Henry James and the Lessons of Paris

by James Robb

From an early age, Henry James experienced the world in many ways both by reading and appreciating literature and by his education at schools in England, Switzerland, Italy, and France. The young James was fascinated with foreign cultures and more specifically the intellectualism of European literary styles. As James matured, began publishing, and decided to embark upon a career as a writer, he was drawn to the older, more refined civilizations of Europe, whose methods of writing he so admired. His aspirations as a writer instilled in him a desire to take up a permanent residence in Paris. Although James’s attempt to spend the rest of his life in France failed, the trip was not a failure; his experiences in Paris helped Henry James develop as a writer and mature in his theories and style.

Henry James Jr. was born in New York City April 15, 1843 to a wealthy family of Irish immigrants. He read extensively in his youth and travelled extensively around Europe, studying with various tutors as he went. Despite a life of privilege, James seemed determined to earn his living as a professional writer rather than depend on his allowance (Brooks 9). James published his first short story, The Tragedy of Error, in 1864 and this was followed by a series of mild successes, including his first full-length novel, Watch and Ward, in 1871. Bolstered by this series of events, James decided to return to the continent he had enjoyed in his youth, this time intending to stay.

On his arrival to Paris in November 1875, James went seeking the world of literary circles and certainly found it. His luck began with an introduction to the famous Russian writer Ivan Surgeyevich Turgenev. Turgenev was one of the most important realist writers working at the time. The Russian novelist took an instant liking to James, and they met numerous times during James’s brief stay in Paris. Turgenev read James’s fiction and shared his thoughts on writing methods and styles. In particular, Turgenev’s manner of fully crafting complex characters and allowing them to move the plot along with their actions was very close to James’s own approach (Edel 183) . Turgenev really took an interest in developing James’s work; help and friendship from such an iconic figure would surely have given any young author more confidence.

A second fortuitous introduction came James’s way by way of Ivan Turgenev who took him to Gustave Flaubert’s residence to join in a discussion with members of one of the most impressive literary circles working at the time. Flaubert held these discussions every Sunday afternoon, always in his pajamas. He had assembled around him a collection of the most talented young writers in France including Emile Zola, Guillaume de Goncourt, Guy de Maupassant, and Alphonse Daudet. James was more than a little star struck by his newfound companions and wrote in a letter to his brother “Je suis lancé en plein Olympe,” or I have been thrown onto Mount Olympus (Brooks 22). The group of mostly realist authors discussed differing writing methods, structures, and styles. James, a connoisseur of the novel as an art form, learned a lot from these more experienced authors. Flaubert in particular taught James about the structure of a novel. His masterpiece Madame Bovary was widely considered a real breakthrough in the originality of its plot development (Brooks 36). James was delighted to take part in these discussions even if he lamented the difficulty he had communicating fully with his French acquaintances. Despite his frequent invitations to the discussions, James still felt like an outsider with the group. He was somewhat shocked at the ease with which the writers in this circle handled promiscuous subjects. James also felt the group limited themselves to too small a variety of literature and that they dismissed too quickly authors who, he felt, deserved recognition. At the time James couldn’t quite reconcile himself with this, in his opinion, naïve narrow mindedness (Edel 186).

It is not at all difficult to imagine that Henry James saw himself as a cosmopolitan. He read all the books, spoke the languages, and appreciated the customs of all the most important cultural entities of the time. He felt that expatriation would be as simple as his transitory travels had been in his youth. James found instead that something as unforeseen as a difficulty making friends could impede his plan to live out his life in France. He wrote his mother on about his Christmas plans for 1875: “I will eat my Xmas dinner in a lonely restaurant and think wistfully of you, and your turkey and cranberries,” (Brooks 15). Although James frequently dined with Turgenev and a few others he had little to do during the day and through his correspondence with various friends and family, it is easy to detect James’s loneliness. James gave up his plan to live out his life in Paris, moving to London in December 1876, just more than a year after his arrival.

James’s stay in Paris has often been deemed a failure. This is true in that sense that he did not accomplish his primary and intended goal, but he did learn many valuable lessons in Paris. His writing style matured under the tutelage and guidance of Turgenev. His ideas of character formation and plot development clearly show the influence of Turgenev. Also his appreciation of literature widened and developed. During his time in Paris James’s ideas about what the novel should be evolved to a great extent. Seeing Flaubert’s circle read and discuss such a narrow segment of the world’s literature made James determined to enjoy a greater assortment of literature than he had before. For all these reasons James himself deemed his time in Paris: “by no means misspent” (Edel 187).

Works Cited

Edel, Leon. Henry James: A Life. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. Print.

Brooks, Peter. Henry James Goes to Paris. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. Print.

Fussell, Edwin Sill. The French Side of Henry James. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. Print.

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