Henry JamesHenry James once wrote that art, especially literary art, "makes life, makes interest, makes importance." James's fiction and criticism is the most highly conscious, sophisticated, and difficult of its era. With Twain, James is generally ranked as the greatest American novelist of the second half of the 19th century.
James is noted for his "international theme" -- that is, the complex relationships between načve Americans and cosmopolitan Europeans. What his biographer Leon Edel calls James's first, or "international," phase encompassed such works as Transatlantic Sketches (travel pieces, 1875), The American (1877), Daisy Miller (1879), and a masterpiece, The Portrait of a Lady (1881). In The American, for example, Christopher Newman, a načve but intelligent and idealistic self-made millionaire industrialist, goes to Europe seeking a bride. When her family rejects him because he lacks an aristocratic background, he has a chance to revenge himself; in deciding not to, he demonstrates his moral superiority.
James's second period was experimental. He exploited new subject matters -- feminism and social reform in The Bostonians (1886) and political intrigue in The Princess Casamassima (1885). He also attempted to write for the theater, but failed embarrassingly when his play Guy Domville (1895) was booed on the first night.
In his third, or "major," phase James returned to international subjects, but treated them with increasing sophistication and psychological penetration. The complex and almost mythical The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903) (which James felt was his best novel), and The Golden Bowl (1904) date from this major period. If the main theme of Twain's work is appearance and reality, James's constant concern is perception. In James, only self-awareness and clear perception of others yields wisdom and self-sacrificing love. As James develops, his novels become more psychological and less concerned with external events. In James's later works, the most important events are all psychological -- usually moments of intense illumination that show characters their previous blindness. For example, in The Ambassadors, the idealistic, aging Lambert Strether uncovers a secret love affair and, in doing so, discovers a new complexity to his inner life. His rigid, upright, morality is humanized and enlarged as he discovers a capacity to accept those who have sinned.