Support the Monkey! Tell All your Friends and Teachers
THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
In the mid 1850s, a father made this observation about his 14-year-old son's unexceptional performance in school: "Harry is not so fond of study, properly so-called, as of reading.... He has considerable talent as a writer, but I am at a loss to know whether he will ever accomplish much." The father need not have worried. Within fifty years, "Harry" (as family and friends called Henry James) would be known among his peers as "The Master." He is known to us today as one of the greatest novelists to have written in English.
Henry James was born in New York City on April 15, 1843, into a family that was as eccentric as it was wealthy and as brilliant as it was eccentric. Henry James Sr., was a philosopher who counted among his visitors many of the noted thinkers of the day, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. His oldest son, William, would in time also write on philosophy and psychology, surpassing his father to become one of the most important figures in American intellectual history. The James family made frequent and lengthy trips through Europe, giving the young Henry a formal education that was at best haphazard, but also exposing him early to the continent, that would become the setting and the subject of so much of his writing.
Wealth, leisure, and travel should perhaps have made Henry James's childhood an idyll. But it was an idyll shadowed by James's fears and insecurities. Compared to his confident older brother, Henry felt frail and unmasculine; sometimes mocked by other boys, he retreated into the company of his mother, sister, and aunt. In 1860 the family had settled at Newport, Rhode Island. There, the following year, while helping others fight a stable fire, James suffered an injury he described as "a horrid even if an obscure hurt." Throughout his life he remained as mysterious about the specific nature of this injury as he would be about the evil in The Turn of the Screw, but it severely affected him. It prevented him from fighting in the Civil War. Some critics also contend that it was the cause- or perhaps simply the convenient excuse- behind James's apparently total lifelong rejection of sexual relationships. In any case, the physical and psychological pain it gave him was one more force isolating him from the rest of the world. It was to compensate for this sense of isolation, to make some connection with others, that James turned to writing.
After giving formal schooling one final try at age 19 in a miserable and unsuccessful year at Harvard Law School, James determined to make literature his career. He began to publish his first book reviews and stories. Some of these early works have been described as being "like the faint and confused murmurs of a sleeper who has something on his mind and is trying to awaken," but they hint at the concerns of his later masterpieces. Many of them were influenced by the work of an earlier nineteenth- century writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who shared with James a fascination with the supernatural, a concern with the restraints that society places on the individual, and an interest in the way the past shapes the present.
Where Hawthorne had been obsessed by the American past, however, James was increasingly drawn to Europe. America, he tended to feel, was too new, too raw, and too simple to inspire literature of the highest caliber. He loved the complexities of life in Europe- the sense of history, the traditions, the more elaborate manners of a more formal society. He was also influenced by European authors, notably the French writers Honore de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert, the English writers George Eliot and William Makepeace Thackeray, and the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev.
During the 1870s, James made several lengthy trips to Europe, living first in Rome, then in Paris, and finally in England. His decision to live abroad is considered the most important decision of his career as a writer. For it was his years as an American in Europe that provided him his greatest subject matter- the stories of independent, confident, sometimes dangerously naive residents of the new world confronting the sophisticated, often corrupting subtleties of the old.
James explored this international theme (as it is usually called) in his early novels, Roderick Hudson (1876) and The American (1877) and in the first work that won him both critical and popular acclaim, Daisy Miller. Though set in Europe, Daisy Miller was in fact partly inspired by James's experiences in a New York State resort, Saratoga. While writing a travel article on the town, James was struck by the manners of the well-to-do Americans he encountered there. The mothers and daughters all seemed dressed up to do nothing; the teen-aged girls seemed particularly idle. The younger children were wildly undisciplined, allowed to stay up until all hours of the night and often found dozing in the armchairs of hotel lobbies. Here were the prototypes of Mrs. Miller, Daisy, and her brother Randolph.
The rest of the inspiration came from Europe, however. During a visit to Rome, Henry walked to the Colosseum with his brother, William. It was a winter evening. The ruin loomed half in moonlight and half in shadow. Standing on the spot where so many Christians had been thrown to the lions horrified William, but Henry saw beauty as well as tragedy in the Colosseum. He would soon choose this exact setting for the climax of Daisy Miller.
On another visit to Rome, James discovered the specific situation that would suggest his tale. A friend told a very sketchy anecdote about an "uninformed" American girl who had picked up a very handsome Italian man with no social standing. The well-meaning girl had introduced her friend to the very selective American society in Rome, by whose standards he was considered "low life." They promptly showed their disapproval by snubbing the innocent girl.
In 1876, Daisy Miller: A Study was published in England's Cornhill Magazine to instant success. Initially rejected by an American publisher, the story achieved such popularity in England that it was quickly printed in the United States without James's authorization. By the time James could have it legitimately published in the U.S., most people had read the pirated edition. No work of his, except for The Turn of the Screw, would ever equal Daisy Miller in popularity. But his earnings from the sale of Daisy Miller in the United States amounted to only about two hundred dollars.
Daisy Miller was a cultural phenomenon not unlike a hit movie or number one song today. Impulsive American girls traveling in Europe were suddenly referred to as "Daisy Millers." There were even "Daisy Miller" hats in the stores. A writer named Virginia W. Johnson published An English Daisy Miller, with an English girl as its heroine.
Daisy's fame would follow Henry James throughout his life, occasionally to his chagrin. In the 1880s he followed Daisy with a string of fine novels- including one, The Portrait of a Lady (1881) that in many ways expands and deepens the themes and characters of Daisy Miller- but none of them attracted the reading audience of his simpler, earlier tale.
In the early 1890s James made several disastrous attempts to write plays. Yet he was too much the disciplined professional to abandon writing, or even remain very discouraged for long. By the late 1890s he was again producing fine work, including the novels The Spoils of Poynton (1896) and What Maisie Knew (1897) and the ghostly tale, The Turn of the Screw (1898).
When Henry James was 12, Frank Leslie's New York Journal serialized a story entitled, "Temptation"- a tale of evil populated by governesses; housekeepers; valets; a brother and sister victimized by "horrors"; and by a villain named Peter Quin and his sidekick, Miles. Over 40 years later, James serialized his own tale of evil, replete with governesses; a housekeeper; sister and brother (named Miles) victimized by horrors; and a villainous valet named Peter Quint. He called his tale The Turn of the Screw.
James's interest in the supernatural was strong, and it figured in a number of his stories of the 1890s. Yet The Turn of the Screw seemed to tap something particularly deep in his emotions. As he was writing about the country house, Bly, he was preparing to move into a similar country estate, Lamb House. Describing the complicated feelings James had for Lamb House, his biographer, Leon Edel, wrote: "The house symbolized the world of his childhood, the place where he had been least free, where he had had to resort to disguise and subterfuge in order to possess himself and his identity." There are other connections between the story and James's own life. Like Miles's childhood, James's was spent in the company of women. His own boyhood governess was let go from the family's employ, "a cloud of revelations succeeding her withdrawal." Perhaps it was on this character in his own past that he based Miss Jessel.
When The Turn of the Screw appeared in installments in Collier's Weekly in 1898, James was flooded with letters from readers who were eager to have the story's mystery solved for them. Not since the publication of Daisy Miller twenty years earlier had he produced a work that evoked such a response from the public. James teased his readers by calling the story "a trap for the unwary," but never explained the mystery. And in some ways the mystery has deepened since. In 1934 the noted American critic Edmund Wilson wrote that the ghosts the governess supposedly sees in the tale aren't real at all, but instead are merely figments of her troubled imagination. In his view, and in the view of many other critics, The Turn of the Screw is not really a ghost story but rather a study of a deeply disturbed mind. Are the ghosts real or not? Is the governess sane or not? It's in part because of these ambiguities that The Turn of the Screw is regarded not merely as a fine tale of the supernatural but as one of the finest stories- of any category- in world literature.
After the turn of the century, James produced in quick succession two studies of adultery which are perhaps his greatest novels: The Ambassadors (1903) and The Golden Bowl (1904). This flurry of activity was followed from 1907 to 1909 by the issue of The Novels and Tales of Henry James, New York Edition, a multivolume collection for which James made many revisions in his work. The prefaces he wrote for this edition, according to Leon Edel, gave James a chance "to say what he hoped all his life the critics would say for him." Taken together, these prefaces constitute his theory of the novel.
Henry James had a profound influence on the development of the modern novel. Much of his literary innovation is related to the scientific innovation of the time, in particular to the work of his brother William. Psychology was a new science in Henry James's day; William James is credited with doing much to introduce the discipline to the medical community and to the general public. As a writer of fiction, James worked in the same direction. He explored what his characters were thinking as well as what they were doing. To that end he sought a prose style that would accurately follow the twists and turns of peoples' thoughts. It's a style that struck many readers of his day (and some today) as unnecessarily abstract and convoluted, but that for many others is a brilliant mirroring of the way the human mind works. This skill led the great twentieth-century American poet, Ezra Pound, to describe James's writing as "pages of diagnosis."
James also experimented with restricting the point of view in his fiction. Rather than have a narrator tell you what to think, James allows you to hear characters- for example, the governess who narrates most of The Turn of the Screw- express their own thoughts. You are then free to make up your own mind about them.
With these experiments, James was developing the psychological novel, a form in which the inner lives of the characters receive more attention than do their external actions. He was paving the way for the more modern literary form known as "stream of consciousness," where the prose reflects the supposedly unedited internal thoughts of the characters. (This phrase, often used to describe novels by twentieth-century writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, itself comes from the work of William James.)
James was highly productive: among his works are twenty novels, one hundred twelve tales, several plays, autobiographical writings, literary studies, and travel impressions. He was also highly social: though he never married, he was a frequent dinner and weekend guest in English aristocratic and literary circles, circles in which he observed much of the behavior that found its way into his works. Though he associated with the very rich, he was never really one of them- the image of him as an independently wealthy man who could afford the luxury of being a writer has been proved untrue, for throughout his lifetime he supported himself on the modest income from his writing. The money he borrowed from his father was repaid with earnings from literary endeavors, and the small inheritance he received upon his father's death was contributed to the support of his ill sister Alice. Particularly toward the end of his life, his friends worried about his finances, knowing that his books had not brought him the monetary rewards their artistry deserved. One close friend, the wealthy American novelist Edith Wharton, even arranged to pay James $8,000, disguising the gift (which she knew the proud James would never accept) as an advance from his publisher.
Near the end of his life, James formalized the process of Europeanization he had begun so many years before by taking out British citizenship in support of a country that had just entered World War I. He actively engaged in war relief work until his health failed in 1916. On his death, few of his many books were in print. It would take two decades for his work to be rediscovered by the public. But James's writing had a profound influence on many distinguished writers, including Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Katherine Anne Porter, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf.
Henry James is often called "a writer's writer," meaning that he is highly regarded by those people who can best appreciate his skill. For the novice writer, Henry James had advice that will also serve his readers well: "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!"
[Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]