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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 352


This is the grave of Henry James.

Born in 1843 to old New York money, Henry grew up in luxury. He and his family, which of course included his brother, the philosopher William James, and his sister, the diarist Alice James, moved around from Newport to Paris to points in between. Interestingly, while Henry stuttered when he spoke English, he did not when he spoke French, his second language. As a young man, he became friends with Honoré de Balzac, and the writer was a huge influence on his fiction and his life. He went to Harvard and then Harvard Law, but realized he cared much more about books than law. He hung out with William Dean Howells, Charles Eliot Norton, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, talking the intellectual life and writing as much as he could.

He traveled extensively in Europe and decided in 1869 to live permanently in London. He spent nearly the rest of his life in Europe, taking only a couple of trips to the United States. And of course he became the great novelist of the elite American ex-pat world. Novels such as The American, The Europeans, Washington Square, Daisy Miller, and The Portrait of a Lady are among the most important works of Gilded Age fiction and were hugely successful in his own time, along with what is probably his most well-read piece today, The Turn of the Screw.

Other than writing, James basically hung out with the leading intellectuals of Europe. He was close friends with Turgenev, knew Zola, Maupassant, Stevenson, etc. He was heavily influenced by Zola and the French realists, which was evident in books like The Bostonians, which did not sell well. He started writing for the stage as well, but his plays were generally not well-received and aren’t much read or performed today. Although he was rich by American standards, by the standards of Europe in which he lived he was middle-class at best, so he needed money as he spent a lot. Thus, he began translating works into English for that sweet, sweet cash. He finally returned to the U.S. in 1904, a very different country than when he left, which he then wrote about in The American Scene. It was around this time as well that James published several of what are considered his greatest novels–The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl.

Many have speculated about James’ sexuality. A lifelong bachelor, some biographers have claimed that James was more or less asexual or afraid of sex, others that he was secretly gay but would never act upon it. Personally, I find reading modern ideas of sexuality into the past incredibly tedious and largely ahistorical. I understand wanting to create histories of sexuality that connect the relative liberation of today into the relative repression of the past, but I’m not sure most of these speculations do much more than confirm the desires of modern authors and readers.

I confess that I have read very little of James’ work and what I have read was a long time ago. I don’t necessarily dislike Gilded Age literature. I think Howells was pretty great and that The Rise of Silas Lapham says more about the Gilded Age than any other piece of fiction I have read. I think my general disinterest, at least in the sense of choosing to read James, is the elite ex-pat world that I don’t much care about. Of course Silas Lapham was elite too, but he was new money and that is what makes the novel so great for me. Obviously, I should reconsider my reading habits, but there are a lot of books out there and not a lot of time.

Henry James died in 1916 in London. He is buried in Cambridge Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other 19th century authors, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Walt Whitman is in Camden, New Jersey and Harriet Beecher Stowe is in Andover, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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