Henry James was born in New York City in 1843, and died in London in 1916. These facts are useful symbols of his life: they indicate both his incredibly long and prolific writing career (he published his first short story at 21, and his last novel at the age of seventy), and his transatlantic existence. James was an American who devoted himself to becoming European, and who devoted his writing to exploring the clashes between European and American culture.
James was the son of Henry James Sr., a philosopher well-known in his day, and the younger brother of William James, who would become one of the most influential philosophers and psychologists of his time. The James family was wealthy and cultured, and young Henry was educated in Manhattan and Europe, traveling frequently overseas and studying in Paris, London and Geneva as a teenager. At 19, he enrolled for a year at Harvard Law School, but it didn't work out well, and he took to reading and writing. He began to publish short stories and book reviews -- the start of a career which would become steadily more brilliant and celebrated over the years. James traveled widely, eventually moving overseas for good and settling in London after stays in New York, Boston, Paris and Rome, and became a well-known figure in international circles of literature, art and culture. He continued to publish celebrated novels -- including such works as The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Bostonians (1886), The Turn of the Screw (1898), The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904) -- as well as plays, literary criticism, travel sketches, and over one hundred short stories. James became involved with the British war effort when that country entered World War I, and became a British citizen in 1915, a year before his death.
Henry James's private and psychological life is somewhat mysterious. Although he had many friends and acquaintances in adulthood, and was well liked and respected, he maintained an emotional distance from most people. He was insecure and nervous as a child, and a mysterious injury he suffered as a teenager -- the specifics of which he didn't liked to discuss -- seems to have haunted him for the rest of his life. James never married, and was not known to engage in love affairs. This has led to much speculation among modern critics and theorists, including many who suggest a repressed homosexuality and find implicit support for this in some of his works.
Daisy Miller was published in 1878, in the English Cornhill Magazine, when James was 35 years old. It was an instant hit, attracting a huge following and strengthening James's reputation among the international literary set. In fact, it was too popular -- it was pirated in America before James had the chance to publish an authorized version! In this sense, it was the most immediately successful work James ever wrote -- except possibly for The Turn of the Screw -- and its readers immediately picked up on the character archetypes which James created in the young American Daisy and her family.
Why was Daisy Miller so popular? Its characters and themes were very much of the moment: In the 1870s, post-Civil War America was in the middle of an industrial boom which bestowed sudden wealth on many previously ordinary families. This allowed them to travel abroad for the first time, in order to learn about the culture and history of Europe. But American manners were very different from European manners, and the "uneducated" Americans -- from a country where there had never been any aristocracy based on heredity or nobility -- did not know the social codes with which European "high society" conducted itself. Somewhere in between these two groups lay a third group, the wealthy Europeanized Americans, to whom Winterbourne, his aunt, and the rest of the American "colonists" at Rome and Vevey belong. These people were sometimes less rigid than Europeans (as Winterbourne sometimes is), but could also be more obsessed with social codes than the Europeans themselves (examples of this are Mrs. Costello and Mrs. Walker). In contrast with them, the innocent Daisy, fresh from the American "society" of Schenectady, New York, has no idea what rules she is violating with her carefree association with European "lowlifes."
This theme -- that of the American abroad, and of two different worlds and mindsets brought into conflict -- would remain one of the major questions explored in James's books, as well as in his life. Daisy Miller is one of his first and most famous forays into this terrain -- as well as one of his most interesting studies of character and psychology, especially of the minds of women, which would also fascinate him for the rest of his career.
Henry James biographical information:
Preface to Edition of 1907:
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