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Daisy Miller | Study Guide

Henry James

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Henry James | Biography


Born into a powerful, intellectual family on April 15, 1843, Henry James spent his early life in New York City. He was a shy, well-read child who had a lifelong friendship and rivalry with his older brother, William James, the esteemed Harvard professor known for his impact on the emerging field of psychology before turning his attention to philosophy, where he had a similarly large impact. Trips to Europe as children gave the five James siblings a sense of global citizenship and bred cultural differences.

James began Harvard Law School in Boston when he was 19 but began publishing short stories two years later. In 1869 his childhood fascination with Europe led him to begin the long process of emigrating to Europe—living in France, Italy, Switzerland, but mostly in England. During one trip to Europe, he befriended European realist writers like Gustave Flaubert, Ivan Turgenev, and Guy de Maupassant. Two of James's early works, Daisy Miller (1878) and his novel The Portrait of a Lady (1880–81), deal with cultural clashes between young, hopeful American women and the traditional, unforgiving "Old World" of Europe.

James was in Switzerland for three months and Rome for six months between 1872 and 1873. As documented in his travel journals, he found the social scene in Geneva, Switzerland, to be particularly stultifying—life there seemed "artificial" and "in want of a sense of humor." This memory, combined with an anecdote James heard in 1877 about a young American woman in Rome, helped him shape the basic plot of Daisy Miller, about an innocent young American woman inadvertently defying cultural norms. His initial attempts to publish the story were met with rejection. Many publishers were worried that their audiences would react negatively to a story that presented "American girlhood" in such a negative light. Leslie Stephen, editor of The Cornhill Magazine (and father to influential British novelist Virginia Woolf), had no such qualms and printed Daisy Miller in the magazine over two installments during the summer of 1878. More than 20,000 copies were sold, and both parts were combined into a book the next year.

In the 1890s James had begun to write plays, and they weren't being well received: his 1895 play Guy Domville was a critical failure. Still drawn to theater, he began using dramatic and experimental storytelling in his prose, which led to 1898's The Turn of the Screw. It is still known as one of the most frightening and compelling ghost stories ever written. He continued to write short stories and novellas, including some of his most famous novels, such as The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904), all three of which continue to explore the theme of Americans in Europe. James died on February 28, 1916, in London, a year after becoming a British subject.

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