Henry James, whose mastery of the psychological novel markedly influenced twentieth-century literature, was born in New York City. His father, Henry James, Sr., was an unconventional thinker who had inherited considerable wealth and was a follower of Swedenborgian mysticism, a belief system devoted to the study of philosophy, theology, and spiritualism, and socialized with such eminent writers as Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Washington Irving, and William Makepeace Thackeray. James’s older brother, William James, profoundly influenced the emerging science of psychology through his Principles of Psychology (1890) and The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). He also distinguished himself as an exponent of a brand of philosophical pragmatism he named “radical empiricism,” the idea that beliefs do not work because they are true but are true because they work.
The James children were educated in a variety of schools and with private tutors, in what James later called “small vague spasms” of schooling augmented by his father’s extensive library. In 1855, the James family began a three-year tour of Geneva, London, and Paris, an experience that probably influenced James’ later preference for Europe over his native land. After a year at Harvard Law School, he began writing short stories and book reviews. He continued to travel widely from a base in England, where he chose to settle. He became a British subject in 1915, a year before his death at the age of seventy-three. By the time James died, he had written more than a hundred short stories and novellas, as well as literary and dramatic criticism, plays, travel essays, book reviews, and twenty novels, including The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Bostonians (1886), The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904).
Although James had many friends and acquaintances, he maintained a certain reserve toward most people. An “obscure hurt,” as James later described a mysterious early injury he suffered in connection with a stable fire, haunted him throughout his life. He never married, and the absence of any known romantic attachments has led some critics to speculate that he was a repressed or closeted homosexual. Others attribute the reason for James’ lifelong celibacy to the early death of his beloved cousin Mary “Minny” Temple, the model for several of his heroines.
James was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature three times. He died in London in 1916.