Henry James

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Live all you can—it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven't had that, what have you had?

Henry James, OM (1843-04-15 – 1916-02-28), brother of the philosopher and psychologist William James, was an American-born author and literary critic of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

See also: The American Scene

Quotes[edit]

  • In the long run an opinion often borrows credit from the forbearance of its patrons.
    • "Essays in Criticism by Matthew Arnold," North American Review (July 1865)
  • Everything about Florence seems to be coloured with a mild violet, like diluted wine.
  • The face of nature and civilization in this our country is to a certain point a very sufficient literary field. But it will yield its secrets only to a really grasping imagination... To write well and worthily of American things one need even more than elsewhere to be a master.
  • It's a complex fate, being an American, and one of the responsibilities it entails is fighting against a superstitious valuation of Europe.
    • Letter to Charles Eliot Norton (4 February 1872)
  • Deep experience is never peaceful.
    • Madame de Mauves, Galaxy Magazine (February/March 1874), ch. V, reprinted in A Passionate Pilgrim (1875) and later in The Madonna of the Future and Other Tales (1879) and the New York Edition of James' works, vol. 13 (1908)
  • True happiness, we are told, consists in getting out of one's self; but the point is not only to get out — you must stay out; and to stay out you must have some absorbing errand.
  • It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature.
  • One might enumerate the items of high civilization, as it exists in other countries, which are absent from the texture of American life, until it should become a wonder to know what was left.
    • Hawthorne, ch. II: Early Manhood
  • Whatever question there may be of his [Thoreau's] talent, there can be none, I think, of his genius. It was a slim and crooked one; but it was eminently personal. He was imperfect, unfinished, inartistic; he was worse than provincial — he was parochial; it is only at his best that he is readable.
    • Hawthorne, ch. IV: Brook Farm and Concord
  • He would agree that life is a little worth living — or worth living a little; but would remark that, unfortunately, to live little enough, we have to live a great deal.
    • Hawthorne, ch. V: The Three American Novels
  • It is, I think, an indisputable fact that Americans are, as Americans, the most self-conscious people in the world, and the most addicted to the belief that the other nations of the earth are in a conspiracy to undervalue them.
    • Hawthorne, ch. VI: England and Italy
  • My choice is the old world — my choice, my need, my life.
    • Notebook entry, Boston, (25 November 1881)
  • Don't mind anything anyone tells you about anyone else. Judge everyone and everything for yourself.
  • The real offence, as she ultimately perceived, was her having a mind of her own at all. Her mind was to be his — attached to his own like a small garden-plot to a deer-park.
    • The Portrait of a Lady (1881), ch. XLII
  • You wanted to look at life for yourself — but you were not allowed; you were punished for your wish. You were ground in the very mill of the conventional!
    • The Portrait of a Lady, ch. LIV
  • Young men of this class never do anything for themselves that they can get other people to do for them, and it is the infatuation, the devotion, the superstition of others that keeps them going. These others in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred are women.
  • She ordered a cup of tea, which proved excessively bad, and this gave her a sense that she was suffering in a romantic cause.
    • Washington Square, ch. XV
  • I hold any writer sufficiently justified who is himself in love with his theme.
    • "Venice," The Century Magazine, vol. XXV (November 1882), reprinted in Portraits of Places (1883) and later in Italian Hours (1909), ch: I: Venice, pt. I
  • Though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors.
    • "Venice," The Century Magazine, vol. XXV (November 1882), reprinted in Portraits of Places (1883) and later in Italian Hours (1909), ch. I: Venice, pt. II
  • There are two kinds of taste in the appreciation of imaginative literature: the taste for emotions of surprise and the taste for emotions of recognition.
    • "Anthony Trollope," Century Magazine (July 1883); reprinted in Partial Portraits (1888)
  • A tradition is kept alive only by something being added to it.
  • If the artist is necessarily sensitive, does that sensitiveness form in its essence a state constantly liable to shade off into the morbid? Does this liability, moreover, increase in proportion as the effort is great and the ambition intense?
    • "The Journal of the Brothers de Goncourt," Fortnightly Review (October 1888)
  • To take what there is, and use it, without waiting forever in vain for the preconceived — to dig deep into the actual and get something out of that — this doubtless is the right way to live.
  • The superiority of one man's opinion over another's is never so great as when the opinion is about a woman.
    • The Tragic Muse (1890), ch. IX
  • The practice of "reviewing"... in general has nothing in common with the art of criticism.
    • Criticism (1893)
  • The critical sense is so far from frequent that it is absolutely rare, and the possession of the cluster of qualities that minister to it is one of the highest distinctions... In this light one sees the critic as the real helper of the artist, a torchbearing outrider, the interpreter, the brother... Just in proportion as he is sentient and restless, just in proportion as he reacts and reciprocates and penetrates, is the critic a valuable instrument.
    • Criticism
  • However incumbent it may be on most of us to do our duty, there is, in spite of a thousand narrow dogmatisms, nothing in the world that anyone is under the least obligation to like — not even (one braces one's self to risk the declaration) a particular kind of writing.
    • Flaubert (1893)
  • 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.
  • She had an unequalled gift, especially pen in hand, of squeezing big mistakes into small opportunities.
  • The only success worth one's powder was success in the line of one's idiosyncrasy. Consistency was in itself distinction, and what was talent but the art of being completely whatever it was that one happened to be?
    • "The Next Time," The Yellow Book, vol. VI (July 1895)
  • Vereker’s secret, my dear man — the general intention of his books: the string the pearls were strung on, the buried treasure, the figure in the carpet.
  • He is outside of everything, and an alien everywhere. He is an aesthetic solitary. His beautiful, light imagination is the wing that on the autumn evening just brushes the dusky window.
    • "Nathaniel Hawthorne" in Library of the World's Best Literature, vol. XII (1897), ed. Charles Dudley Warner
  • People talk about the conscience, but it seems to me one must just bring it up to a certain point and leave it there. You can let your conscience alone if you're nice to the second housemaid.
  • Live all you can — it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven't had that, what have you had?... What one loses one loses; make no mistake about that...The right time is any time that one is still so lucky as to have.... Live!
  • She was a woman who, between courses, could be graceful with her elbows on the table.
    • The Ambassadors, book VII, ch. I
  • I'm glad you like adverbs — I adore them; they are the only qualifications I really much respect.
    • Letter to Miss M. Betham Edwards (5 January 1912)
  • We must know, as much as possible, in our beautiful art...what we are talking about — and the only way to know is to have lived and loved and cursed and floundered and enjoyed and suffered. I think I don't regret a single "excess" of my responsive youth — I only regret, in my chilled age, certain occasions and possibilities I didn't embrace.
    • Letter to Hugh Walpole (21 August 1913)
  • I still, in presence of life... have reactions — as many as possible... It's, I suppose, because I am that queer monster, the artist, an obstinate finality, an inexhaustible sensibility. Hence the reactions — appearances, memories, many things, go on playing upon it with consequences that I note and "enjoy" (grim word!) noting. It all takes doing — and I do. I believe I shall do yet again — it is still an act of life.
    • Letter to Henry Adams (21 March 1914)
  • The effect, if not the prime office, of criticism is to make our absorption and our enjoyment of the things that feed the mind as aware of itself as possible, since that awareness quickens the mental demand, which thus in turn wanders further and further for pasture. This action on the part of the mind practically amounts to a reaching out for the reasons of its interest, as only by its ascertaining them can the interest grow more various. This is the very education of our imaginative life.
    • The New Novel (1914)
  • It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance, for our consideration and application of these things, and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.
    • Letter to H.G. Wells (10 July 1915)
  • The full, the monstrous demonstration that Tennyson was not Tennysonian.
  • If I were to live my life over again, I would be an American. I would steep myself in America, I would know no other land.
    • Said to Hamlin Garland in 1906 and quoted by Garland in Roadside Meetings (1930; reprinted by Kessinger Publishing, 2005, ISBN 1-417-90788-6), ch. XXXVI: Henry James at Rye (p. 461)
  • Summer afternoon — summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.
  • So here it is at last, the distinguished thing!
    • After suffering a stroke (1915-12-02), the first of several which led to his death, as recounted by Edith Wharton in A Backward Glance (1934), ch. 14: "He is said to have told his old friend Lady Prothero, when she saw him after the first stroke, that in the very act of falling (he was dressing at the time) he heard in the room a voice which was distinctly, it seemed, not his own, saying: 'So here it is at last, the distinguished thing!'"
  • Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.
    • Said to his nephew, Willie James, in 1902; quoted in Leon Edel, Henry James: A Life, vol V: The Master 1901-1916 (1972)

The Art of Fiction (1884)[edit]

Originally published in Longman's Magazine (1884-09-04) and reprinted in Partial Portraits (1888)

  • The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life.
    • Variant text: The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does compete with life.
  • The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting.
  • The advantage, the luxury, as well as the torment and responsibility of the novelist, is that there is no limit to what he may attempt as an executant — no limit to his possible experiments, efforts, discoveries, successes.
  • Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web, of the finest silken threads, suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue.
  • The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it — this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education. If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe. Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, "Write from experience, and experience only," I should feel that this was a rather tantalizing monition if I were not careful immediately to add, "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!"
  • What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?
  • We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, what the French call his donnée; our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it. Naturally I do not mean that we are bound to like it or find it interesting: in case we do not our course is perfectly simple — to let it alone. We may believe that of a certain idea even the most sincere novelist can make nothing at all, and the event may perfectly justify our belief; but the failure will have been a failure to execute, and it is in the execution that the fatal weakness is recorded. If we pretend to respect the artist at all we must allow him his freedom of choice, in the face, in particular cases, of innumerable presumptions that the choice will not fructify. Art derives a considerable part of its beneficial exercise from flying in the face of presumptions, and some of the most interesting experiments of which it is capable are hidden in the bosom of common things.
  • There are few things more exciting to me, in short, than a psychological reason.

The Turn of the Screw (1898)[edit]

  • The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be.
    • Introduction
  • ...I had the view of a castle of romance inhabited by a rosy sprite, such a place as would somehow, for diversion of the young idea, take all colour out of storybooks and fairy tales. Wasn't it just a storybook over which I had fallen a-doze and a-dream? No; it was a big, ugly, antique, but convenient house, embodying a few features of a building still older, half replaced and half utilised, in which I had the fancy of our being almost as lost as a handful of passengers in a great drifting ship. Well, I was, strangely, at the helm!
    • Ch. I
  • I was there to protect and defend the little creatures in the world the most bereaved and the most loveable, the appeal of whose helplessness had suddenly become only too explicit, a deep, constant ache of one's own committed heart. We were cut off, really, together; we were united in our danger. They had nothing but me, and I - well, I had them.
    • Ch. II
  • It was as if, at moments, we were perpetually coming into sight of subjects before which we must stop short, turning suddenly out of alleys that we perceived to be blind, closing with a little bang that made us look at each other — for, like all bangs, it was something louder than we had intended— the doors we had indiscreetly opened.
    • Ch. XIII
  • The place, with its gray sky and withered garlands, its bared spaces and scattered dead leaves, was like a theater after the performance — all strewn with crumpled playbills.
    • Ch. XIII
  • Here at present I felt afresh—for I had felt it again and again—how my equilibrium depended on the success of my rigid will, the will to shut my eyes as tight as possible to the truth that what I had to deal with was, revoltingly, against nature. I could only get on at all by taking "nature" into my confidence and my account, by treating my monstrous ordeal as a push in a direction unusual, of course, and unpleasant, but demanding, after all, for a fair front, only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue. No attempt, nonetheless, could well require more tact than just this attempt to supply, one's self, all the nature.
    • Ch. XXII
  • He had picked up his hat, which he had brought in, and stood twirling it in a way that gave me, even as I was just nearly reaching port, a perverse horror of what I was doing. To do it in ANY way was an act of violence, for what did it consist of but the obtrusion of the idea of grossness and guilt on a small helpless creature who had been for me a revelation of the possibilities of beautiful intercourse? Wasn't it base to create for a being so exquisite a mere alien awkwardness? I suppose I now read into our situation a clearness it couldn't have had at the time, for I seem to see our poor eyes already lighted with some spark of a prevision of the anguish that was to come.
    • Ch. XXIII
  • It came to me in the very horror of the immediate presence that the act would be, seeing and facing what I saw and faced, to keep the boy himself unaware. The inspiration—I can call it by no other name—was that I felt how voluntarily, how transcendently, I might. It was like fighting with a demon for a human soul, and when I had fairly so appraised it I saw how the human soul—held out, in the tremor of my hands, at arm's length—had a perfect dew of sweat on a lovely childish forehead.
    • Ch. XXIV
  • I seemed to float not into clearness, but into a darker obscure, and within a minute there had come to me out of my very pity the appalling alarm of his being perhaps innocent. It was for the instant confounding and bottomless, for if he were innocent, what then on earth was I?
    • Ch. XXIV
  • With the stroke of the loss I was so proud of he uttered the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss, and the grasp with which I recovered him might have been that of catching him in his fall. I caught him, yes, I held him—it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.
    • Ch. XXIV

Prefaces (1907-1909)[edit]

  • Really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.
    • Roderick Hudson
  • There is, I think, no more nutritive or suggestive truth... than that of the perfect dependence of the "moral" sense of a work of art on the amount of felt life concerned in producing it. The question comes back thus, obviously, to the kind and the degree of the artist's prime sensibility, which is the soil out of which his subject springs.
    • The Portrait of a Lady
  • To see deep difficulty braved is at any time, for the really addicted artist, to feel almost even as a pang the beautiful incentive, and to feel it verily in such sort as to wish the danger intensified. The difficulty most worth tackling can only be for him, in these conditions, the greatest the case permits of.
    • The Portrait of a Lady
  • Life being all inclusion and confusion, and art being all discrimination and selection, the latter, in search of the hard latent value with which it alone is concerned, sniffs round the mass as instinctively and unerringly as a dog suspicious of some buried bone.
    • The Spoils of Poynton
  • The fatal futility of Fact.
    • The Spoils of Poynton
  • No themes are so human as those that reflect for us, out of the confusion of life, the close connection of bliss and bale, of the things that help with the things that hurt, so dangling before us forever that bright hard medal, of so strange an alloy, one face of which is somebody's right and ease and the other somebody's pain and wrong.
    • What Maisie Knew
  • The effort really to see and really to represent is no idle business in face of the constant force that makes for muddlement. The great thing is indeed that the muddled state too is one of the very sharpest of the realities, that it also has color and form and character, has often in fact a broad and rich comicality.
    • What Maisie Knew
  • To criticize is to appreciate, to appropriate, to take intellectual possession, to establish in fine a relation with the criticized thing and to make it one's own.
    • What Maisie Knew
  • The historian, essentially, wants more documents than he can really use; the dramatist only wants more liberties than he can really take.
    • The Aspern Papers; The Turn of the Screw; The Liar; The Two Faces
  • We are divided of course between liking to feel the past strange and liking to feel it familiar.
    • The Aspern Papers; The Turn of the Screw; The Liar; The Two Faces
  • The ever importunate murmur, "Dramatize it, dramatize it!"
    • The Altar of the Dead
  • In art economy is always beauty.
    • The Altar of the Dead
  • The terrible fluidity of self-revelation.
    • The Ambassadors


Misattributed[edit]

  • Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.
    • William James, "Is Life Worth Living?," The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897)
  • Ideas are, in truth, force.
    • "Ideas are, in truth, forces. Infinite, too, is the power of personality. A union of the two always makes history." — Henry James (1879-1947), Charles W. Eliot (1930), 2 vol. This namesake was James' nephew, the son of William James. His life of Eliot earned him the 1931 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

Quotes about James[edit]

  • It took me years to ascertain that Henry James' work was giving me little pleasure: In each case I ask myself: "What the dickens is this novel about, and where does it think it's going to?" Question unanswerable! I gave up. To-day I have no recollection whatever of any characters of any events in either novel.
    • Arnold Bennett, in Arnold Bennett: The Evening Standard Years, ed. A. Mylett (1974)
  • James’s repressions and evasions are many, varied and exhausting. Why more people are not seen rushing shrieking from libraries, shredding James novels in their hands, I cannot say. I used to wonder whether enthusiasm for him was based on identification, since his passive, tentative heroes resemble many academics. Perhaps what is intolerable is his enshrinement in a soporific criticism. So much must be overlooked to crown him with laurel.
    • Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990), p. 622
  • Mr. Henry James writes fiction as if it were a painful duty, and wastes upon mean motives and imperceptible 'points of view' his neat literary style, his felicitous phrases, his swift and caustic satire.
    • Oscar Wilde, in "The Decay of Lying", in Intentions (1891)
  • James's earlier work had often substituted a character's impression of an event for the event itself. These pages do more - they change our very sense of what counts as an event in fiction. Sitting still counts; thinking, doing nothing, not moving. Emotions count, and the activity of perception as well.
    • Michael Gorra, on chapter 42 of The Portrait of a Lady, in Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (2012)

External links[edit]

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