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Fifty Authors Analysis

Henry James
Date of Birth
April 15, 1843    (1843-1916)
Places Where he Lived
He lived in Cambridge, Paris, and Newport, Rhode Island.
His Major Works (titles)
The Bostonians
The Portrait of a Lady
Washington Square
The Turn of the Screw
Biographical Sketch

Henry James (1843-1916) was born on April 15, 1943, to Henry James,
Sr., and his wife Mary Walsh Robertson. His older brother William was born
in 1842, and younger siblings Garth Wilkinson, Robertson, and Alice were
born in 1845, 1846, and 1848, respectively.

Henry Sr., was the son of an Irish immigrant, and was one of thirteen
children. By the time his own children were born, he had inherited a great
deal in wealth from his father, and the James family, at the time of Henry
Jr.’s birth, lived in New York City, where Henry Sr. devoted his time to
the study of theology, philosophy, and mysticism, rejecting his father’s
Presbyterian Church to follow the teachings of Swedish Christian mystic
Emanuel Siedenburg.

The James children were educated in a variety of often unorthodox
circumstances  sometimes at schools, sometimes with private tutors, always
with access to books and new experiences. Margaret Fuller, Washington
Irving, William Makepeace Thackeray, and George Ripley visited to the James
home during Henry Jr.’s boyhood. In 1855, the James family embarked on a
three year-long trip to Geneva, London, and Paris  an experience that
influenced Henry Jr.’s decision, as an adult, to live and write in Europe
rather than his native America.

Upon their return from Europe, Henry Sr. moved the family to
Cambridge, allowing for continued contact with prominent writers and
thinkers, including nearby Concord’s Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David
Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott. Henry Jr. was a voracious reader and spent his
teenage years divided between Cambridge, Europe, and Newport, Rhode Island,
where he studied for a time with painter William Morris Hunt. His brother
William was found to be a more adept artist, and Henry soon discontinued
his lessons, turning instead to writing.

At the breakout of the Civil War, brothers Robertson and Garth
Wilkinson enlisted in the army, where both led all-black regiments. Neither
Henry, who suffered a back injury, nor William, who was studying at
Harvard, entered the war. After the war “Bob” and “Wilky” both attempted
ultimately unsuccessful agricultural enterprises in Florida. Wilky died in
his late thirties from physical maladies stemming from his war injuries,
and Robertson, an alcoholic and sometime writer, lived until his early
sixties with little literary success.

Only sister Alice James lived a life of fragile physical and mental
health and was often bedridden. She is known to have frequently
contemplated suicide and near the end of her life, wrote to her brother
William, the psychologist, “”When I am gone, pray don’t think of me simply
as a creature that might have been something else, had neurotic science
been born.” She spent the last ten years of her life, before her death of
cancer at age forty-three in 1892, in Europe, near her brother Henry and
her close friend Katharine Peabody Loring. An avid and brilliant diarist,
Alice kept a journal which her brothers published posthumously.

William James turned away from his adolescent talent for art and
instead studied medicine at Harvard. He spent the majority of his
professional life there, first as a professor of physiology and later in
the new field of psychology. His landmark Principles of Psychology and
public lectures led to fame in both America and Europe. He ultimately died
of heart failure at age sixty-eight in 1910. Henry’s experience with
Harvard was far briefer than his brother’s. He attended Harvard Law School
from 1862 to 1863 but withdrew to concentrate on his writing, and was later
awarded an honorary degree in 1911.

Unlike William, who married and fathered five children, Henry remained
a bachelor his entire life. Though lacking in definitive evidence, some
critics theorize that he was a homosexual, pointing to what they perceive
as homoeroticism in relationships such as that of Pemberton and Morgan
Moreen in his story “The Pupil” and Peter Quint and Miles in The Turn of
the Screw or to James’s facility with female voices in his writing  an
ability that may reflect a capacity for empathy rather than evidence of his
sexuality. Others suggest his cousin Mary “Minny” Temple as the object of
his affection and posit her death from tuberculosis at age twenty-four in
1870 as the reason for James’s celibacy. James had spent time with her in
Newport and based several of his heroines on her. Still others suggest that
the injury which had prevented his service in the Civil War had rendered
him impotent.

James published his first story, “A Tragedy of Error,” in the
Continental Monthly in 1864 when he was only twenty. In it, a wife’s plan
to have her husband murdered results in the death of her lover. James’s
interest in ghosts, which would resurface in The Turn of the Screw, was
apparent in his 1868 story, “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes,” in which
a man’s second wife is killed by the ghost of his first wife. Ultimately,
James wrote twenty novels and in excess of one hundred short stories and
novellas, as well as literary criticism, plays, travelogues, and reviews
more than any other great American writer. To define James as an “American”
writer, however, is not entirely accurate. James lived and wrote in England
and sometimes France, Switzerland, and Italy  for the majority of his
adult life and became a British subject in 1915, a year before his death at
age seventy-three.

Among James’s most famous literary works are 1878’s The Europeans,
1878’s commercial success Daisy Miller, 1880’s critically acclaimed
Washington Square , 1886’s The Bostonians, and 1898’s The Turn of the
Screw. James met and corresponded with a number of American and European
literary figures of his day  among them, Ivan Turgenov, Joseph Conrad,
Oscar Wilde, Robert Lewis Stevenson Edith Whartonand Stephen Crane
influenced his literary style and his belief that: “There is no such thing
as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That
is all.”

The Turn of the Screw was written in 1897, three years after the
suicide of James’s close friend Constance Fenimore Woolson, five years
after Alice’s death, at a time when James suffered from crippling gout. For
several years, his books had been selling poorly, and his plays, including
Guy Domville in 1895, were considered too “talky” and intellectual to be
profitable on the London stage. After its mixed reaction by audience and
critics, James chose to “take up my own pen” rather than please others’
expectations  and wrote The Turn of the Screw. The novel, typed by James’s
secretary William McAlpine on the newly-invented typewriter, because James
suffered from Repetitive Strain Injury, was published in installments in
Collier’s weekly magazine between January and April 1898. It became the
most widely read of all James’s works of fiction and remains famous because
of the critical controversies it continues to inspire.

The subject matter of The Turn of the Screw stems from a nineteenth-
century fascination with ghosts, with which James was quite familiar. Henry
James, Sr., had been a praised by the Society for Psychical Research for
his observations of spirit phenomena. William was president of the society
from 1894 to 1896 and devoted time to the research of spiritual phenomena.
James’s notebooks record a visit in 1895 to his friend, Edward White
Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury, who told him the tale young children
corrupted by the ghosts of depraved servants, and another friend, Edward
Gurney, published an account of woman and child living in a house haunted
by a wicked male servant and a female ghost dressed in black. Though The
Turn of the Screw may be considered a “ghost story,” it is a ghost story
written for a world in which ghosts were considered by many to be real,
dangerous, scientifically-observed phenomena.

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