Henry James James, Henry (1843 - 1916)

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(Gothic Literature)

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Henry James (1843 - 1916)

American novelist, short story and novella writer, essayist, critic, biographer, autobiographer, and playwright.

James is considered one of the great novelists in the English language and the writer at the forefront of the movement toward more realism in literature. By enlarging the scope of the novel, introducing dramatic elements to the narrative tale, using highly self-conscious narrators, and refining the point-of-view technique to a new level of sophistication, he advanced the art of fiction. He also probed a number of social and psychological concerns, such as the artist's role in society, the need for both the aesthetic and moral life, and the benefits of a developed consciousness receptive to the thoughts and feelings of others. Psychological and social questions pervade James's small body of supernatural fiction as well, which uses hauntedness and horror to offer insights into the conscious self and the truth that lies within the human soul. James's best-known Gothic works are the novella The Turn of the Screw (1898) and the ghost stories that he wrote over the course of his long career, notably "The Ghostly Rental" (1876) and "The Jolly Corner" (1908). Absent from these works are the typical Gothic conventions found in other works of the genre, as James concentrates on the internal rather than the external conditions of his fictional subjects. The psychological ghost story is taken to new heights as it focuses not on external specters but on the perceiving consciousness. In James's fiction, Gothic elements are used in the service of realism and psychology to emphasize the impenetrable depths of human emotion and to highlight the strange and often frightening nature of the human mind.


James was born in New York City, the second son of well-to-do, liberal parents. Because of his grandfather's enormous wealth, a fortune he divided equally among his children, James's father never had to work for his income. Henry James, Sr. was an intellectual man of his day: a devotee of the philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg and an occasional theorist on religion and philosophy. He sometimes had hallucinations that he regarded as religious experiences, and as he was growing up James witnessed his father's strange behavior during such episodes. James's mother had a more practical bent, a quality she was forced to develop in order to compensate for her husband's erratic conduct. James himself was a shy, bookish boy who assumed the role of a quiet observer beside his active elder brother William, who later became the founder of psychological study in America and the prominent philosopher of pragmatism. Both Henry and William spent much of their youth traveling between the United States and Europe. They were schooled by tutors and governesses in such diverse environments as Manhattan, Geneva, Paris, and London. Both developed a skill in foreign languages and an awareness of Europe rare among Americans in their time.

At the age of nineteen James enrolled at Harvard Law School, briefly entertaining thoughts of a professional career. However, this ambition soon changed and he began devoting his study time to reading literature, particularly the works of Honoré de Balzac and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Inspired by the literary atmosphere of Cambridge and Boston, James wrote his first fiction and criticism, his earliest works appearing in the Continental Monthly, The Atlantic Monthly, and The North American Review. From the beginning of his career James wrote supernatural stories, inspired by his love for the work of Hawthorne; his first two unearthly stories, "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes" (1868) and "De Grey: A Romance" (1868) clearly show Hawthorne's influence.

In the 1860s James met and formed lifelong friendships with William Dean Howells—then assistant editor at The Atlantic —Charles Eliot Norton, and James Russell Lowell. Howells was to become James's editor and literary agent, and together the two could...

(The entire section is 14,831 words.)