James was born in Colfax in the State of Iowa in the United States of America. He was educated at local schools and began writing poetry at a young age. He graduated from Grinnell College in 1910 and became a social worker in Boston, Massachusetts, while trying to establish himself as a writer and studying for a master's degree from Harvard University.
James was on holiday in Britain during the summer of 1914 when World War I broke out. He had cycled to Scotland hoping to meet his hero author Joseph Conrad. Posing as a Canadian subject, he enlisted in the British Army, serving in the Royal Fusiliers as a machine gunner during the Battle of Loos on the Western Front in France.
After a speaking tour to promote the book, James returned to Europe in 1916 on an assignment for “Atlantic Monthly” Magazine, commissioned to write a series of stories about the group of American volunteers serving in the French Air Force’s Lafayette Escadrille – a squadron of French fighting planes. However, after spending some time with the American airmen, he volunteered to serve in the French Air Service. By that time, the original squadron had been enlarged and was called the Lafayette Flying Corps, which trained American volunteers to serve in regular French air squadrons. During his time in the French Air Force, James was awarded the French medals the Croix de Guerre with five palms and the Médaille Militaire.
In 1940, Hall published a collection of poems under the title “Oh Millersville!” This was published with the pen-name ‘Fern Gravel’ and the poems were written in the voice of a little girl of about ten years old. The collection was well received, and the truth did not come out until 1946, when Hall published an article entitled "Fern Gravel: A Hoax and a Confession" in “Atlantic Monthly”. He explained that he had apparently been inspired by a dream he had in which he saw himself back in his Iowa childhood among a group of children, one of whom was a little girl called Fern who wanted her poems to be written down. When he woke up, James immediately wrote down Fern's poems, which are first-person observations of life in a small, provincial American town.