Henry James was one of five children, born on April 15, 1843, in New York City to Mary Robertson Walsh and Henry James, Sr., a wealthy intellectual. Henry grew up in both America and Europe, traveling widely with his family and studying with tutors in Geneva, London, Paris, Bologna, and Bonn. He read the classics in all the European languages and then tried Harvard Law School but discovered he wanted to be a man of letters. He began publishing at the age of twenty-one and became a contributor to The Nation and Atlantic Monthly. His first novel, Watch and Ward, 1871, was published while he was in Italy. In Paris he wrote for the New York Tribune. He moved to England in 1876 and did not go back to the United States for twenty-five years. His fiction frequently portrayed Americans visiting or living abroad and finding their values in conflict with European ways.
James was a prolific writer and helped to shape modern fiction with his many critical essays. Counted among his masterpieces are The American (1877), Daisy Miller (1879), Washington Square (1880), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Bostonians (1886), What Maisie Knew (1897), “The Turn of the Screw” (1898), The Wings of a Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904). He supported himself mainly through writing, for journals, newspapers, writing two biographies, his memoirs, twenty-two novels, and 112 stories, fifteen plays, and dozens of essays. James selected what short stories and novels he considered to be his best work and revised and edited them with critical prefaces for his New York Edition of his complete works (1907-09). His autobiography was published in three volumes from 1913-1917. James was known as a realistic writer who liked to experiment with style and was a precursor of the stream-of-consciousness fiction of the early twentieth century. His subject matter was largely the world of social manners but included social commentary. In his later period James became known for his difficult prose style in which he tried to capture the nuances of thinking. Many of his novels and stories have been made into films.
James was profoundly shocked by the outbreak of World War I and became a British citizen in 1915 to protest American policy against involvement. He had a stroke on December 2, 1915, was awarded the British Order of Merit on January 1, 1916, and died on February 28, 1916. He was cremated in England and his ashes interred in Cambridge, Massachusetts.