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The Ambassadors

Henry James

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Henry James was born in New York City into an intellectually gifted and financially secure family on April 15, 1843. His father, Henry James, Sr., was a well-known theologian and thinker, and his mother, Mary Robertson Walsh, was the daughter of a wealthy Albany cotton merchant and a devout Presbyterian. Henry was the second of five children born to the couple. His siblings include the distinguished philosopher and psychologist William James and the noted diarist Alice James. The family spent Henry’s early years traveling back and forth across the Atlantic, and he was subsequently educated in Geneva, Paris, London, and Bonn. At 19, he spent a year at Harvard Law School but did not find inspiration or contentment in the study of law. Two years later, he published his first short story, “A Tragedy of Errors” (1864), and decided to dedicate himself entirely to writing literature. Soon after, James became a frequent contributor to the Nation and Atlantic Monthly magazines, where he published short fiction, essays, and other types of writing for the next six years.

In 1876, after a short sojourn to Paris as a contributor to the New York Tribune, James settled in England, where he would reside for the remainder of his life. As an American in England, James found not only the environment that best suited his personal comfort but also one that fascinated him enough to drive his greatest literary works. The publication of Daisy Miller (1878), the story of a naïve American girl attempting to navigate the complex corridors of European high society, established James as a writer of international success and set forth what would become one of James’s most reoccurring topical concerns: the American abroad. The post–Civil War economic upswing had made many wealthy Americans eager to visit the Old World. The refined cultural trappings of European culture, however, often left brusque Americans feeling alienated and unsure. This common occurrence gave James’s interest in the culture clash a potent currency and a contemporary relevance, and it helped foster his subsequent popularity—one that extends to The Ambassadors, a work that deals thematically with many different American reactions to European culture.

Of the 20 novels, 112 stories and 12 plays he published in his lifetime, James considered The Ambassadors to be his most perfect work of art. The novel was first published serially in 1903 in the North American Review, and it was published two more times—in altered American and British editions—later that same year. The Ambassadors is in many ways a typical Jamesian novel in that it deals with the psychological interior of a character obsessed with self-refection and preoccupied with regret. American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne and French novelist Honoré de Balzac were among the writers who most influenced James and helped inspire James’s unique approach to novel writing. In Hawthorne’s writing, James found a frank discussion of human psychological complexity; in Balzac’s, James found elegant details of realist description—both of which he would incorporate into his own work. James’s other “late novels” resemble The Ambassadors stylistically and structurally. Together, these three novels—The Wings of The Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903) and The Golden Bowl (1904)—are often read as a cohesive trilogy. Many critics see them as one masterpiece in three parts.

Throughout his life, James kept up voluminous correspondence with many of the greatest thinkers and writers of the turn of the century, including Joseph Conrad and H. G. Wells. Nowhere in the letters is there evidence that James ever had a romantic relationship or a consummate sexual experience, and nowhere in this large body of written work is there any clear explanation as to why. Some biographers speculate that James was a closeted homosexual, others point to a traumatic childhood incident that left him with an “obscure hurt,” and still others hypothesize that the early death of his beloved cousin Mary “Minnie” Temple—who became the template for many of his early female characters—left him romantically cynical. Whatever the truth may have been, James often used his fiction to explore the terrain of the life unlived. This topic, along with his interest in insular psychological narrative and New World/Old World conflict, is the most common theme James explores.

Besides short visits, and one extended stay from 1904 to 1905, James never lived in America after his youth, but he continued to be an American in spirit and on paper. Nevertheless, he was distressed by the outbreak of World War I and the United States’s initial refusal to enter the war. Consequently, in 1915, he became a British citizen as a sign of appreciation to his adopted country and as a protest against the country of his birth. While in London on December 2, 1915, James suffered a severe stroke and was put in the hospital. He died three months later on February 28, 1916, at age seventy-three, with two unfinished novels in his desk. These novels, The Sense of the Past (1917) and The Ivory Tower (1917), as well as an earlier memoir, The Middle Years (1917), were published posthumously. Henry James was the twentieth century’s first truly international writer and one of modern literature’s most astute stylists. Today, his impact can be felt in the work of such contemporary writers as Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan.

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