Henry James: 10 Quotes


Henry James
John Singer Sargent

Henry James is, along with other high school curriculum staples like Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, an author that many people love to hate. The scars of reading James too early or too quickly––or reading the wrong Henry James altogether––can take a lifetime to heal, which is a shame, because his stories are some of the most memorable in fiction. Best known for 1881’s The Portrait of a Lady, as well as The Golden Bowl (1904), The American (1877), The Wings of the Dove (1902) and Washington Square (1880), James wrote more than 20 novels in all, along with criticism, essays and short-stories. An interest in rich people and how they interact with each other is helpful, but not necessary, if you’re thinking of delving into James. He is as much a lover of dialogue as he is of those pages-long descriptive passages you’ve heard so much about (or slogged through yourself). The reality is that both types of writing contain some brilliant nuggets of universal truth, as these ten quotes illustrate.

1. From Roderick Hudson, 1875.

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.

2. From Hawthorne, 1879.

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.

3. Letter to H.G. Wells, July 10, 1915

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.

4. Words to his nephew, Willie James, in 1902 (quoted in Leon Edel’s Henry James: A Life, Vol. V, The Master, 1901-1916, 1972).

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.

5. From The Art of Fiction, 1884.

What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?

6. From “Preface,” Roderick Hudson.

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.

7. From The Ambassadors, 1903.

The right time is any time that one is still so lucky as to have.

8. From “On Some Pictures Lately Exhibited,” 1875.

Criticism…talks a good deal of nonsense, but even its nonsense is a useful force. It keeps the question of art before the world, insists upon its importance, and makes it always in order.

9. From an essay on Flaubert contained in Henry James: Literary Criticism: French Writers; Other European Writers; The Prefaces to the New York Edition, 1893.

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.

10. From The Portrait of a Lady, 1881.

I call people rich when they’re able to meet the requirements of their imagination.

Photo: portrait of Henry James by John Singer Sargent, 1913, via Wikipedia.