April 15, 2011

Birth of Henry James

Though, for the majority of his life, he was a British subject, it was in New York City that Henry James was born on April 15, 1843. He spent the last 53 of his 72 years in England but, even as a child, he frequently went back and forth between his native United States and Europe. Two of his early novels were The American and The Europeans.

James is considered a major figure in the literary realism movement. His contemporary and friend William Dean Howells noted that James tried to do something entirely new in literature: "A novelist he is not, after the old fashion," said Howells, "or after any fashion but his own."

One of James's most well-known works is The Turn of the Screw, a novella published in 1898. The book's narrator has become the teacher to two orphaned children whose caretaker, their wealthy uncle, did not want to take care of them. Instead, he allows them to live in a second home he owns among servants. The two well-behaved children, however, seem to be harboring a secret after the narrator discovers two ghosts in the home — ghosts of prior employees. She becomes quite suspicious of the children's well-mannered ways, assuming they are somehow corrupted by the ghosts and refuse to admit it. She becomes obsessed with proving both that the ghosts exist and that the children know them:

How can I retrace to-day the strange steps of my obsession? There were times of our being together [with the children] when I would have been ready to swear that, literally, in my presence, but with my direct sense of it closed, they had visitors who were known and were welcome. Then it was that, had I not been deterred by the very chance that such an injury might prove greater than the injury to be averted, my exaltation would have broken out, 'They're here, they're here, you little wretches,' I would have cried, 'and you can't deny it now!'


  1. I love Henry James. Except his dual citizenship, I know very little about his life... though I think I read somewhere he had a dog that he babied. Which makes me love him more.

  2. This to Sarah P: If you like James, be sure to visit his house in Rye, if you get to England. (It's a National Trust property.) The lesbian writer Radclyffe Hall lived just down the street. Warm evidence of James exists throughout the home.

  3. Possibly a little closer to home: Don't forget Edith Wharton's estate "The Mount" in Lenox, Massachusetts. Henry James was a frequent overnight guest. A post on Mrs. Wharton and The Mount is, coincidentally, coming up in a couple weeks here!

  4. Looking forward to "The Mount" post you mention, Rob. And will there be more about Wharton/James and their relationship--or have you already addressed that earlier in this blog?
    P.S. As author of the previous post, I neglected to mention that James' property in Rye is known as Lamb House.

  5. Henry James work was the first time I witnessed (consciously)in literature what I'd seen in the Impressionists' paintings: perception deepening with the addition of visual knowledge and inferential knowledge entailed. The book was "The Ambassadors" and the scene was where Strethers watches the lovers in the boat. As they come into view in real-time, he is able to identify them first and to perceive the implications next. Thank you HJ for this epiphany, and RV for creating a post that made me think about this again.