Henry James (1843-1916), the prolific American writer of the late 19th/early 20th century, was known to pick up ideas for his stories from dinner party conversations. Colm Tóibín puts this bit of knowledge to use in his short story "Silence", when he has fictional character Lady Gregory share a secret with James as they sit next to each other at a dining table. A source of great influence and inspiration for Tóibín over the years, Tóibín paid homage to James in his well-received novel, The Master, a biographical work of fiction which begins in 1895 when James's hopes of becoming a prominent playwright were dashed by the success of Oscar Wilde.
Born in New York City, Henry James spent forty years living in England. He became a British citizen one year before his death, in protest of America's initial reluctance to enter World War I. His stories often placed American characters in a European setting, interacting with Europeans. These relationships served to contrast the different worlds of old versus new, the outsider gamely navigating a setting starkly unfamiliar to him.
James's use of character point of view enabled him to delve deeply into a character's intimate thoughts and perceptions. It also allowed for subsequent characters to be introduced in a truthful and recognizable way. Closely associated with the literary realism movement, Henry James adhered to the belief that life should be depicted as it is and not romanticized. He firmly believed that good stories result from a combination of realistic character portrayals and interesting storylines, and that complete freedom in both content and approach is necessary to keep a tale deeply compelling. This innovative and fresh approach to storytelling generated interest in the relatively new art of narrative fiction.
James wrote his first novel at the age of 28 while traveling through Venice and Paris. Extremely prolific, he went on to complete 21 novels, 15 plays and scores of short stories, essays and articles. His work remains an iconic example of how capturing everyday, contemporary life in a non-idealistic way provides for provocative and engaging storytelling.
This article was originally published in February 2011, and has been updated for the
January 2012 paperback release.
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