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The American | Study Guide

Henry James

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Henry James | Biography


Author Henry James was born April 15, 1843, in New York City. His childhood was spent in a variety of locations, from Manhattan to the famous European cities of Paris, London, and Geneva. By the time the family settled in Rhode Island, James and his brother William were fluent in several languages and were extremely well traveled. James attended Harvard Law School, and while there he developed his taste for literature. After a few years his stories and book reviews began to appear in print, including in The Atlantic Monthly, and his popularity grew.

In 1869 James set off again for Europe and spent a year traveling throughout France, England, and Italy. He continued to write as he moved between the United States and Europe, seemingly unable to decide whether he wanted to live in the States or abroad. Eventually he settled on Europe, moving to Paris in 1875 and living there for two years. It was during this time period that James wrote The American, and the novel reflects his own experience as an American living in Paris as well as his considerable familiarity with differences between European and American culture. The American was published as a serial in The Atlantic Monthly in 1876, and in 1877 it was released in novel form. James also wrote a play based on the novel, which was performed in 1891.

At the time James was viewed as a talented writer with a verbose literary style, but critics noted his flaws: his plots were often lackluster and his characters often unsympathetic. Indeed, initial reactions to The American focused on the resolution of the plot, which many American readers found unsatisfying. Christopher Newman's lack of success made readers feel they had misplaced their confidence in the story's hero. The New York Times suggested that Newman should have rescued Claire from the convent in a dramatic fashion and carried her off. The fact that Newman simply returns to his old life felt anticlimactic. In contrast some English critics saw Newman as a typical American, without manners, and found his threats to the Bellegarde family selfish. Over time readers' tolerance for tragic or unsatisfying endings grew, and their demand for exclusively plot-driven writing waned, leading some scholars to suggest that James was ahead of his time.

In 1876 James moved to England and established himself as a leading literary figure there. However, his fiction continued to reflect themes and subject matter found in The American, including the well-known The Portrait of a Lady (1881), whose main character is a young American woman living abroad. In the 1890s James dabbled in playwriting, though not with much success. It was in this period that he wrote the famous novella The Turn of the Screw. In 1905 after 20 years abroad, James visited America, but he was troubled by its materialism and the changes brought about by industrialization. He returned to England and continued to write short stories and novels. In 1915 James became a British citizen. He died the following year on February 28, 1916, in London.

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