In the autumn of 1877, Henry James (1843–1916) heard a piece of gossip from a friend in Rome about a young American girl traveling with her wealthy but unsophisticated mother in Europe. The girl had met a handsome Italian of “vague identity” and no particular social standing and attempted to introduce him into the exclusive society of expatriate Americans in Rome. The incident had ended in a snub of some sort, a “small social check . . . of no great gravity,” the exact nature of which James promptly forgot. Nevertheless, in the margin of the notebook where he recorded the anecdote, he wrote “Dramatise, dramatise!” He never knew the young lady in question or heard mention of her again, but he proceeded to immortalize the idea of her in Daisy Miller.
A native of New York, James had been born into a world of ideas and letters. His father, an amateur philosopher and theologian who had inherited a considerable fortune, socialized with all the leading intellectuals of the day. Henry’s older brother, William, would become a key figure in the emerging science of psychology. In 1855, when James was twelve, the family embarked on a three-year tour of Europe that included London, Paris, and Geneva. The experience was to have a profound influence on James’s life and writing. In addition to European art and culture, the trip exposed him to the erudition of European society. It also put him in an ideal position to observe the contrasts between New and Old World values, a conflict that was to appear repeatedly in James’s fiction as “the international theme.”
Daisy Miller was first published in the June and July 1878 issues of the British magazine Cornhill. It was an instant success, transforming James into an author of international standing. The novel’s popularity almost certainly derived from the portrait at its center, of a naïve, overly self-confident, and rather vulgar American girl attempting to inhabit the rarified atmosphere of European high society.
The post–Civil War industrial boom had given rise to a new class of wealthy Americans for whom “the grand tour,” an extended trip through Europe, represented the pinnacle of social and financial success. As a result, Americans were visiting Europe for the first time in record numbers. However, American manners differed greatly from European manners, and the Americans were largely ignorant of the customs of Europeans of comparable social status. Between these two groups lay a third: wealthy American expatriates whose strict observance of the Old World standards of propriety outdid even the Europeans.
Daisy Miller, fresh from the high society of Schenectady, New York, neither knows nor cares about local notions of propriety, and the conflict between her free-spirited foolishness and the society she offends is at the heart of the novel. Daisy Miller has been hailed as the first “international novel,” but it is also an early treatment of another theme that was to absorb James throughout his career: the phenomenon of the life unlived. In a novel incorporating this theme, the protagonist, owing to some aspect of his or her own character, such as an unconscious fear or a lack of passion or feeling, lets some opportunity for happiness go by and realizes it too late. In Daisy Miller, such a protagonist is Winterbourne, who spends the entire novel trying to figure out Daisy. In fact, it has been argued that Daisy Miller isn’t really so much about Daisy herself as it is about Winterbourne’s wholesale failure to understand her.