Born in New York City, he was of Irish and Scottish descent. His grandfather was one of the first millionaires in the USA. His father Henry James Sr. (1811-82) was a well-known theological writer and lecturer.
Private tutors taught him until he was 12. The family then went to Europe and stayed there for three years. Henry James Jr. then continued his education in Boulogne, Paris, Geneva, Bonn, and in Newport, Rhode Island. During his travels around Europe he met Guy de Maupassant, Ivan Turgenev, and Gustave Flaubert. Henry James entered Harvard Law School in 1862 but withdrew at the end of the year.
His first story A Tragedy of Error appeared in the North American Review in 1864. That led to William Dean Howells, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly into providing him with help and encouragement. Henry James began to write brilliant literary reviews and short stories. His first novel Watch and Ward was published serially in the Atlantic Monthly in 1871.
His second period started as he became drawn to England. He made his first significant visit to Europe as an adult in 1869. He visited again in 1872 and stayed for two years. In 1876 he made his home in England, mainly in London but in 1898 he moved to Lamb House in Rye, Sussex. He was one of the many literary celebrities to attend the luncheons and dinner parties held by André Raffalovich.
In 1876, Henry James met and had a "love affair" with Russian painter Pavel Zhukovsky. In letters home that year in Paris, Peter Brooks tell us in his new biography, the person James described with the greatest affection was Pavel Zhukovsky, a cultured Russian émigré who ended up designing sets for Richard Wagner. We do not know what occurred between them, but when James went to visit the Russian in Italy a few years later, he found him living with a boyfriend and did not linger. The implication is that James was clearly exposed to a more sensuous way of life than Cambridge afforded, but kept his distance - which may have been one reason why he decided after a year that Paris was not where he belonged, and moved to London.
He was a guest of Ethel Sands at her house parties in Newington, Oxfordshire. He was also one of the guests in November 1907 at a dinner party given by Robert Ross, the first lover of Oscar Wilde, to celebrate the 21st. birthday of Vyvyan Holland. (Henry James's The Tragic Muse, 1890, is a study of the artistic life of London and "Gabriel Nash" is believed to be a portrait of Oscar Wilde.)
Henry James became a British subject in 1915, when the United States delayed entering World War I to help England in its fight against Germany. He was awarded the Order of Merit in 1916, shortly before his death; he died in Rye, Britain. In 1976 he was given a place in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey.
James never married, nor is known for sure he had any lovers of either sex. However, it is well known that James entertained at Lamb house, his home in Rye, many young men who were well known homosexuals.
Henry James was first outed by Richard Hall in 1979. Henry James's biographer, Leon Edel, conceded that this was a valid point to consider in relation to the novelist's work. In 2000, letters were revealed that showed Henry James's love for the American sculptor Hendrik Andersen. They had met in Rome in May 1899 when Henry James was 56 and Hendrik Andersen was 27. Hendrik Andersen stayed at Lamb House in Rye for three days in late 1899 on his way to America.