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Henry James The Turn of the Screw

Henry JamesHenry James was born on April 15, 1843, near Washington Square in New York City, to Henry James Sr. and Mary Robertson Walsh James, both from wealthy New York families. Henry Jr. was the second oldest of five siblings—joining his older brother, William; younger brothers Wilkinson and Robertson; and younger sister, Alice. Raised briefly in Albany, near his father’s family, the Jameses returned to New York City when Henry Jr. was still a young boy.

Given an unconventional, “sensuous” education by his writer-philosopher father, the younger James was tutored mainly in the sciences and philosophy, a curriculum that eschewed the usual focus on Latin and Greek classics. When James was only nine, the family began a five-year series of travels to England, France, and Switzerland, where James continued his education. With long sojourns in Paris and Geneva, he learned to write and speak French fluently. The stutter that afflicted him in his youth and largely disappeared in adulthood was entirely absent when he spoke French.

In 1860 the family returned to the U.S. and settled in Newport, Rhode Island, where seventeen-year-old James befriended the painter John La Farge, who introduced him to the writings of Honoré de Balzac, from whom James later said he learned more about the craft of fiction than anyone else.

In the fall of 1861, James suffered a “horrid...obscure hurt” while working as a volunteer fireman in Newport. Describing the injury years later in his autobiography, in his famously ornate late style, he never makes clear exactly what happened, and so speculation has run from a back injury to serious damage to his testicles. Whatever the specific nature of the harm, he was rendered unfit for military service in the Civil War, which had broken out six months earlier, and he considered it “a private catastrophe or difficulty, bristling with embarrassments.”

Although he enrolled at Harvard Law School in 1862, after a year he realized the law held no special fascination for him and pursued his interest in literature, rubbing shoulders with authors and critics like William Dean Howells and Charles Eliot Norton. His first published writing appeared in 1863, a review of a stage performance, “Miss Maggie Mitchell in Fanchon and the Cricket.” His first short story, “A Tragedy of Error,” followed (anonymously) in 1864, and more published works of criticism and fiction appeared over the next five years in relatively new publications like The Atlantic Monthly and The Nation.

In 1869 he left the U.S. and spent over a year traveling in Europe, living in London, Rome, and Paris, and meeting such artistic and literary luminaries as Charles Dickens, William Morris, John Ruskin, and Mary Anne Evans (George Eliot). At different points, he worked as a freelance writer in Rome, a correspondent for the New York Tribune in Paris, and a writer of serials for Macmillan and other publishers in London. He wrote his first novel around this time, Watch and Ward (serialized in The Atlantic in 1871, published as a book in 1878), a more melodramatic story that James later disowned as an early immature work. Returning to New York City, he published his collection of travel essays, Transatlantic Sketches (1875), as well as the novella A Passionate Pilgrim and the novel Roderick Hudson, both of which first appeared in serial form in The Atlantic in 1875.

In the fall of that year, he moved to Paris for twelve months before settling in England, where he would remain, apart from two trips back to America and the occasional trip to France or Italy, for the rest of his life. In Paris he was introduced to several writers who would influence his own work, including Émile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Alphonse Daudet, and Ivan Turgenev. James’s prolific output over the next seven years would establish him as one of the preeminent authors of his time. He wrote and published two works of literary criticism, French Poets and Novelists (1878) and Hawthorne (1879), a critical biography of one of his idols; and he produced in the same time-frame four works of fiction—The American (1877–1878), The Europeans (1878), Daisy Miller (1878), and Confidence (1879). It was the novella Daisy Miller that secured his fame on both sides of the Atlantic, depicting the romantic and tragic story of an unconventional young American woman living in Rome.

Washington Square (1880) and what many consider one of his great masterpieces, The Portrait of a Lady (1881), followed in quick succession. Despite James’s success, the period from 1881 to 1883 marked a tragic time in his life, which saw his mother die in 1881, followed by his father a few months later and then his younger brother Wilkie. Ralph Waldo Emerson, an old family friend and William’s godfather, passed away in 1882, and in January 1883 James’s friend Turgenev died of cancer. James traveled back to America in 1882–1883, but returned to London, where he remained and continued his writing career.

Showing the increasing influence of the French realists he reunited with in 1884, James published two novels, The Bostonians and The Princess Casamassina, in 1886 to chilly critical and popular receptions. For most of the 1880s and 1890s, James was out of fashion, struggled to make money, and turned to writing for the theater. Buoyed by a bequest in the early 1890s, he committed himself to succeeding as a playwright for the London stage. But, though he wrote more than a half-dozen plays, he only managed to get two produced—an adaptation of his novel The Americans and the drama Guy Domville, commissioned by George Alexander for the opening of his renovated St. James’s Theatre. The Americans was a moderate success on the stage, but Domville only lasted four weeks before making way for Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

Though he occasionally dabbled in the theater after this period, he returned to writing fiction full-time and in 1897 moved to Rye, Sussex, where he wrote The Turn of the Screw. A hugely popular and critically acclaimed novella published in twelve installments in Collier’s Weekly from January to April 1898, the psychologically suspenseful ghost story helped spur a renewed interest in his fiction and sustained commercial success for the author. The story, the finest example of James’s fascination with supernatural horror, would take on a life of its own in the decades to come as critics debated whether the ghosts in the story were real, or if the governess was simply delusional. The beauty of the story, and the key to its longevity, is that it works no matter which way you interpret the strange goings-on.

In the early part of the twentieth century, James wrote three major novels—The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904)—which began a critical reappraisal of his work and, along with his other significant fiction, would be studied and debated up to the present day. James only completed one other novel, The Outcry (1911), which became a bestseller in the United States, a story he adapted from his original idea for a three-act play. He worked on two other novels afterward, The Ivory Tower and The Sense of the Past, both of which remained unfinished when he died and were published posthumously.

In his so-called “third phase,” James’s writing was marked by increased emphasis on complex descriptive imagery and intricate explorations of characters’ inner thought processes, with plots that hinged on ambiguous or hidden motivations or veiled secrets. Though sometimes criticized as difficult or even incomprehensible, James’s focus on laying bare the consciousness of his characters in all their ambivalent, contradictory glory foreshadowed and influenced much of the great fiction of the twentieth century. Indeed, so admired is his literary output that he has been referred to as “the Master” by generations of critics, academics, and authors.

During the last decade of his life, James focused much of his talent on nonfiction, publishing critical biographies, cultural and literary criticism, travel essays, and a two-volume autobiography, Small Boy and Others (1913) and Notes of a Son and Brother (1914). He also published a twenty-four-volume anthology of his selected fiction, The New York Edition of Henry James, from 1907 to 1909. In it, he wrote prefaces to all of the novels, novellas, and short stories he included, and even revised many of them—though his revisions have been considered by most critics to be unnecessary and overly verbose tinkerings with the originals.

A lifelong bachelor, James never married and once described himself as “hopelessly celibate.” Whether this was due to the possible testicular injury he received at eighteen as a volunteer firefighter, or if he was homosexual, or simply asexual, no one knows for certain. And James, for his part, was as inscrutable about his romantic life in his private correspondence as he was in describing the ambiguous inner lives of his characters. But he led a rich social life, maintaining friendships with many of the most prominent members of the literary and artistic community in Britain, America, and Europe.

By the end of his life, James had spent most of it outside his native country and in some ways epitomized the eternal outsider, an observer and recorder of life around him. But he cared deeply for those around him and about both the nation of his birth and his adopted home. Frustrated by America’s neutrality after the breakout of the Great War in 1914, which was engulfing Europe and taking the lives of the children of his friends, James became a British subject in 1915. He was given the Order of Merit, awarded by the British monarch, early in 1916 for his contributions to English literature. James died on February 28, 1916, at the age of seventy-two in London, and his ashes were buried in Cambridge Cemetery in Massachusetts.