National Endowment for 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.


James and His Other Works

Henry James is considered one of the pioneers of literary realism. By insisting that English-language writers could employ the same techniques as French, German, and Russian novelists, James expanded the way point of view, dialogue, interior monologue, and third-person narration are used. His experiments with these techniques brought a depth to literature that laid the groundwork for modernist writers such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Dashiell Hammett.

James's prose style evolved over the course of his career. Most scholars divide his writing into three phases. The first is considered James's "apprenticeship." After a short stint studying law at Harvard, James left school to pursue a literary career. He first wrote book reviews for the North American Review and published "The Story of a Year" in The Atlantic Monthly under the name Henry James, Jr., in 1865. James's early works are straightforward, realistic, and often satirize social customs and manners. The first phase ends with the publication of The Portrait of a Lady (1881), considered one of James's finest novels, which examines Isabel Archer, a young heiress whose headstrong quest for freedom leads her to a disastrous marriage.

James shifted focus in the middle of his career and began writing on political themes. The Bostonians (1886), inspired by the early efforts of the women's rights movement, contrasts Basil Ransom, an unbending political conservative from Mississippi, with his cousin Olive Chancellor, a Boston feminist. The darker, more violent The Princess Casamassima (1886) examines a London bookbinder who becomes caught up in radical politics and a terrorist assassination plot. James also wrote several stage plays during the early 1890s. The American ran only 70 nights in 1891. Three years later, Guy Domville was a conspicuous failure and James was booed off the stage on opening night.

The final years of James's career, sometimes called his "major phase," span the last two decades of his life. Readers sometimes find his late style complicated and verbose, yet the late novels of Henry James show a complexity and depth rarely achieved on the page. In prose as delicate and finely wrought as Victorian lace, he portrays men and women straining against the limits placed upon them by conventional society. The great novels of this period are The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903)-which James considered his most perfect work-and The Golden Bowl (1904).

The compassionate portrayal of multifaceted characters, settings filled with realistic detail, and evocative language typify James's writing style. His stories introduce into fiction modern women capable of mastering their own fates, while also examining the relationship between European traditions and American ideals. Few authors enjoy popularity and critical success in their own time. Fewer still achieve literary immortality. The twenty novels, more than one hundred short stories, several plays, and volumes of literary criticism Henry James wrote are among the finest of American letters.

"Catherine would have made a wife of the gentle, old-fashioned pattern-regarding reasons as favors and windfalls, but no more expecting one every day than she would have expected a bouquet of camellias."
-Henry James from Washington Square

If you enjoyed Washington Square, you might enjoy reading:

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)
The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899)
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920)
The Master by Colm Tóibín (2004)

If you want to read works that inspired Henry James, you might enjoy:

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857)
Middlemarch by George Eliot (1874)
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1902)

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