James was an extremely prolific writer. He wrote for 51 years, producing an oeuvre of 20 novels, 112 stories, 12 plays and numerous works of literary criticism. His main themes explored the conflict between the innocence of the New World and the sophistication and wisdom of the Old, which he most vividly depicted via sensitive portraits of young American heroines whose travels abroad inevitably lead to clashes of manner and ideology.
With his so-called "International Theme," James takes what is best in the American character - and his Americans can have remarkable vigor and freshness - and he attempts to merge it with the great European achievement. It is with such an ambition that James sweeps his generally appealing Americans over the sea, and then makes them - amiable people who love their liberty - squint hard into the complicating mists of history.
In The American, Christopher Newman goes to Paris and in all innocence first mistakes a marquis for a butler, and then mistakes an aristocratic family's ruthlessness for merely stubborn manners. Yet it is unwise to make too much of Americans deceived by wear Europeans who have steeped so long in experience tat their every move has become cautious, calculated, shrewd, and manipulative. James's Europeans have learned over time what his Americans do not yet know, that survival is never secure, that great care must always be taken, that bad air blankets the town every night, that a swift carriage of a dark night can smash into a wall, that it is not so easy to discover a mountain of gold, that one can never be sure of a lover, or in fact sure of anything.
Certain Jamesian obsessions stand out from the start, in particular the ambivalent fascination of strong, independent (often American) women, and the threatening prospect for a man of being closely involved with one of them. If magazine fiction seems to move ineluctably towards satisfying resolutions, the elements within the stories struggle not to accept such a desired pattern. From the start of James's career, things work out only at great cost.
In 1904, the long-expatriated Henry James would board the Kaiser Wilhelm II and disembark in Hoboken, New Jersey. He had not stepped on native ground for over twenty years. The book that grew out of his visit, The American Scene (1907), captures the drama of returning to places changed beyond recognition or simply obliterated in the name of progress. James poses a number of questions about the workings of human memory and the relationship between history and place, but above all he wonders whether there is such an entity as an “American character,” and how it might be found.
James has always been a writer’s writer. His novels in the Atlantic formed the next generation’s sense of what a novel was and was not. Willa Cather, who praised Atlantic readers for having some familiarity with French, took James as her example. “For me,” she remembered, “he was the perfect writer . . . the foremost mind that ever applied itself to literature in America.” “All students imitate,” she told an interviewer, and “I began by imitating Henry James.”
By the time Henry James emerged on the American literary scene, serial publication of novels in magazines prior to book publication had become indispensable to the professional survival of a serious author.
Moreover, in each of these early novels, James appeared to have been at pains to keep the length of each installment within appropriate bounds and to create texts that lent themselves to interrupted reading Not only are the installments of these early serials regular in length, their endings suggest that James occasionally used the delay created by serial issue to create anticipation for the next installment. In Watch and Ward, installments tend to conclude with a revelation designed to create suspense, such as one that closes with an intimation that Roger's illness will prove fatal.
In November 1875 a 32-year-old Henry James rented an apartment in Paris, the city where he thought he might like to live permanently, though, at the end of a year, he moved to London. In London, or later in a country house in Rye on the Sussex coast, he made his home, and in London he died in 1916 after forty years of a life spent mostly in England. Though he often crossed the Channel to France or Italy, there were only a very few returns to his native land. Such expatriation was, in his day, remarkable.
Henry James was born on April 15, 1843 in Washington Square, New York, into a wealthy New England family. His father, Henry James Sr., was one of the best-known intellectuals in mid-19th-century America, whose friends included Thoreau, Emerson and Hawthorne, and his older brother, William, earned fame in his own field of pragmatic philosophy.