National Endowment of the Arts - The Big Read
Washington Square

Washington Square

by Henry James

We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.

Henry James (1843-1916)

Henry James, Jr., was born on April 15, 1843, the second son of Henry James, Sr., whose family had made a fortune in Albany, New York, and the former Mary Walsh, eldest daughter of a wealthy family that lived in posh Washington Square. A friend and admirer of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the elder Henry became one of America's best-known public intellectuals during the mid-nineteenth century. Believing the educational system in Europe superior to that in America, he and Mary traveled widely with Henry, Jr.; his older brother, William; sister, Alice; and younger brothers, Wilkie and Bob.

During the family's extended stays in Europe, the children received much of their schooling from tutors in Switzerland, France, Germany, Italy, and England. The James family returned to the United States just as the Civil War began and settled in Newport, Rhode Island. Though their father forbade the two older boys to enlist, Wilkie and Bob eventually joined the Union forces as officers in black regiments from Massachusetts. Henry half-heartedly enrolled at Harvard Law School but soon left to pursue a literary career.

Longing for the familiarity of Europe and hoping to escape the stultifying closeness of his family, Henry James crossed the Atlantic again in 1869 determined to make a living by his pen. He wrote book reviews and travel sketches while working on his first novel, Watch and Ward, serialized in The Atlantic Monthly in 1871.

After spending time in France and Italy, he settled in England. Success and fame came with the publication of Daisy Miller (1878). Invitations for dinners and weekend house parties poured in. Cosmopolitan and witty, James soon found himself one of the most desirable guests in London.

When he ventured back to New York in 1881, he found that his fiction was as popular and his company was as prized at home as it was abroad. The deaths of his mother, father, and brother over the next two years required extended stays in America, but London was still where he felt most at ease.

James returned to London in 1883, and more than twenty years would pass before he travelled to America again. The twenty-four-volume New York Edition of his works-published between 1907 and 1909-sold poorly despite new introductions by the author.

The last years of Henry James's life were punctuated by illness and depression over poor book sales and the deaths of his brothers, Bob and William. After the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he used his celebrity to support the efforts of British troops. Upset by the reluctance of the United States to enter the fight and wishing to avoid "alien" status during the war, James became a British citizen in 1915. He suffered a stroke in December of that same year.

On New Year's Day 1916, King George V awarded him the Order of Merit, one of England's highest honors. Henry James died on February 28, 1916, at his home, Lamb House, in Sussex, England. His ashes are buried in the James family grave in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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