Henry James was one of America's foremost novelists, essayists, and men of letters although he spent most of his adult life abroad and died a naturalized English subject. Indeed, his career reflects the transformation of American literature from an insular, isolated tradition founded in rebellious but dependent relation to its British progenitors to a cosmopolitan one connected to the broadest currents of modern thought of England and Europe. But James did more than supervise the internationalization of American letters. He expanded the range of formal and thematic possibility for both his contemporaries and his successors. In a career spanning almost forty years of intense productivity, James helped reshape the novel into a vehicle of high aesthetic ambitions, experimented with form and technique in audaciously productive ways, and wrote some of the most adventuresome literary criticism of his or any time. Thematically, his work registered with precision the transformations of American as well as English society: the rise of a new upwardly mobile class steeping themselves in the culture of the Old World to provide a rootedness their home denied them; the metamorphoses of gender and the complexities of sexual and family life that followed from them; the consequences of America's ascendancy to a new kind of capitalist power in a world where previous formations seemed attenuated, anachronistic, or corrupt. To read James, then, is to encounter this paradox: this writer who reshaped the very notion of his medium so that it became increasingly hermetic, elite, and self-referential reflected with the utmost alertness the radically reshaping world he faced. James helped bring into American letters the model of modernism—of the artist devoting himself to his high vocation with intense absorption and passion—while registering the making of the modern.Less
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