The Ambassadors | Study Guide

Henry James

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Henry James | Biography


Early Life and Family

Born into an intellectual and influential 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 (1842–1910). William became an esteemed Harvard professor known for his impact on philosophy and the emerging field of psychology. Journeys to Europe as children gave the five James siblings a sense of global citizenship.

Education and Early Writing Career

James began studies at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when he was 19. His childhood fascination with Europe led him, in 1869, to begin a long process of emigration to that continent—living in France, Italy, Switzerland, and England. In 1876 he moved to England and established himself as a leading literary figure there. He befriended European realist writers such as Gustave Flaubert (1821–80), Ivan Turgenev (1818–83), and Guy de Maupassant (1850–93). Two of James's early works, Daisy Miller (1878) and The Portrait of a Lady (1881), deal with cultural clashes between young, hopeful American women and the traditional, unforgiving "Old World" of Europe. James's 1898 short story "The Turn of the Screw," a 12-part ghost story serialized in Collier's Weekly magazine, was a smashing success in the author's own time and today is considered one of the most frightening and compelling ghost stories ever written. It has been the topic of thousands of pages of scholarly debate over how to interpret the story and how to assess James's intent regarding the nature of psychological madness or supernatural evil.

Later Years and Legacy

In the 1890s James suffered personal troubles. The deaths of both his sister and another close friend affected him deeply. He had begun to write plays, and they were not well received. His 1895 play, Guy Domville, was a critical and popular failure. Still drawn to theater, James used dramatic and experimental storytelling in his prose. His experiments led to the creation of three impressive novels that helped mark what scholars call the "major phase" in James's writing career. Between 1902 and 1904, James published three novels: The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), though written before The Wings of the Dove) and The Golden Bowl (1904). In 1905, after 20 years abroad and two years after the publication of The Ambassadors, James visited America. However, he was troubled by his homeland's materialism and also by the changes brought about by industrialization. He returned to England and continued to write. In 1915 he became a British citizen. He died the following year in London on February 28, 1916. James critic Adeline Tintner has argued that James dominated the fiction "not only of his contemporaries ... but also of our current writers," comparing him to a "lion in the path."

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