Passionate Pilgrim" he contrasts two responses to England: one character loves the Old World almost to dementia, while the narrator-observer of this pilgrim's ecstasy avoids such irrationality.
Another pair of stories from this period in James's life reflects his awareness of the dangers of a possessive mother and a competitive brother and thus has interested psychoanalytical critics. The titular hero of "Master Eustace" (Galaxy, November 1871; collected in Stories Revived) is so spoiled, pampered, and blinded to reality by his widowed mother that he never gains maturity. "Guest's Confession" (Atlantic Monthly, October and November 1872; collected in Travelling Companions) features an older stepbrother who behaves viciously toward a swindler whose daughter the younger step-brother loves. The story also presents a western millionaire so crude that, if James regarded him as prophetic of future Americans, it is no wonder the young writer opted for Europe.
In none of the stories considered thus far does James give us a traditional, not to say oldfashioned, treatment along the lines of popular contemporary authors with whom he might be said to have been competing. But in his most unrepresentative short story, "Gabrielle de Bergerac" ( Atlantic Monthly, July-September 1869; published separately in 1918), he attempted a historical nouvelle set in late-eighteenth-century France. Haughty Baron de Bergerac's dowerless maiden sister Gabrielle is courted by a decent though jaded viscount but elopes with her nephew's tutor, Coquelin, to a life of romance, happiness, and ultimate tragedy at the advent of the French Revolution. If it had been written by anyone but James, this story might be better known, for it has romantic charm: Kelley says that it depicts "the anomaly of happy disaster where one suffers for love," while Bruce R. McElderry, Jr., labels it, for that very reason, "probably the least Jamesian of his fiction."
James typically treated love as threatening. For example, "Madame de Mauves" (Galaxy, February and March 1874; collected in A Passionate Pilgrim, and Other Tales ) concerns a beautiful but austerely moral American wife of a philandering French count, who advises that she, too, take a lover. After he repents, fails to win her forgiveness, and commits suicide, her timid American would-be lover thinks of returning to pursue her, but by story's end he has yet to do so.
In other stories written at about this time James dramatized love in unromantic ways. The central painter figure of "The Madonna of the Future" (Atlantic Monthly, 1873; collected in A Passionate Pilgrim, and Other Tales ) adores the model for his projected Madonna, work on which is forever deferred as the model becomes old and faded and the artist sickens and dies. By means of this parable James may be warning all artists, himself included, to stay productive. Parable yields to allegory in "Benvolio" ( Galaxy, August 1875; collected in The Madonna of the Future and Other Tales, 1879), which features a hero vacillating between love of Scholastical (perhaps James's symbol of wise art) and a worldly countess. Only a bit less allegorical is the slightly earlier tale "The Last of the Valerii" ( Atlantic Monthly, January 1874; collected in A Passionate Pilgrim, and Other Tales), which contrasts Martha, the present-day flesh-and-blood American wife of Count Macro Valerio, and an ancient statue of Juno, exhumed on their villa grounds. The count begins worshiping the statue and ignores Martha until she reburies this evidence of the dead, if still potent, Roman past.
James's apprentice years were climaxed by four tales of great merit and continuing charm: "Four Meetings," "Daisy Miller," "An International Episode," and "A Bundle of Letters." "Four Meetings" ( Scribner's Monthly, November 1877; collected in Daisy Miller: A Study. An International Episode. Four Meetings, 1879) is probably James's best short story to that date. Caroline Spencer, a New England schoolteacher, saves her money and travels to Europe, only to be bilked of her money by a deceitful art-student cousin in France. Some time after she returns to drab America with little of Europe but dreams, her cousin dies, and his shabby "Countess" widow comes to live with her. The condescending narrator, who sees Caroline only four times, is a noncommittal meddler whose supercilious tone carries more irony than he realizes.
"Daisy Miller," whose appearance in the June and July 1878 issues of Cornhill Magazine made it the first of James's stories to be published in a British magazine, brought James immediate recognition in England. The story was pirated by magazines in New York and Boston, and the pamphlet version published by Harper on 1 November 1878 sold twenty thousand copies in just a few weeks. Only "The Turn of the Screw" has matched "Daisy Miller" in popular appeal. James had skillfully depicted women and the contrast between American and European manners before, but those stories are seldom as appealing as his tale of the naive young American Daisy Miller and her encounters with Old World ways in Switzerland and then Italy. Her ignorance of the European code that young ladies must be chaperoned leads to her social ostracism and--after at least one stroll with a young man in Rome's unhealthful night air-her pathetic death. Continuing attention from critics and the general public attests to Daisy's immortal vivacity.
"An International Episode" (Cornhill Magazine, December 1878 and January 1879; published separately later in 1879) is James's international "Pride and Prejudice," pitting American pride in hospitality and commercialism, and American prejudice against Britain's social insularism--all this-against British pride in manners, and prejudice against Americans' forwardness and frank talk. In this overly long nouvelle (29,300 words) James presents both sides without taking either.
James is said to have written "A Bundle of Letters" in one sitting. Soon after it was published in the French magazine the Parisian (December 1879) a pirated edition appeared in Boston (January 1880). The story is in the form of some nine letters, written by six different people-two American girls and one prissy American man, one British girl, a Frenchman, and a chauvinistic German male. Kraft locates the drama of the tale "in the inevitably conflicting points of view and interpretations of reality," adding that the "situation is too clever to be serious, but the story is so well written that it is successful."
In the late 1870s and early 1880s James devoted most of his time to writing novels--The Europeans (1878), Confidence (1880), Washington Square (1881), and The Portrait of a Lady-and his Hawthorne . It is understandable then that he did not write the first of what Edel classifies as stories of the middle period until 1882. Another epistolary effort, "The Point of View" (Century, December 1882; collected in The Siege of London, The Pension Beaurepas, and The Point of View, 1883), has been called by S. Gorley Putt not a story but "an animated series of exceedingly witty essays on contemporary America as viewed by different Europeans and Europeanized Americans." A mark of James's general achievement was Macmillan's publication in 1883 of a fourteen-volume edition of his fiction to that date, but this edition includes only thirteen tales, since the first ten slim volumes are taken up with six early novels.
The year 1884 is notable for no fewer than six tales, three of them vintage James: "Lady Barberina" (the spelling was changed to "Barbarina" in the New York Edition), "Pandora," and "The Author of Beltraffio." In "Lady Barberina" (Country Magazine, May-July 1884; collected in Tales of Three Cities, 1884) a rich American physician virtually purchases the best-limbed wife available in British high society, then lives to rue his bargain. Adeline R. Tintner suggests that James uses "the metaphor of horse trading ... to analogies the Anglo-American marriage market," and finds parallels between Jonathan Swift's Houyhnhnms and James's bitter version of England's horsy set. James even finds room in this nouvelle to satirize western American manhood for being, here at least, ineffective and sycophantic. "Pandora" ( New York Sun, 1 and 8 June 1884) and "The Author of Beltraffio" (English Illustrated Magazine, June and July 1884), both collected in The Author of Beltraffio, Pandora, Georgina's Reasons, The Path of Duty, Four Meetings (1885), concern parents and children. The star of "Pandora," one of James's wittiest tales, is Pandora Day, a Daisy Miller bent on surviving. This self-made American girl is so adept that she successfully chaperones her sleepy, wickedly satirized parents, soaring beyond their limited moral horizon and making her way socially in Washington, D.C., to the President himself, from whom she gains a diplomatic post for her fiance. A brilliant touch is James's introduction of the tone-setting Washington couple the Bonnycastles, based on his friends Henry and Marian Adams. One of James's most morbid pieces, "The Author of Beltraffio," features a Christian wife so rigidly righteous that, rather than see her son grow up and read his pagan father's decadent writings, she withholds the sick boy's medicine and lets him die. Andreas calls this tour de force a tale of art opposed by powerful "worldly vested interests," but in truth it is unclassifiable in its horror.
Exhausted by work on his long novels The Bostonians and The Princess Casamassima, James grew restless, moved to a different London flat early in 1886, and from December 1886 to July 1887 vacationed in Italy, the setting for one of his finest stories.
One of the most significant nouvelles in the English language, "The Aspern Papers" (Atlantic Monthly, March-May 1888; collected in The Aspern Papers, Louisa Pallant, The Modern Warning, 1888), was popular at once with the public. Edel devotes fourteen pages to it in Henry James: The Middle Years, explaining that James's inspiration was a story he had heard in January 1887 about Byron's mistress Claire Clairmont, who until her death in 1879 had lived in Florence with a niece and had certain papers of Byron and of Shelley. An odd American man had tried to obtain them by renting rooms in her house. James converts Shelley into Jeffrey Aspern, American poet, and changes the location to Venice, making his first-person narrator an acquisitive American "publishing scoundrel," whose desire to exploit the papers is greater than his willingness to marry their owner's middle-aged niece, whom he perhaps wrongly describes as "a ridiculous, pathetic, provincial old woman." The reader sees more than James's narrator does, recognizing him as a violator of privacy, who cannot measure the historic value of Venice and fails to appreciate the niece's puzzling last speeches.
"The Liar" (Century Magazine, June 1888; collected in A London Life, The Patagonia, The Liar, Mrs. Temperly) is another fable about privacy. In "The Liar" James implicitly asks whether it is worse to tell a lie or to trap someone into doing so. Angry because a woman rejected him and much later married a liar named Colonel Capadose, painter Oliver Lyon wonders if she is blinded by love or if she knows the colonel's true nature. Worse, Lyon leads her to second one of the colonel's prevarications. This climax is dwarfed by James's implication that Lyon has done more than his share of spiritual lying.(Often in James's fiction a character's name--such as Lyon--is a subtle clue to his true nature.)
"The Lesson of the Master" (Universal Review, 16 July and 15 August 1888; collected in The Lesson of the Master, The Marriages, The Pupil Brooksmith, The Solution, Sir Edmund Orme, 1892) is the earliest of six excellent fables about writers and artists, and their audiences. (The others are "The Real Thing," "The Middle Years," "The Death of the Lion," "The Next Time," and "The Figure in the Carpet.") In "The Lesson of the Master" a long-married master British novelist, Henry St. George, advises an aspiring disciple, Paul Overt, to forego marriage to Marian Fancourt and instead to devote all his energy to writing. Paul does so but later discovers that Henry, whose first wife has recently died, has wed Marian himself. The story leaves this question unanswered: Was Henry sincere? "The Real Thing" (Black and White, 16 April 1892; collected in The Real Thing and Other Tales), one of James's most frequently anthologized stories, is another fable, the point of which is that impressive-looking people often cannot model as such for an artist. Real life, being rigid and padded, lacks inspiring flexibility; airy hints of beauty best tease the artist into productivity. This story also satirizes stuffy British aristocracy. Incredibly, this splendid fable is one of ten stories James published in 1892. "The Middle Years" (Scribner's Magazine, May 1893; collected in Terminations) poignantly shows that an ailing novelist in his middle years may die in spite of wanting a second chance to prove himself capable of better work. "A second chance--that's the delusion," laments the failing artist.
The simple but devastating point of "The Death of the Lion" (Yellow Book, April 1894; collected in Terminations) is that high society will lionize a writer or an artist but pay no attention to his work. "The Next Time" ( Yellow Book, July 1895) contrasts a novelist so superb that he cannot write a sloppy popular book no matter how hard he tries and a lady writer who writes best-sellers but longs to succeed with the discerning few and cannot. The lady writer, possibly patterned in part on the then-popular Francis Marion Crawford, whom James knew and envied to a degree, is named Jane Highmore, whose initials, like her professional traits, are the precise reverse of Henry James's. "The Figure in the Carpet" (Cosmopolis, January and February 1896; collected in Embarrassments ) is James's most complex art anecdote. In recent years, especially since the appearance of Shlomith Rimmon's controversial book The Concept of Ambiguity--the Example of James (1977), it has been subjected to critical scrutiny nearly as intense as that applied to "The Turn of the Screw." The "figure in the carpet" is novelist Hugh Vereker's metaphor for the secret pattern underlying and animating his entire life's work. The inept critic-narrator writes a review of Vereker, who calls it routine twaddle but declines to aid the critic, explaining that the artist creates but does not explain, that the audience must respond creatively. That aesthetic dictum is one of James's most central.
Sex, marriage, and parent-offspring relations are also subjects of many short stories written during James's middle period. "The Visits" (published in the 28 May 1892 issue of Black and White as "The Visit"; collected in The Private Life, The Wheel of Time, Lord Beaupré, The Visits, Collaboration, Owen Wingrave) depicts a young lady so remorseful about having revealed her sexual attraction to a young man that she literally dies of shame. In "Georgina's Reasons" (collected in The Author of Beltraffio, Pandora, Georgina's Reasons, The Path of Duty, Four Meetings) the heroine, Georgina Gressie, makes honorable Raymond Benyon promise not to tell anyone that they have secretly married and holds him to it--blithely committing bigamy even as he falls in love hopelessly elsewhere. As Granville H. Jones points out, readers give "neither Georgina nor Benyon ... much sympathy"; he is too "placid and beaten," while she is a Gregorian horror. The story produced a sensation when it appeared in the New York Sun (20 and 27 July, 3 August 1884) and was then republished in the Cincinnati Enquirer under a scare headline about bigamy. In "The Modern Warning" (published in the June 1888 issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine as "Two Countries"; collected in The Aspern Papers, Louisa Pallant, The Modern Warning) a sensitive woman's marriage is torn apart by cultural and political differences between her British husband and her American brother. "A London Life" (Scribner's Magazine, June-September 1888; collected in A London Life, The Patagonia, The Liar, Mrs. Temperly) features a single American girl, Laura Wing, shocked by the actions of Selina Berrington, her married sister, who is cavorting with a bearded lover and justifying the affair on the grounds that her husband is a cad. Krishna Baldev Vaid comments on Selina's "moral depravity," but John A. Clair criticizes Laura's "self-righteous moral indignation" and blames her "encompassing naivete" for her failure to recognize Selina's effort to compromise her so that she cannot testify in Selina's divorce case. In one of James's most unpleasant stories, "The Marriages" ( Atlantic Monthly, August 1891; collected in The Lesson of the Master, The Marriages, The Pupil, Brooksmith, The Solution, Sir Edmund Orme), a daughter wrecks her widowed father's plans for a second marriage and in the process almost ruins the career of her brother, whose marriage to a middle-aged hag their father's financee's money could have annulled. The convoluted plot of this rather mediocre story gives the lie to critics who contend that little happens in a typical Jamesian fiction. Submerged in "The Marriages" is queasy evidence supporting Stephen Spender's conclusion that in his novels and stories James alludes to "the sexual act ... only as the merriest formality."
The most powerful "family story" from James's middle phase is unquestionably "The Pupil" (Longman's Magazine, March and April 1891; collected in The Lesson of the Master, The Marriages, The Pupil, Brooksmith, The Solution, Sir Edmund Orme), one of the finest tales in world literature and often republished. James himself wrote lovingly, in a critical preface, of his inspiration for it: a doctor in Italy gossiped to him about "a wonderful American family, an odd adventurous, extravagant band, of high but rather unauthenticated pretensions, the most interesting member of which was a small boy, acute and precocious, afflicted with a heart of weak action, but beautifully intelligent, who saw their prowling precarious life exactly as it was, and measured and judged it, and measured and judged them, all round, ever so quaintly; presenting himself in short as an extraordinary little person." Yale-trained Pemberton accepts employment in the peripatetic Moreen family to tutor their bright son Morgan Moreen, and hangs on in spite of no pay, adversely judging --as does the boy--the parents as, in Putt's words, "dim social frauds and financial failures." But Pemberton may be close to fraudulent himself: he clings to Morgan too intensely for comfort and learns from him more than he teaches him; an Oxford youth whom Pemberton tutors fails; and when the Moreen family offers to let him adopt their little Morgan he hesitates--fatally.
One other type of story James continued to produce during his middle years was the ghostly tale. Some of the eighteen stories, written throughout James's career, included in The Ghostly Tales of Henry James (1948 [i.e., 1949]) are not particularly ghostly. The best of these stories from the 1890's are "Sir Edmund Orme," "The Private Life," "Sir Dominick Ferrand," "The Altar of the Dead," and "The Turn of the Screw."
The ghosts in "Sir Edmund Orme" (Black and White, Christmas number, 1891; collected in The Lesson of the Master, The Marriages, The Pupil, Brooksmith, The Solution, Sir Edmund Orme ) and "Sir Dominick Ferrand" (published in the July and August 1892 issues of Cosmopolitan Magazine as "Jersey Villas"; collected in The Real Thing and Other Tales) are beneficent. In the first tale the ghost of a frustrated man who committed suicide after he was rejected by a woman scares that woman's daughter into accepting her suitor, who thus need not destroy himself. In the second tale the invisible "ghost" is really only an inspiring occult force: when a young writer suddenly elects to respect a dead man's papers, he is as suddenly rewarded by the deceased's illegitimate daughter, an attractive young widow. These two stories have the happiest endings in all of James's fiction. "The Private Life" (Atlantic Monthly, April 1892; collected in The Private Life, The Wheel of Time, Lord Beaupré, The Visits, Collaboration, Owen Wingrave) is quiet but enormously funny. Symmetrically balanced opposites are the polished statesman Lord Mellifont, so in need of an audience for his windy rhetoric that without it he literally ceases to exist, and playwright Clare Vawdrey, in essence so private that even while he stolidly endures vapid polite socializing his alternate identity is at his desk writing. Vawdrey has a creative private life; Mellifont is nothing but an empty public impression. In their edition of James's notebooks (1947) Matthiessen and Kenneth B. Murdock discuss James's treatment of the artists in public and private: his "treatment of this theme in terms of `alternate identities' [in The Private Life] links the method of his fantasy, as he recognized, with that of his ghost stories." "The Altar of the Dead" (first published in Terminations) is one of James's tenderest and most provocative "ghostly tales." Edel sees behind the story James's feelings about the recent suicide of Constance Fenimore Woolson and even memories of dead Minny Temple. Putt praises James's vital description of external details and his "sustained eloquence." The hero, who has the habit of lighting votive candles for dead friends, meets a woman by candlelight in the church and learns that his dead enemy also wronged her; she then inspires him to burn a final candle for that enemy, whom she long ago had forgiven. That last candle eerily serves both men, as the hero, now spiritually whole, soon dies. Putt calls the confluence of the two men's spirits "clockwork coincidence," but the effect is mystically healing.
In James's most splendid tale, "The Turn of the Screw" ( Collier's Weekly, 27 January-2 April 1898; collected in The Two Magics: The Turn of the Screw; Covering End, 1898), an unnamed governess, who narrates the main story, accepts the challenge of tutoring and overseeing the safety of two young children, Miles and Flora, whose parents are dead and whose handsome, wealthy uncle is indifferent to them, frequently leaving them alone with the servants at his estate, Bly. The governess, who is bright but may well be unstable, begins to see ghosts, and in the course of her narration many questions emerge in the reader's mind: Are the children as innocent as they seem? Are the ghosts real or perhaps living people, or are they projections of the governess's sexually inflamed imagination? James called this ambiguous and provocative story "a piece of ingenuity pure and simple, of cold artistic calculation, an amusette to catch those not easily caught ..., the jaded, the disillusioned, the fastidious." Well over a hundred books and articles have offered different and often contradictory explications of "The Turn of the Screw," some electrifying, others ludicrous.
Roger Gard examined sales figures for several of James short-story collections published in the 1890s and concluded that they "only confirm the impression of James's rapid development into the writer of a small minority."
By 1897 James had entered his "major phase," which is marked most memorably by the publication of three of his finest novels--The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl--but which also includes the earlier, stylistically complex novels such as What Maisie Knew, The Awkward Age, and The Sacred Fount.
James also published thirty-five short stories between 1898 and 1910, when the last short story published during his lifetime, "A Round of Visits," appeared in the April and May issues of the English Review (collected in The Finer Grain, 1910). Edel regards these late tales as radically different from James's earlier short stories, saying that they "might have been written by someone else, so great a change has occurred." He also notes a new trend toward probing the unlived lives of sensitive older men, and concludes that James's vision was becoming more tragic, even existential.
Although no late story by James ever lacks significance, several tales published between 1898 and 1910 are thin. These weaker stories include "John Delavoy" (Cosmopolis, January and February 1898; collected in The Soft Side, 1900), about a critic whose work is too good to please an editor who wants him to make it more chatty; "The Great Condition" (Anglo-Saxon Review, June 1899; collected in The Soft Side), in which a widow rejects a suitor when he becomes suspicious of her past, which is blameless; "Maud-Evelyn" (Atlantic Monthly, April 1900; collected in The Soft Side) featuring an improbable trio--husband and wife, and male traveling companion, whom the couple adopt as their son-in-law, when, in fact, he never met their daughter, who died at age fourteen. Other less important stories include "Miss Gunton of Poughkeepsie" (Cornhill Magazine, May 1900; collected in The Soft Side ), which shows an American girl forcing her Italian fiancé's mother to violate social protocol, and then callously jilting the son; in "Mrs. Medwin" (Punch , 28 August-18 September 1901; collected in The Better Sort) an American wastrel and his half sister get an out-of-favor woman, Mrs. Medwin, back into British society for a fee; in "Mora Montravers" (English Review, August and September 1909; collected in The Finer Grain) free-spirit Mora gets revenge on her meddling aunt, who objects to the girl's lodging with an artist in his studio, by accepting an annuity from her aunt as a bribe to marry him, then leaving him and giving him the annuity. In such stories James was occasionally repeating old situations, letting his readers sniff in their background the dry rot of old social conventions.
Perhaps the finest of James's late-phase short works are "The Great Good Place," "The Two Faces," "The Beldonald Holbein," "Flicker-bridge," "The Beast in the Jungle," "The Birth-place," "The Papers," "The Jolly Corner," and "The Bench of Desolation." All deal with human failure, and each is rich with verbal embroidery.
"The Two Faces" (published in the 15 December 1900 issue of Harper's Bazar as "The Faces"; collected in The Better Sort) and "The Beldonald Holbein" (Harper's New Monthly Magazine, October 1901; collected in The Better Sort) are undervalued little anecdotes concerning jealousy and revenge. The first is filtered decorously through lucidly reflecting points of view; the second is livened by decorous humor. In "The Two Faces" a jilted woman gets even by fatally overdressing her successful female rival for her social debut. The story is critical of high society's penchant for relishing the humiliation of others. In "The Beldonald Holbein" the beautiful Lady Nina Beldonald hires a mousy old woman to be her companion and by her plainness to show off her employer's obvious physical charms; but an artist notices the old woman's resemblance to the subjects of Holbein's paintings and challenges so many painters to want her to sit for them that jealous Nina quickly dumps her and hires a harmlessly drab replacement.
A trio of tales dealing with the dangers of publicity are "Flickerbridge" (Scribner's Magazine, February 1902; collected in The Better Sort) and "The Birthplace" and "The Papers," both published for the first time in The Better Sort . James reviled cheap journalism and sideshows at sacred shrines. In "Flickerbridge" a sensitive American painter visits Flickerbridge, a gracious old estate in northern England, on the recommendation of his pushy journalist fiancee. Charmed by the place and fearing that his fiancee will spoil it with her efforts to publicize it, he breaks their engagement and leaves before she arrives.
"The Birthplace," which F.W. Dupee calls "one of the world's great tales," is a stunning satire. A dreary little librarian who obtains a position as caretaker at the birthplace of a renowned but unnamed English poet is soon grumbling because he is expected to help commercialize the place to increase the tourist trade. He is warned to mend his scholarly ways--and does so with a vengeance: he becomes such a conscienceless barker that he is given a raise. James laments the public's concern with gossip and biographical minutiae, finding it ironic that people would rather visit a famous writer's house than read his writings. "The Papers" focuses on a competent young British reporter and his girlfriend, also a reporter but only mediocre; a publicity-mad nonentity who is a member of Parliament; an equally eager playwright; and a supposedly publicity-shy widow who ultimately hungers to see her name in the tabloids, too. In a notebook entry James identifies the targets of his satire as "different shows of human egotism and the newspaper scramble." In addition, as Putt points out, James cannily included "Edwardian Fleet Street" localcolor touches.
James never stopped playing variations on the theme of lost chances. Versions of it appear in a quartet of excellent late-phase stories--"The Great Good Place," "The Beast in the Jungle," "The Jolly Corner," and "The Bench of Desolation." In "The Great Good Place" (Scribner's Magazine, January 1900; collected in The Soft Side) James invites his readers to sympathize with a probably autobiographical hero who is oppressed one morning by the prospect of unfinished work and a crush of duties in the offing, including breakfast with a young guest who is just arriving. Suddenly he seems to awaken in a new environment, where all is peaceful. Sounds are pleasant, and footsteps are slow all about. When he eventually returns to reality, he finds himself rejuvenated and his affairs simplified by his young guest. McElderry calls the dream locale "a kind of monastic retreat," perhaps symbolizing "some inner resource, some privacy into which the round of daily concerns does not enter." The sense of this Shangri-La within each individual must never be lost, James seems to say, no matter how overwhelming the mundane may become.
"The Beast in the Jungle" (first published in The Better Sort), one of James's very best stories, examines psychoneurotic John Marcher, who declines to love May Bartram because he feels that out of the jungle of his life a special beast will spring at him: "a man of feeling didn't cause himself to be accompanied by a lady on a tigerhunt." He is, however, happy to let her wait with him for the advent of that special something which will make his life extraordinary. As she ages into something resembling an artificial lily under glass, or even an impenetrable sphinx, she comes to understand what that something will be. She dies devotedly hoping that he will never know the truth; but when Marcher visits her grave, he chances to see the face of a nearby mourner seared by grief and realizes too late that his fate is to be the one man in all the world to whom nothing happens. Clifton Fadiman calls "The Beast in the Jungle" a "myth ... [which] gathers up in its sinuosities a part of the prime and universal experience of mankind. From it even the palest stain of the trivial is absent." Its images of hunting, floating, stabbing, burning, and finally freezing are nightmare elements in a tale of urban loneliness and loss.
"The Jolly Corner" (English Review, December 1908; collected in volume 17 of The Novels and Tales of Henry James, the New York Edition) presents a long-expatriated American who wonders intensely--as James himself must have wondered, particularly after his 1904-1905 visit to America--what he would have been like if he had stayed in his native land and sought "success" rather than culture. Late at night he visits his boyhood home and suddenly finds himself face to face with his alter ego. Almost as frequently anthologized as "The Beast in the Jungle," this story is enlivened by autobiographical touches, a love interest, and no little ambiguity to challenge its readers.
"The Bench of Desolation" (Pulnam's Magazine, October-December 1909, January 1910; collected in The Finer Grain) is lengthy (18,200 words) and morbid. Long ago warned by his fiancee Kate Cookham that if he did not go through with marriage she would sue him, Herbert Dodd paid her off, married another, became a widower, and staggered for a decade under crushing debt. Then Kate returns with his capital plus interest, explaining that she aimed only to test him and has loved only him. She spurns a suitor to prove that fact and shares a bench with him. In spite of Edmund Wilson's early praise of "The Bench of Desolation" as "beautifully written and wonderfully developed...[,] a sort of poem of loneliness and poverty," Putt is surely closer to the truth when he labels the story a "morbidly masturbatory minor achievement ...." The work has value as absurdist lyric, but James himself might not have been fully aware of the depth of its implications.
The sales of James's books of short fiction during his major phase were slightly better than those of several earlier collections. Though these books did not sell phenomenally, James became increasingly respected by discerning critics and a loyal coterie of admirers. According to Edel, "the tales he collected in the three volumes of the new century, The Soft Side of 1900, The Better Sort of 1903 and The Finer Grain of 1910, remain among the most important fiction written during America's gilded age and England's Edwardian era." Never popular with the masses, James's works were little read for about a quarter of a century following his death in 1916. But during World War II James began to be appreciated again, and the socalled James boom has shown no letup.
James's writings are psychologically profound and stylistically challenging; yet, as Richard P. Blackmur concludes, not even his two best subjects--social conventions and the artistic vocation--were "ever enough to bring out in James a mastery of substance equal to his mastery of form." Still, he mounted his psychological dramas with taut excitement and painterly charm. In his depictions of the clash of American innocence and Old World sophistication, his naïfs may often fail to achieve personal joy or social success, but they are exemplars of morality. They illustrate the worth of consideration and forgiveness over meddling, coercion, and revenge. They expose false values such as unthinking patriotism, ambition for fame and position, and fatal pride in appearance, pedigree, and social connections. James had faith in art rather than formal religion, established power, and the "things" of this world. Ever antiromantic and individualistic, he espoused professional freedom over personal "love," aesthetic involvement rather than smug Philistinism, aloofness, and the unlived life.
James's complex style attracts only active, ingenious readers. His diction, syntax, descriptions, dialogue, imagery, tone, and indirections are subtly nuanced. His use of the restricted point of view makes his fiction especially difficult to read, and modern; the reader shares the limits and delusions of James's supersubtle fry, as he called his reflectors of fine consciousness. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Eugene O'Neill, among others, James presents more challenging dilemmas than pontifical answers.
Henry James saw ahead of his age, and hence his work wears well. He tentatively explored eroticism, imaginative quests through time and beyond the caged psyche, existential negativism, and even postmodern absurdism. Much refined fiction in English after James, and perhaps a great deal not in English as well, has been at least indirectly influenced by his theory and practice. James perpetually exercised his probing, recording aesthetic consciousness.
Gale, Robert L. "Henry James." American Short-Story Writers Before 1880, edited by Bobby Ellen Kimbel and William E. Grant, Gale, 1988. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 74.