Author Henry James: Biography & Novels

Instructor: Megan Pryor

Megan has tutored extensively and has a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Fiction.

In this lesson, we will learn about the famous 19th-century American writer, Henry James. After an examination of his life, we will explore his prominent works and a few of his key thoughts before ending with a short quiz.


Considered one of the most prolific and definitive American writers of the late 19th and early 20th century, Henry James primarily wrote fiction, but he also wrote nonfiction and sometimes worked as a journalist to support his fiction career. He traveled a lot and eventually settled in Europe, going as far as to renounce his American citizenship. Much of his writing focuses on America and England, as well as the cultural differences between the two. He was also a leading figure in the literary realism movement, which meant his work depicted life as it was, rather than a romanticized version of life.

Photograph of Henry James In 1897
Photograph of Henry James


Family and Education

Born in 1843 in New York, Henry James grew up with four siblings: three brothers and a sister. He was the second oldest child. He was close with all his siblings and, late in life, suffered the loss of two of his brothers.

Since his family traveled so much, Henry James received most of his education outside of schools. His father, a lecturer/philosopher, oversaw his education. He was also taught by private teachers. While Henry James originally went to law school, he quit early on and turned his attention to his true passion: books and writing. Ever since he was a child, he loved to read and write.

Travel and Citizenship

The James family traveled extensively, especially to Europe. He continued to travel as an adult. Although American by birth, Henry James received his British citizenship in 1915, a year before his death. Instead of holding dual citizenship, though, Henry James gave up his American citizenship because he disagreed with America's approach to World War I.

While Henry James is one of the most influential American writers of the 19th century, it would be wrong to solely consider him an American writer. His experience in Europe influenced both his writing and his way of thinking about writing.


Although both of his parents were wealthy, Henry James wanted to support himself. He worked as a journalist to support his travels and his fiction writing. For a brief time, he also worked in theater, but did not find success. Unfortunately, Henry James never had a wide enough audience to generate a decent income from his fiction. Later in his life, he ended up relying on his friends financially.


Whether in America or Europe, Henry James connected with fellow writers. In particular, he was friends with a lot of French realist writers who influenced his writing toward realism, one of the qualities he is best known for today. In 1900, Henry James and Edith Wharton became friends. Their friendship had a big impact on both writers and their work. Henry James and Edith Wharton both grew up pre-Civil War and that, combined with their extensive childhood travels, left them nostalgic for a rapidly changing American landscape.


By the time he died in 1916 at the age of 73, Henry James had produced a lot of work. Part of the reason for his prolific nature was his determination to write enough to support himself financially. Even though he wrote 23 novels and over 100 novellas, in addition to volumes of nonfiction, literary criticism, plays, memoirs, and countless letters to his peers, Henry James never earned a comfortable income from his work.

Henry James' most popular novel, The Portrait of a Lady, is also considered one of his best works. The novel follows an independent American woman in Europe who is taken advantage of financially. The Portrait of a Lady was first published in serial form from 1880-1881.

In addition to his novels, Henry James wrote a lot of novellas, many of which are considered among the best examples of the form. The Beast in the Jungle, published as part of a collection in 1903, details the life of a man who wastes his life because he is convinced that something bad will happen to him only to find out, at the end of his life, that wasting his life was the bad thing he had been fearing.

The Turn of the Screw (1898) is also one of Henry James' most important novellas. A horror story, The Turn of the Screw is about a governess who starts to see ghosts. The novella ends with the death of one of the woman's wards, but leaves the reader uncertain about what caused the child's death: the ghost or the governess.


Literary Realism

In his 1884 essay, 'The Art of Fiction,' Henry James wrote, 'The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life.' Literary realism was a new idea when Henry James was alive. Henry James and a handful of other writers alive at the time went to great lengths to write novels that did not compromise the internal reality of the worlds contained inside of their pages.

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