A Miraculous Enlargement of Experience - A Profile of Henry James

By Simon, Linda | The World and I, April 2001 | Go to article overview

A Miraculous Enlargement of Experience - A Profile of Henry James


Simon, Linda, The World and I


Linda Simon is professor of English at Skidmore College. The author of Genuine Reality: A Life of William James (Harcourt Brace, 1998), Of Virtue Rare (1982), Thornton Wilder, His World (1979), and The Biography of Alice B. Toklas (1977), she edited William James Remembered (1996) and Gertrude Stein Remembered (1994).

The author of more than twenty novels, over a hundred short stories, scores of essays and reviews, and two volumes of autobiography, Henry James, who became a British subject in 1915, stands as a towering and magisterial figure in American letters. In a career of nearly five decades, spanning the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, he both reflected and transcended his place and time. If he felt more at home in Europe than America, still his forthright, intrepid characters ring true as nothing if not Americans; and if he had been seduced by the rich palimpsest of European civilization, still he was a sharp critic of the secrets and lies that this civilization held and perpetrated.

Although his notebooks reveal careful attention to plot, James was more concerned with probing the depths of his characters' minds and hearts, investigating the consequences of emotional crises, and testing the boundaries of freedom. Finely attuned to social conventions and proscriptions, he was passionately concerned with morality, and his abiding interest was in confronting his characters with complex moral dilemmas. He never lost sight, however, of what he considered the true object of fiction: to enrich his readers' reality. "The success of a work of art, to my mind," he wrote, "may be measured by the degree to which it produces a certain illusion; that illusion makes it appear to us for the time that we have lived another life--that we have had a miraculous enlargement of experience. The greater the art, the greater the miracle."

Henry James was born in New York City on April 15, 1843, the second child of Henry James Sr. and his wife, Mary. By 1848, he had four siblings: William, older by fifteen months; Garth Wilkinson, born in 1845; Robertson, in 1846; and Alice, in 1848. Until Henry was twelve, the family lived in Manhattan; once they left, it would be more than a decade before they settled anywhere that Henry could call home. Instead, they moved from New York to Europe, to Newport, Rhode Island, and to Massachusetts, shuttling back and forth across the Atlantic in an attempt to find a place where their father, a writer and lecturer on philosophical, theological, and social issues, felt fulfilled and productive.

The rootlessness that resulted from the family's travels made the James children feel separated from their peers, as did their father's unconventional ideas about their education. Sometimes the children attended school; at other times, they were tutored at home by young men whose services the elder James sooner or later found inadequate. Henry, especially, seems to have been ill-fitted for the schools his father chose for him: a business preparatory school, for one, and later Harvard Law School.

Henry grew up in the shadow of his brother William, whose aggressive intelligence and witty banter often made him the center of the family's attention. Although Henry was his mother's favorite, praised for gentleness and affection, still he coveted the esteem that came so easily to his older brother. William, on his part, often bullied Henry: "I play with boys who curse and swear," he once informed Henry, who longed for such exciting society.

With time, Henry's longing took a different focus. Unlike his siblings, Henry remembered the family's European trips with pleasure. He recalled "the thick and heavy suggestions" of their London rooms, "the very smell of which was ancient, strange and impressive, a new revelation altogether, and the window open to the English June and the far off hum of a thousand possibilities." He found those possibilities in Paris, too: an intuition of the manifold and complex stories that he might know, of secrets kept for generations upon generations, in short, a sense of rich history that he could not find at home. …

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