Henry James' Killer Kindness Quote

01/24/2016 09:36 am ET Updated Jan 24, 2017

One of the most popular quotes about kindness on the Internet is attributed to the novelist Henry James:

"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."

I hadn't noticed it until recently on Twitter, and then found it everywhere: Goodreads, Pinterest, Brainyquote, you name it. All the reliable sources for fake quotes by Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde and other famous authors.

I was surprised not to remember it, because James is my favorite author and I have eight shelves of books by and about him. I've probably read about a dozen James and James family biographies and don't recall encountering the quote before.

I've been reading James since college and The Portrait of a Lady was an experience that deepened my fiction and took it to a whole new level stylistically and psychologically. I've also taught James, and often turn to stories or novels of him to refresh my connection.

A high point of a recent stay in London was seeing John Singer Sargent's magnificent portrait of James in the National Portrait Gallery which is so much richer and multi-dimensional in person than any print had led me to believe.

James was a man of deep feeling and could write movingly to friends and relatives when they were troubled. His most famous advice was to his lifelong friend Grace Norton dealing with depression:

Sorrow comes in great waves -- no one can know that better than you -- but it rolls over us, and though it may almost smother us it leaves us on the spot and we know that if it is strong we are stronger, inasmuch as it passes and we remain. It wears us, uses us, but we wear it and use it in return; and it is blind, whereas we after a manner see.

That whole letter from 1883 is a masterpiece of affection and consolation, and I've shared excerpts with many downhearted friends over the years.

Thinking about the kindness quote, I remembered to check Wikiquote, which unfortunately isn't always reliable. It claimed that James said this to his nephew Billy James, according to biographer Leon Edel, and I found the lines in that classic James biography where they appear this way, with simpler punctuation:

"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."

The reference in Edel's biography is slightly ambiguous. Edel wrote that Billy James heard James, though sadly he didn't record whom James might have been speaking to and what the circumstances were. Was it to Billy James himself, or someone else, and why?

That, of course, would make a great story, Jamesian or otherwise....

Lev Raphael is the author of the Gilded Age novel Rosedale in Love and 24 other books in many genres.