Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2360
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 be said to have inaugurated the era of realism in American literature. In 1869 James went abroad for his first adult encounter with Europe. While in London he was taken by the Nortons to meet some of England's greatest writers, including George Eliot, John Ruskin, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. The year 1869 also marked the death of James's beloved cousin Minny Temple, for whom he had formed a deep emotional attachment. This shock, and the intensity of his experiences in Europe, provided much of the material that would figure in such later works as The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and The Wings of the Dove (1902).
James returned to the United States in 1870 determined to discover whether he could live and write in his native country. He continued to write stories and began work on his first novel, Watch and Ward (unpublished until 1878). However, after a winter of unremitting hackwork in New York, James became convinced that he could write better and live more cheaply abroad. In 1875 he moved permanently to Europe, settling first in Rome, then in Paris, and eventually in London, where he found the people and conditions best suited to his imagination. He wrote stories and wasted no time in producing the early novels which would establish his reputation—Roderick Hudson (1876), The American (1877), and The Europeans (1878). While in Paris, James was admitted into the renowned circle of Gustave Flaubert, Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Alphonse Daudet, and Ivan Turgenev. He greatly admired the French writers, but felt closest to Turgenev, who confirmed his own view that a novelist need not worry about "story," but should focus exclusively on character. Though James earned recognition with his first European novels, it was not until the publications of Daisy Miller (1879) and The Portrait of a Lady that he gained popular success. The latter marked the end of what critics consider the first period in his career. Throughout the following decades and into the twentieth century he progressed toward more complex effects in his novels and stories. Because of his experiments he eventually lost the popularity that he had achieved with Daisy Miller and The Portrait of a Lady. Many critics suggest that it was this growing neglect by the public which induced him to try his hand as a playwright. However, after several attempts at drama—most notably his dramatization of The American (1891) and his new productions, Guy Domville (1895) and The High Bid (1908), all of which failed at the box office—James gave up the theater.
The years 1898 to 1904 were the most productive of James's literary career. During this period he published several volumes of stories, his ghostly novella The Turn of the Screw, and the consummate novels of his late maturity—The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904). After 1904 James's health and creativity began to decline. Though he still produced a sizeable amount of work, consisting mainly of his autobiographies, essays, and criticism, he finished only one novel, The Outcry (1911). With the outbreak of World War I, James became particularly distressed. He devoted much of his remaining energy to serving the Allied cause, and when the United States did not immediately back the Allies he assumed British citizenship in protest against his native land. On his deathbed the following year he received the British Order of Merit.
James's reputation rests primarily on his novels, the best of which are acknowledged to be the "international" novels and those depicting the American character, including Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians (1886), Washington Square (1881) and The Golden Bowl. James's ghost stories are less well known, but they continue to be read and admired. Written over the course of his career, they reveal how the author's interests and craftsmanship developed. The early stories "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes" and "De Grey: A Romance," for example, explore the Hawthornian themes of pride, envy, and guilt as well as the "presentness of the past," but without the psychological complexity of Hawthorne's short fiction. But then in the lurid 1876 tale "The Ghostly Rental," centered around a haunted house, James leaves the reader to judge the authenticity of ghosts, supplying just enough psychological detail to make the characters' supernatural experiences genuinely convincing but the reality of the ghosts equally problematic.
The "reality" of the ghostly experience is further complicated in "Sir Edmund Orme" (1891). The story is framed by an unidentified speaker who claims that he came into "possession" of this manuscript—narrated in the first person—after the death of the narrator's wife, "whom I take," the speaker conjectures, "to have been one of the persons referred to. There is nothing in the strange story to establish this point." The uncertainty as to how the reader should take the story is further emphasized when the speaker cautions that the manuscript may not be a "report of a real occurrence." The reader's incredulity is matched by the speaker's skepticism. In less than a paragraph, James establishes a sense of verisimilitude and gently leads the reader into a willing suspension of disbelief. In "The Private Life" (1892) there is no question as to the reality of the supernatural—at least as far as the main characters are concerned—but the story is more amusing than terrifying, both for the characters who experience the strange phenomena and for the reader who is privy to their adventure. James based his story and the character of Clare Vawdrey on the great Victorian poet Robert Browning. Observing him socially, James found Browning "loud" and aggressive but mundane, even banal. Yet James acknowledged his greatness as a poet. This story playfully explores the contradiction. "Owen Wingrave" (1892) is a more somber effort. Trained as a soldier, young Owen Wingrave challenges the family military tradition and leaves school. Shocked, his tutor, his friends, and his family accuse him of selfishness and cowardice, and put enormous pressure on him to continue in the military. All of the characters—including Owen's teacher—meet for a weekend in one of the family's homes, one room of which is supposedly haunted by the ghost of Owen's ancestor Colonel Wingrave, who had killed one of his sons. To prove that he is not a coward, Owen accepts a dare to spend the night in the room, and the next day is found dead. The circumstances of both his ancestor's and Owen's death suggest a supernatural explanation, but the horror is not in the account of Owen's death but in the portrait of the family that pressures Owen and leads him to this desperate act.
The Turn of the Screw is by common consent James's best tale of supernatural horror. It is framed with a speaker, Douglas, who produces a manuscript by a governess who had been infatuated with her employer. Her manuscript describes how she is confronted by a pair of ghosts that she suspects is corrupting the two young children in her charge. The apparitions are those of Peter Quint, a man formerly employed in the household, and Miss Jessel, the previous governess. As her suspicions deepen, the new governess confronts each of the children concerning their collusion with the ghosts; during each confrontation, one of the specters appears to the governess, bringing the action to a crisis. The girl, Flora, denies having seen the wraiths and, apparently hysterical, is sent to her uncle in London. The boy, Miles, dies in the governess's arms during the culmination of a psychic battle between the governess and the ghost of Peter Quint. In this story James once again leaves the nature and "reality" of the supernatural a mystery, and the story has been read variously as a horrifying ghost story and a penetrating psychological study of an emotionally unstable woman whose visions of ghosts are mere hallucinations.
"The Jolly Corner" is James's last and one of his best stories involving the supernatural. Its hero, Spencer Brydon, returns to New York after a thirty-year absence to visit his boyhood home (the house on the jolly corner). Obsessed by a desire to know what he might have become had he remained in New York, Brydon visits the house several times and senses "presences," which he interprets to be members of his family, now dead, and their history. Brydon is so frightened that he faints. When he awakens, his head is in the lap of a woman friend, who has also seen this ghost. While not as ambiguous as The Turn of the Screw—Brydon's friend confirms the existence of the ghost—the story is similarly powerful as a study of one's search for personal identity, as the protagonist gains insight into himself by his comparison with his "other self." Moreover, the core idea, the consequences of his choices, is the basis of art itself. It is the exploration through the imagina-tion of the possibilities of human action, a theme that has universal appeal.
James achieved commercial and critical success during his lifetime. However, because of the subject matter of his works—their lack of social and political concerns and emphasis on high society—his reputation suffered after World War I, only to be revived again in the 1940s. By the 1960s most critics realized the depth of James's fiction, and since then he has been acknowledged as a master of the novel. Although James is not thought of primarily as a Gothic writer, some critics regard The Turn of the Screw as perhaps the world's finest ghost story, and the most satisfyingly ambivalent and provocative piece of fiction James ever wrote. Because of the work's relative accessibility and popularity compared to much of James's other work, the novella is often read as an introduction to James. A critical debate has raged since the 1930s as to the exact nature of the piece. Is it a ghost story or a psychological study of an unstable woman? Like James's ghost stories, the novella is admired not only for its ability to horrify but because it presents so realistically the ambiguity inherent in questions of the occult and supernatural. Critics writing about the Gothic elements in James's fiction have discussed his ghost stories as aesthetic experiments in which the author tries to come to terms with questions about consciousness that he explores more fully in other works; the use of the supernatural to investigate complex questions about human psychology; and the ghosts in the works as representations or manifestations of the human psyche.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 349
A Passionate Pilgrim, and Other Tales (short stories) 1875
Roderick Hudson (novel) 1876
The American (novel) 1877
The Europeans (novel) 1878
French Poets and Novelists (criticism) 1878
Watch and Ward (novel) 1878
Daisy Miller (novel) 1879
Hawthorne (criticism) 1879
The Madonna of the Future, and Other Tales (short stories) 1879
Confidence (novel) 1880
The Portrait of a Lady (novel) 1881
Washington Square (novel) 1881
Daisy Miller [first publication; adaptation of the novel] (play) 1883
The Siege of London. Madame de Mauves (novellas) 1883
A Little Tour in France (travel essays) 1885
The Bostonians (novel) 1886
The Princess Casamassima (novel) 1886
The Aspern Papers. Louisa Pallant. The Modern Warning (novellas) 1888
"The Lesson of the Master" (short story) 1888; published in the journal Universal Review
Partial Portraits (criticism) 1888
A London Life (short stories) 1889
The Tragic Muse (novel) 1890
The American [adaptation of the novel] (play) 1891
"The Real Thing" (short story) 1892; published in the journal Black and White
The Real Thing, and Other Tales (short stories) 1893
Theatricals. Two Comedies: Tenants, Disengaged [first publication] (plays) 1894
Guy Domville (play) 1895
Theatricals, Second Series: The Album, The Reprobate [first publication] (plays) 1895
The Other House (novel) 1896
The Spoils of Poynton (novel) 1897
What Maisie Knew (novel) 1897
The Two Magics: The Turn of the Screw, Covering End (novellas) 1898
The Awkward Age (novel) 1899
The Sacred Fount (novel) 1901
The Wings of the Dove (novel) 1902
The Ambassadors (novel) 1903
"The Beast in the Jungle" (short story) 1903; published in the journal The Better Sort
The Golden Bowl (novel) 1904
English Hours (travel essays) 1905
The American Scene (travel essays) 1907
The Novels and Tales of Henry James. 24 vols. (novels, novellas, and short stories) 1907–09
The High Bid (play) 1908
"The Jolly Corner" (short story) 1908; first published in the journal The English Review
Views and Reviews (criticism) 1908
Italian Hours (travel essays) 1909
The Outcry (novel) 1911
A Small Boy and Others (autobiography) 1913
Notes of a Son and Brother (autobiography) 1914
Notes on Novelists, with Some Other Notes (criticism) 1914
The Ivory Tower (unfinished novel) 1917
The Middle Years (unfinished autobiography) 1917
The Sense of the Past (unfinished novel) 1917
Within the Rim, and Other Essays (essays) 1918
The Letters of Henry James. 2 vols. (letters) 1920
Notes and Reviews (criticism) 1921
The Art of the Novel (criticism) 1934
The Notebooks of Henry James (notebooks) 1947
The Complete Plays of Henry James (plays) 1949
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SOURCE: James, Henry. "The Romance of Some Old Cloths." In Great Ghost Stories: 34 Classic Tales of the Supernatural, compiled by Robin Brockman, pp. 167-85. New York: Gramercy Books, 2002.
The following excerpt is from a short story originally published February 1868 as "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes" in the Atlantic Monthly.
The marriage was to all appearance a happy one, and each party obtained what each had desired—Lloyd 'a devilish fine woman', and Rosalind—but Rosalind's desires, as the reader will have observed, had remained a good deal of a mystery. There were, indeed, two blots upon their felicity, but time would perhaps efface them. During the first three years of her marriage Mrs Lloyd failed to become a mother, and her husband on his side suffered heavy losses of money. This latter circumstance compelled a material retrenchment in his expenditure, and Rosalind was perforce less of a fine lady than her sister had been. She contrived, however, to carry it like a woman of considerable fashion. She had long since ascertained that her sister's copious wardrobe had been sequestrated for the benefit of her daughter, and that it lay languishing in thankless gloom in the dusty attic. It was a revolting thought that these exquisite fabrics should await the good pleasure of a little girl who sat in a high chair and ate bread-and-milk with a wooden spoon. Rosalind had the good taste, however, to say nothing about the matter until several months had expired. Then, at last, she timidly broached it to her husband. Was it not a pity that so much finery should be lost?—for lost it would be, what with colours fading, and moths eating it up, and the change of fashions. But Lloyd gave her so abrupt and peremptory a refusal, that she saw, for the present, her attempt was vain. Six months went by, however, and brought with them new needs and new visions. Rosalind's thoughts hovered lovingly about her sister's relics. She went up and looked at the chest in which they lay imprisoned. There was a sullen defiance in its three great padlocks and its iron bands which only quickened her cupidity. There was something exasperating in its incorruptible immobility. It was like a grim and grizzled old household servant, who locks his jaws over a family secret. And then there was a look of capacity in its vast extent, and a sound as of dense fullness, when Rosalind knocked its side with the toe of her little shoe, which caused her to flush with baffled longing. 'It's absurd,' she cried; 'it's improper, it's wicked'; and she forthwith resolved upon another attack upon her husband. On the following day, after dinner, when he had had his wine, she boldly began it. But he cut her short with great sternness.
'Once for all, Rosalind,' said he, 'it's out of the question. I shall be gravely displeased if you return to the matter.'
'Very good,' said Rosalind. 'I am glad to learn the esteem in which I am held. Gracious heaven,' she cried, 'I am a very happy woman! It's an agreeable thing to feel one's self sacrificed to a caprice!' And her eyes filled with tears of anger and disappointment.
Lloyd had a good-natured man's horror of a woman's sobs, and he attempted—I may say he condescended—to explain. 'It's not a caprice, dear, it's a promise,' he said—'an oath.'
'An oath? It's a pretty matter for oaths! and to whom, pray?'
'To Perdita,' said the young man, raising his eyes for an instant, and immediately dropping them.
'Perdita—ah, Perdita!' and Rosalind's tears broke forth. Her bosom heaved with stormy sobs—sobs which were the long-deferred sequel of the violent fit of weeping in which she had indulged herself on the night when she discovered her sister's betrothal. She had hoped, in her better moments, that she had done with her jealousy; but her temper, on that occasion, had taken an ineffaceable hold. 'And pray, what right had Perdita to dispose of my future?' she cried. 'What right had she to bind you to meanness and cruelty? Ah, I occupy a dignified place, and I make a very fine figure! I am welcome to what Perdita has left! And what has she left? I never knew till now how little! Nothing, nothing, nothing.'
This was a very poor logic, but it was very good as a 'scene'. Lloyd put his arm round his wife's waist and tried to kiss her, but she shook him off with magnificent scorn. Poor fellow! he had coveted a 'devilish fine woman', and he had got one. Her scorn was intolerable. He walked away with his ears tingling—irresolute, distracted. Before him was his secretary, and in it the sacred key which with his own hand he had turned in the triple lock. He marched up and opened it, and took the key from a secret drawer, wrapped in a little packet which he had sealed with his own honest bit of glazonry. Je garde, said the motto—'I keep.' But he was ashamed to put it back. He flung it upon the table beside his wife.
'Put it back!' she cried. 'I want it not. I hate it!'
'I wash my hands of it,' cried her husband. 'God forgive me!'
Mrs Lloyd gave an indignant shrug of her shoulders, and swept out of the room, while the young man retreated by another door. Ten minutes later Mrs Lloyd returned, and found the room occupied by her little step-daughter and the nursery-maid. The key was not on the table. She glanced at the child. Her little niece was perched on a chair, with the packet in her hands. She had broken the seal with her own small fingers. Mrs Lloyd hastily took possession of the key.
At the habitual supper-hour Arthur Lloyd came back from his counting-room. It was the month of June, and supper was served by daylight. The meal was placed on the table, but Mrs Lloyd failed to make her appearance. The servant whom his master sent to call her came back with the assurance that her room was empty, and that the women informed him that she had not been seen since dinner. They had, in truth, observed her to have been in tears, and, supposing her to be shut up in her chamber, had not disturbed her. Her husband called her name in various parts of the house, but without response. At last it occurred to him that he might find her by taking the way to the attic. The thought gave him a strange feeling of discomfort, and he bade his servants remain behind, wishing no witness in his quest. He reached the foot of the staircase leading to the topmost flat, and stood with his hands on the banisters, pronouncing his wife's name. His voice trembled. He called again louder and more firmly. The only sound which disturbed the absolute silence was a faint echo of his own tones, repeating his question under the great eaves. He nevertheless felt irresistibly moved to ascend the staircase. It opened upon a wide hall, lined with wooden closets, and terminating in a window which looked westward, and admitted the last rays of the sun. Before the window stood the great chest. Before the chest, on her knees, the young man saw with amazement and horror the figure of his wife. In an instant he crossed the interval between them, bereft of utterance. The lid of the chest stood open, exposing, amid their perfumed napkins, its treasure of stuffs and jewels. Rosalind had fallen backward from a kneeling posture, with one hand supporting her on the floor and the other pressed to her heart. On her limbs was the stiffness of death, and on her face, in the fading light of the sun, the terror of something more than death. Her lips were parted in entreaty, in dismay, in agony; and on her blanched brow and cheeks there glowed the marks of ten hideous wounds from two vengeful ghostly hands.
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SOURCE: Thorberg, Raymond. "Terror Made Relevant: James's Ghost Stories." Dalhousie Review 47, no. 2 (summer 1967): 185-91.
In the following essay, Thorberg considers James's approach to writing ghost stories as an aesthetic, artistic experiment.
Henry James experimented with what he called the "ghost-story", though with the apology of quotation marks, early in his career; and then after a hiatus of a decade and a half returned to active contribution to the genre through the 1890s and into the new century. This later phase or period divides also, with a number of stories of lesser merit like those of his earlier career dating from 1891–92 and followed now by a briefer pause; then "The Altar of the Dead" in 1895 initiated a list which includes besides itself such accomplishments as The Turn of the Screw, "The Beast in the Jungle", and "The Jolly Corner".
In what may seem coincidence, the first half of the decade of the 1890s marks James's all-out effort to conquer the theatre, ending with the Guy Domville disaster of 1895. But the lessons learned from the conditions of dramatic presentation stayed with him to show their influence in his fiction, in the emphasis on scene and also in the control of viewpoint and degree of awareness in his characters. In the early "The Art of Fiction", the concept of point of view as chiefly a means of selection and interpretation of the material of one's experience is considerably transcended, along with the relatively facile separation between subject and technique assumed in that essay. Of course, had it not been for his conservative views in regard to all kinds of art except his own, James might have seen that what he was doing had its parallel in painting from the Impressionists onward. But he was required to pay part of the price of his individual genius by the necessity of discovering many things very largely by himself, so that the habit sometimes persisted without the need. There might also be noted the increasing isolation that he felt from the rejection of his work by the general public, the loss of his sister and old friends, the awareness of aging; and the nature of the concern itself in the kind of ghost stories that interested him now, with their emphasis upon obsessions and upon internal rather than external terrors.
The ghost story as a type lends itself especially to exercises in the metering of comprehension, in the adjustment of shutters to let in exactly the desired amount of light. The genuine ghost must be made believably existent, yet not so familiar that he becomes accepted as simply part of the scheme of things. The terror that takes place in the mind must be treated in such fashion that it seems not wholly enclosed within this precinct and therefore the concern merely of abnormal psychology, but capable of objectifying itself, actually doing so under the force of the reader's apprehension. Given the predilection that always remained with him, it is hardly to be accounted for by mere chance that James's most significant period in the writing of ghost stories should have coincided with the great advance in his development of the dramatic method as applied to fiction. More clearly now, he saw the possibilities of the mind as a principal source of terror. The suggestion had of course always been present in an incident in the family history, the "vastation" experienced by his father when James was still a child. Also available in "Father's ideas" was the notion of selfhood, with its imputation of guilt deriving from the individual's separation and isolation. Reading of Hawthorne provided additional source and support for this—but in fact James could hardly have escaped it, growing up as he did in the intellectual and moral climate of an America of Calvinist background and contemporary commitment to the democratic ideal.
With some qualification to permit inclusion of The Turn of the Screw, James's greatest ghost stories are those concerned with the isolating effects of obsession. James fully exploits the relation between guilt and terror to achieve the greater terror of the depths of the consciousness—a terror greater than any deriving from the offered external example, the specifically cited act. His attitude toward obsession is the opposite of that of Emerson, who with inadequate sanction from any realistic standpoint still approved of it as the guide for one's life. James, as has frequently been pointed out, takes his place on the side of those writers of darker vision who could create an Ethan Brand or an Ahab.
The Turn of the Screw is something of a special case among these stories, its terror meaningful in a different way, except in so far as all terror breaks through our defences to give insight into our nakedest selves. "The Altar of the Dead" shares with "The Beast in the Jungle" and "The Jolly Corner" in having a central character under the control of an intense obsession. It is a powerful story. No one at all susceptible to James can deny the force of the brooding image of George Stransom at his altar. Yet a limitation exists because of the nature of his concerns, with the dead and with a perverse revenge; intermingled with the incense from the candles is the atmosphere of morbidity. By contrast the concerns of John Marcher and Spencer Brydon seem our own, however magnified in these stories by obsession. "The Beast in the Jungle" and "The Jolly Corner," among the ghost stories, perhaps reach us most nearly in the way the great novels do.
It is John Marcher's lot to be possessed by an idea of selfhood too strong to serve beneficially as it otherwise might. The experience which seems available to him seems also inadequate, and he will not settle for less, in his evaluation of his worth, than he deserves. He is an idealist, living for and in service to an abstract ideal of himself, his life, and his fate. The terms in which the ideal might be achieved are expressed no further, until the end of the story, than in the metaphor of the title. The lack of a definition eliminates any relatively easy solution, comparable, say, to that achieved in the assimilation of the culture of Europe by the American protagonists of the international stories. The result is the refusal by Marcher to settle for, in his estimate, a half-loaf; and not until too late does he realize that the specific instance of May Bartram's love has proved his estimate wrong, and that he has been wondrous only to himself. The development is that of the initiation into knowledge without the undergoing of experience; Marcher comes at last to a full knowledge of life without having in this sense lived it. It is an instance of consciousness grasping, not experience—because this has been excluded by his obsession—but only the void. The effect is to increase and sharpen but never to satisfy that consciousness.
The story presents, of course, one of the most notable examples in fiction of the missed life. The external fact is simply that Marcher failed to marry the woman who was in love with him. Quite frequently this is treated both in actual life and in fiction as nothing more than comic. In other respects, Marcher seems in possession of all those perquisites which make for the comfortable existence. Numerous characters out of Zola, or Dickens, would of a certainty regard him with envy. Therefore it is not what happens, or does not happen, to him which is the basic concern of the story. The concern is rather Marcher's own turning away from outward experience and inward toward the mind. The horror which develops for him is self-created. And for the reader it exists in part from being taken along in Marcher's realization, but in another and perhaps greater part in a growing awareness of the capabilities James established for the human consciousness. It is the limitlessness of these capabilities that causes one to shrink back from what he seems about to discover of possibility within himself.
The absence of any concrete specification of what Marcher feels is to happen to him is necessary and appropriate; it does not owe to the Jamesian reluctance, irritating at times, as in the question of the object manufactured at Woollett, Massachusetts; nor does it owe to the intentional obscuring of what could be visible and concrete and clear, if artistic purpose allowed, as the evil in The Turn of the Screw. In "The Beast in the Jungle" the reader is not under the urge to try to see a little more specifically than the author permits—the non-specification exists for itself, is in no sense merely a concealment. The concreteness of the image evoked by the title of course arouses fear by itself; but also, by deriving from the area of the actively and physically violent, it emphasizes further the quality of the undefinable that awaits Marcher, to increase the effect of terror.
In "The Jolly Corner" the house is for Spencer Brydon the symbol of his consciousness; the action in the house is an adumbration of his explorations during a third of a century into that consciousness. Here James, like Hawthorne in "Young Goodman Brown", externalizes, establishes in concrete form the product of the mind's workings, and consequently a tight relationship between the two. In The American Henry James (New Brunswick, N. J., 1957), Quentin Anderson makes the point that it is a mistake to read the story as being about a man "who discovers what he would have been. What Spencer Brydon discovers is what he has been" (pp. 177-8). For the horror must remain superficial if "The Jolly Corner" is read as presenting alternate lives, one that Brydon did live and another that he did not. Thus the life that he did not live should become now merely an object of Brydon's curiosity, to be satisfied by the co-operation of the apparitional world, as in Macbeth, which is willing to answer questions put to it if the proper formulae are employed, as Brydon might be credited with having done by his psychological preparations and physical probing of the house. Such inadequate reading of the story takes no account of the intensity of Brydon's consciousness, of his great hunger for experience. This force proves that the life he actually lived in the external sense, in Europe, which for another person might have been sufficient, was not sufficient—the consequence being that he had engaged himself through all his years there in the construction of another life, in the mind, in the subconscious mind if you will. The Spencer Brydon of this existence is as real, indeed more real—for the reason that it is his inner and profounder self—than the one of his visible external career.
The autobiographical relevance of the story has frequently been noted; the point might be emphasized that "The Jolly Corner" owes to James's return to America in 1904–05 chiefly as the prepared and waiting fire owes to the match. It is testimony to the importance that James placed upon the life contained within the consciousness, especially in his later years, and which he manifests in so many ways in his writing. Specifically one might note the choice of themes and subjects, the movement towards the language of concepts rather than of images except in the creation of figures, and perhaps most important the greatly increased use of dramatization of point of view as a basic means of fictional development. Brydon discovers in the apparition in the house what can be called his "other" self only by reason of James's choice of point of view from which to tell the story. In a way the formula of presentation is the reverse of that of "The Beast in the Jungle", while Marcher and Brydon are alike in that each is obsessively aware of his life as a sort of double existence, with the external and visible being by such virtue by no means the more real.
One of the notable qualities of James is that, especially considering the age and society in which he lived and the kinds of periodicals in which so much of his work appeared, he is so seldom softheaded or sentimental or even to the slightest degree merciful. Unlike Emerson, he matches the possibilities open to man in his inner life by an insistence upon a responsibility, so to speak, with teeth in it. Man is free to choose his experience—James sees to it that economic and other similar conditions do not impair this freedom—but all experience is hazardous, and the encounter with evil is always possible, even probable. James is virtually as rigid on this as the most legalistic seventeenth-century New England Calvinist. Yet he offers an alternative which can lead to salvation—in of course a secularized version—while by no whit mitigating the encounter. His "American" heroes and heroines are made possible to be what they are by their right choice of alternatives, by their immersing themselves to the fullest in the kind of experience which James, with his values set upon culture, tradition, social relationships on a high level of sophistication, saw as best, as most completely identifying and expressing the human. Isabel Archer is at the head of a distinguished roster. James, to repeat, is seldom merciful—yet to these, in a sense, he is. He permits them the acceptance of their fates, in various kinds of renunciation, bringing a measure of peace. To the incomprehension of Henrietta Stackpole and Caspar Goodwood, Isabel goes back to Gilbert Osmond; Newman burns the letter; Milly Theale in all good intent and forgiveness provides the means for Merton Densher and Kate Croy to have their future. That her act destroys the possibility is the irony of their lives, not of hers. Implicit is a final achieved immunity as a consequence of having undergone all, given the terms of the story, that could have happened to them.
The basic circumstance is otherwise with the obsessed protagonists of the ghost stories. While a Christopher Newman may stand in a position of openness to the hazards of life, the obsessed protagonist of one of James's ghost stories presents the extreme among his characters whose reaction to life is to redefine it in their own terms. Illustration may again be drawn from American characters in his fiction in general—those Americans whose smallness of soul manifests itself in ways owing to the American experience rather than to that of Europe. In James's terminology they are "Unitarian"; or they are representative of the "New England conscience". In an early sense of the word, revived in our own time with chief credit due perhaps to John Crowe Ransom, they are "puritans", simplifying experience into preconceived, inadequate abstractions. They are invulnerable to life, having developed a hardened outer shell which saves them from knowing what is going on outside in any detail, remaining satisfied rather in their assurance that it is very probably immoral. Like them the obsessed figures of the ghost stories have set their lives in terms of abstraction and simplification; but unlike them they possess the greatest possible capacity for moral consciousness, for awareness of the opportunities and significance of the human situation.
Thus James achieves the paradox of capacity for experience being negated by the specific means—the obsession itself—by which the obsessed protagonist seeks to live a fuller, more significant life than he might otherwise. The obsessions are themselves powerful, and in further contrast to the abstractions of the New England conscience, active. The direction that they lead, however, is inward, with greater penetration into and control of the consciousness as the distractions of noise and light from the outer world lose their relevance to the life that the obsessed protagonist is creating for himself. Yet it is not simply that nothing happens to these figures, even John Marcher; rather, what happens is the action of the mind turning inward upon itself. To describe the product of this, one might perhaps use the term anti-experience, as the physicists are beginning to speak more confidently of something they call anti-matter. But if it is escape from experience, at least from external experience, it is by no means escape without penalty. For one thing, the intensity of the protagonist's awareness develops inevitably its dark and perverse aspects; and in several instances James corroborates Hawthorne's belief that this can lead to the guilt involved in the violation by one person of the life of another. Chiefly, however, there is the guilt deriving from the knowledge that one has failed in the responsibility toward his own life, such responsibility being a secularized version of man's duty, and met in the Jamesian system of values by the full acceptance of experience and complete immersion in it. The strength of the feeling of guilt is in measure to the capacity for consciousness—thus it is no accident that James's most powerfully obsessed characters are also those most capable of the fullness of experience which their obsessions have deprived them of. If evil is linked with experience, equally guilt is linked with and measured by knowledge. Somehow Marcher's flinging himself in agony on May Bartram's grave at the end of "The Beast in the Jungle" is closer to us than the acceptant renunciations of Newman and Isabel Archer and Milly Theale; to us, in our time, as we reject the tragic solution no less than the sentimental, it strikes closer to the actualities of the human condition. For us the ultimate terror is that which is based on some distortion of the human, of which the sense of guilt is the indicator and proof. The terror invoked in these stories of James is, more truly than in Poe's, the terror not so much of the world of external circumstance as of that consciousness which may be called the soul.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6660
"The Jolly Corner"
PAMELA JACOBS SHELDEN (ESSAY DATE SPRING 1974)
SOURCE: Shelden, Pamela Jacobs. "Jamesian Gothicism: The Haunted Castle of the Mind." Studies in the Literary Imagination 7, no. 1 (spring 1974): 121-34.
In the following essay, Shelden considers James's use of Gothic conventions, centering on his use of the doppelgänger, or double, and other Gothic devices in "The Jolly Corner."
Many critics consider [Charles] Brockden Brown, [Edgar Allan] Poe, and [Nathaniel] Hawthorne the American heirs of the Gothic tradition in literature, born when Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto in 1764. Few, however, treat the supernatural tales of Henry James within this context. Typical Gothic conventions such as haunted castles, flickering candles, time-yellowed manuscripts, and dimly-lighted midnight scenes may, at first, appear rather remote from James's world where the drama of consciousness, the internal rather than the external condition, is the central concern. Indeed, William James, after reading Henry's first ghostly tale, "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes" (1868), in the Atlantic Monthly, wired his brother that the tale was different in "tone" from Henry's earlier efforts. According to William, the story, written "with the mind unbent and careless," was "trifling," especially for an author of Henry's ability.1 This criticism notwithstanding, James continued to work in the genre through the nineties and into the new century.
Like his novels, the supernatural tales divide conveniently, if somewhat artificially, into three groups: the early, rather contrived, tales of the sixties and seventies; the middle group, including The Turn of the Screw (1898); and the late ones, when James adds to the surprising number and quality of his accomplishments such tales as "The Beast in the Jungle" (1903) and "The Jolly Corner" (1908).2 In general, the richness of the individual tales keeps pace with James's development in the novel form. In the early "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes" (1868), for example, a dead woman's strangling hands reach beyond the grave to resolve a jealous rivalry with her sister. As James continues to explore the possibilities of the terror tale, however, he places the emphasis upon the life contained within the consciousness, as opposed to the external circumstance. Although the narrator of "The Ghostly Rental" (1876) is not well integrated into the story (one thinks, by comparison, of the narrator of "The Friends of the Friends" or The Turn of the Screw), it is superior to "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes" in its use of the point of view of a person who comes to appreciate the "vivid meaning" of a house that is "spiritually blighted" (p. 108). However, in James's late supernatural tales, especially, the mind is seen as the principal source of terror. In "The Beast in the Jungle" and "The Jolly Corner," the horror is self-created as Marcher and Brydon become conscious of the dreadful potential within themselves.
Of interest, also, are the Gothic echoes heard in several of James's non-ghostly novels.3 In "The Friends of the Friends" (1896), a supernatural tale in which James makes use of the Gothic manuscript convention, a device which he later turns to advantage in The Turn of the Screw (1898), a deluded, jealous narrator charges that her fiancé has fallen in love with the memory of her dead friend and, indeed, that he is having an affair with her ghost. In The Wings of the Dove (1902), a similar charge reverberates with rich potential since it carries profound moral implications in the novel. In speaking to Merton Densher, who is haunted by Milly Theale's presence, Kate Croy accuses her lover of wanting no other love than Milly's memory (XX, 405). Eventually, Densher's consciousness of Milly's goodness and own duplicity drives him to repudiate his relationship with Kate.
Another example of the non-ghostly novel that makes use of Gothic conventions is The Portrait of a Lady (1881). Like Mrs. Radcliffe's beautiful heroine in The Mysteries of Udolpho, the lovely, innocent Isabel Archer finds herself in the midst of intrigue and deceit as she struggles to assess the meaning of her experiences. In James's novel, moreover, houses figure importantly. One recalls Gardencourt, the manor house which is haunted by a ghost that Isabel will see only after she has had "some miserable knowledge" (III, 64). The English dwelling, with its open, expansive gardens may be contrasted with the Palazzo Roccanera, the elaborate, convoluted home of the evil Gilbert Osmond—this ominous structure, with its weird eye-like windows, the emblem of Osmond's terribly narrow consciousness, "the mansion of his own habitation" (II, 194). Later in the novel, Pansy Osmond, a passive victim of her father's machinations, is committed to a Catholic convent, a confinement not unlike Claire de Cintre's imprisonment in a Carmelite nunnery in The American (1877). The point, of course, is that James places his heroines in conventional Gothic settings—the secluded palace and the cloistered monastery—as he portrays innocents who are menaced by psychological, spiritual, and moral evils.
Early in his career, indeed, James had demonstrated an attraction to the house metaphor, the American counterpart of the medieval castle, perhaps the Gothicist's most promising and important symbol.4 In the supernatural tale "The Ghostly Rental" (1876), for example, the house is a "container" of the life within, a tangible symbol of the intangible psychological and spiritual evil that a father and daughter inflict on one another. Later, James's interest in the metaphor is reflected in such works as The Other House (1896), The Spoils of Poynton (1897), The Turn of the Screw (1898), and the unfinished The Sense of the Past (1907). In Within the Rim and Other Essays, 1914–15, in fact, when James describes his outburst of activity in World War I and his aspirations for the future, he pictures himself in terms of the Gothic castle with its ascending turrets. "I found myself," James writes, "before long building on additions and upper stories, throwing out extensions and protrusions, indulging even, all recklessly, in gables and pinnacles and battlements."5
That James should have been attracted to an exploration of the supernatural experience in his fiction comes as no surprise when one remembers that his family history is a veritable storehouse of such adventures. Although James never personally experienced a supernatural visitation, Henry Sr., his father, and William, his brother, offer accounts of such encounters.6 Conversely, while Alice, Henry's sister, never underwent a "vastation" like her father, she suffered a nervous breakdown between 1867 and 1868, a period when she was plagued by horrifying fantasies. In her journal accounts of this time, Alice bears a striking resemblance to the Gothic victim who is also in terror of what he can neither understand nor control.7
But James himself was conscious of the occult experience. When his mother died, for example, he wrote that "Her death has given me a passionate belief in certain transcendent things…. One can hear her voice in … [the stillness]."8 We are further told that James was deeply affected by his brother's promise to make contact with him six months after his death. As the appointed time approached, Henry was driven into a state of acute anxiety.9 Also relevant is James's account of a nightmare in A Small Boy and Others in which James, struggling to defend himself from an invader who menaces him from behind a closed door, finally finds himself alone racing down the Galerie d'Apollon in the Louvre. The situation reverses itself when the haunted becomes the haunter. As James remarks, "… I, in my appalled state, was probably still more appalling than the awful agent…."10
It is no coincidence then, that in "The Jolly Corner," Spencer Brydon is also terrorized by an agent behind a closed door. However, unlike the figure in James's dream-nightmare or Ralph Pendrel in James's sketch of the unfinished novel, The Sense of the Past, Brydon is eventually overwhelmed by his pursuer. But "The Jolly Corner" offers yet another illustration of James's use of fantasy to express his inner disturbance. In The American Scene (1907), when James describes his revisit to the United States after an absence of twenty years, he writes of his distress that his "birthplace"—specifically, Number Two, Washington Place—has vanished.11 In a sense, the house on the "jolly corner," another birthplace located in New York, functions as the "commemorative tablet" whose loss James had lamented in The American Scene since for Brydon—an expatriot like James—it serves as an embodiment of the past and a commemorative for the future. In short, the supernatural tale provided a release for James as he eased himself of anxieties, much as terror literature had afforded a similar outlet for the eighteenth-century Gothicist. The dream itself, we are told, is the vehicle by which repressions are liberated. One has only to recall then that, like James's "The Jolly Corner," Walpole's The Castle of Otranto and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein were "born" following their authors' dream-nightmares. As James indicates in The Art of the Novel, "The extraordinary is most extraordinary in that it happens to you and me, and it's of value (of value for others) but so far as visibly brought home to us."12
That James found the Gothic tradition a means of quelling personal fears and tensions is further borne out by his activities after the shock of his theatrical venture in 1895. About this period of failure, James remarks, "… I have the imagination of disaster—and see life indeed as ferocious and sinister."13 Not coincidentally, thus, the powerful middle group of supernatural tales—among them, "The Friends of the Friends" (1896), The Turn of the Screw (1898), and "The Real Right Thing" (1899)—appear in the nineties after the failure of Guy Domville. In fact, the first entry in James's Notebooks, one week after the opening of the play, contains the germ of The Turn of the Screw.14 To this extent, at least, James routs and exorcises his own "ghosts" in his tales of terror.
Indeed, in the last few years, especially, it is generally acknowledged that the ambiguities, the unknowables, and the uncertainties which derive in large measure from man's sense of his incalculable inner world are deeply woven into the Gothic fabric.15 In James's case, when one adds to the données of the familial psychic disturbances, his own personal tensions, his attempts to follow William's work in psychology,16 and his interest in the Society for Psychical Research,17 it is not surprising to discover that he employed the Gothic vocabulary to describe the enigmatic self. To further explore James's use of Gothicism, I shall pay special attention to "The Jolly Corner" (1908), James's last supernatural tale. In this work, certainly, the central Gothic metaphor—the house on the "jolly corner"—serves as the objective correlative of the psyche, while it also images the internal Doppelgänger. As the hero confronts the "other," his mind is seen as haunted by itself—the Gothic devices, in turn, are merely emblematic of his psychological and spiritual condition.
"The Jolly Corner" is the story of Spencer Brydon, an expatriate, who at the age of fifty-six returns to New York after an absence of thirty-three years in Europe to explore the "other" he might have become had he remained in America. He arrives ostensibly to supervise his "property": two houses, one which is being renovated into an apartment-house, and the other, his "birthplace,… his house on the jolly corner" (p. 727), which he wishes to preserve in its original form. Alice Staverton, an old-time, ever-faithful friend, who has foregone marriage to await patiently his return, acts as a buffer between the past and the present, neutralizing the complex discomfort of modern life. In fact, since Alice and Brydon supposedly share "communities of knowledge … of the other age," they communicate splendidly—or so, at least, the hero trusts (p. 729). By the end of the first section, Alice, who had always wondered how Brydon might have been had he remained in America, tells him that she has seen his alter-ego in a dream "twice over." Although he presses her to know what "the wretch" is like, she will tell him "some other time" (p. 738).
As time passes, the impulse to know the "so differently other person," crystallized by Alice's remark and by Brydon's newly-discovered "capacity" for business and his sense of construction, becomes so much an obsession that he habitually returns late at night to his "birthplace," the "jolly corner" of his youth, to haunt the empty house with flickering candle in hand in search of the other self. He steals through the house "very much as he might have been met by … some unexpected occupant, at a turn of one of the dim passages of an empty house" (p. 730). He tells no one, not even Alice, of the expeditions which he pursues with great concentration as the need to confront the "other" intensifies into a "morbid obsession": "He knew what he meant and what he wanted … His alter-ego 'walked'" and Brydon is determined to "waylay him and meet him" (p. 741).
Interestingly, this impulse to provoke a confrontation is an extension of the chase motif—the villain's pursuit of the fleeing victim—that figures importantly in Gothic literature. As in the Gothic tale, the chase occurs in the labyrinthine building. In Jame's tale, in fact, the pattern is reinforced by jungle imagery, with the self as hunter and the alter-ego as hunted: Brydon, who had been a big game hunter on the Continent, "roamed, slowly, warily"; he stalked the alter-ego much as he would any "beast of the forest" since the "terms, the comparisons, the very practices of the chase … came … into play"; Brydon steps "back into shelter or shade" of the recesses of the house, "effacing himself behind a door or in an embrasure, as he had sought of old the vantage of rock and tree"; he holds his breath "living in the joy of the instant, the supreme suspense created by big game alone"; he gains "to an extraordinary degree the power to penetrate the dusk of distances and the darkness of corners," the instinctive response of the tracking man or beast; indeed, he wonders if he would have glared at these moments with "large shining yellow eyes," having now gained the sense of "some monstrous stealthy cat" (pp. 741-42). In brief, although tradition has it that one is usually frightened by apparitions, he had "turned the tables and become himself, in the apparitional world, an incalculable terror" (p. 742).
Quite unexpectedly, however, the situation reverses itself. On the occasion of the last, climactic visit to the house, Brydon feels himself "being definitely followed" (pp. 743-44). In the upper rooms of the house, he senses that the alter-ego has "'turned': that, up there, is what has happened—he's the fanged or the antlered animal brought at last to bay" (p. 744). The "other" who had "been dodging, retreating, hiding" will fight, now that it is "worked up to anger." Upon this discovery, "Brydon … tasted probably of a sensation more complex than had ever before found itself consistent with sanity." Like the narrator of "The Ghostly Rental" and the figure in James's dream-nightmare, Brydon, in the shadow of the grotesque, oscillates between joy and fear, "so rejoicing that he could … actively inspire that fear, and simultaneously quaking for the form in which he might passively know it" (p. 745). Yet, though this is a terrifying moment, Brydon does not confront the shape in evening dress until the end of the second section.
The universal implications of the first experience, as well as the second more horrifying situation, emerge only when the house is seen as an emblem of the victim's interior landscape, the place where Brydon makes his way through the labyrinth, aided only by the flickering street light and the dim light of the candle which heighten the terror. In the semi-darkness—a fitting metaphor for internal confusion—Brydon tracks down, confronts, but fails to comprehend the meaning of the "ghost" which the victim, haunted by self, "scares up." Appropriately, since the house functions as an objective correlative of the psyche, the "presence" haunts the individual rather than the place. That the house is a "container" of life is clear from the first section in which as Mrs. Muldoon, the housekeeper, leads Alice and Brydon on a tour, she precedes "them from room to room … pushing back shutters and throwing up sashes—all to show them as she remarked, how little there was to see." There was little indeed to see in the "great gaunt shell," filled with "great blank rooms" (p. 731, my italics). Although Brydon fails to recognize the "other" as an aspect of self (not comprehending, he will indeed see "little"), he confronts and repudiates the alter-ego since, in its grotesque ugliness, it is "little" as opposed to that which is noble or significant.
But as Mrs. Muldoon reminds Alice, "The fact that there was nothing to see didn't militate … against what one might see" (p. 731). Whereas the good lady refers only to the terror of the supernatural, Brydon will shortly experience the real terror of the psychic adventure. Unlike the housekeeper, however, he finds great personal significance in the house, which is, after all, emblematic of self (one recalls, certainly, that the tale begins with Brydon's egostical assertion, "'Every one asks me what I 'think' of everything.'" (p. 725, my italics): "He spoke of the value of all he read into it, into the mere sight of the walls, mere shape of the rooms, mere sound of the floors" (p. 733, my italics). In this fashion, James underscores Brydon's self-centeredness; he is like the "great gaunt shell," filled with "great blank rooms" in which the self is all that matters.
Alice, in fact, likens the empty house to "the death-mask of a handsome face" (p. 734)—her observation, an ironic anticipation of the figure Brydon finally confronts. Significantly, the woman's selflessness may be juxtaposed to the man's selfishness. Alice, who livingly "listened to everything," suppresses her impression, producing "instead a vague platitude": "Well, if it were only furnished and lived in—!" (pp. 733-34). She cherishes the hope that loving care will bring out its finer points, unlike Brydon who feels "it is lived in … [already] furnished" (p. 734). For Brydon, certainly, the structure houses only the self he might have been.18 As he tells Alice, "It comes over me that I had then a strange alter ego deep down somewhere within me, as the full-blown flower is in the small tight bud." To this, his protective mother-figure responds reassuringly, "I believe in the flower" (p. 736). So much is at least clear: whatever he has been, might have been, is, or will be, Alice Staverton loves and accepts Spencer Brydon under all conditions.
Brydon, intrigued with self, pursues his "morbid obsession" to know himself. Assured of "calm proprietorship," his is an "ample house which he visits from attic to cellar" (pp. 738-39). The "shell" throbs with life; he feels "the pulse of the great vague place" (p. 739)—"vague" perhaps, because there are always unchartable, nebulous regions of the self. Yet, it is just these inner recesses that Brydon wishes to explore: "He preferred the lampless hour and only wished he might have prolonged each day the deep crepuscular spell"; he watches "with his glimmering light: moving slowly, holding it high, playing it far, rejoicing above all … in open vistas, reaches of communication between rooms and by passages" (p. 739). The house, in short, an expression of the spiritual and psychic spheres, is more real to Brydon than the physical self: "He projected himself all day, in thought,… into the other, the real, the waiting life … that … began for him, on the jolly corner" (p. 740). Equally significant, since Brydon pursues the self that might have been, he "scares up" images of the past within the house. Thus the house is the "container" of life itself, a womb which holds, since it has yet to give birth to, the "other." Brydon, in fact, likens the place to "some great glass bowl, all precious concave crystal, set delicately humming by the play of a moist finger round its edge. The concave crystal held … this mystical other world" (p. 740).
For all this, Brydon preferred "the open shutters. He opened everywhere those Mrs. Muldoon had closed" (p. 742). Similarly, "he liked—… above all in the upper rooms!—… the hard silver of the autumn stars through the window panes, and scarcely less the glare of the streetlamps below, the white electric lustre…. This was human actual social: this was of the world he had lived in, and he was more at his ease … for the countenance, coldly general and impersonal…." (pp. 742-43, my italics). Thus is foreshadowed the fact that when the confrontation occurs, when he is forced to face that which he is, Brydon will be unable to bear it. He contents himself with the "white electric lustre," mere superficiality, though it is "coldly general and impersonal," blithely seeking "support … mostly in the rooms at the wide front and the prolonged side"—and, certainly, he encounters himself in the outer part of the house—since "it failed him considerably in the central shades and the parts of the back" (p. 743). Because he revels in the "social" Brydon, it is indeed ironic that he is unable to accept or at least to recognize this aspect of the self when the final confrontation occurs.
But the house, of course, is emblematic of the whole convoluted psyche. Its vast reaches are of especial interest, for here lives the alter ego Brydon seeks:
But if he sometimes, on his rounds, was glad of his optical reach, so none the less often the rear of the house affected him as the very jungle of his prey. The place was there more subdivided; a large "extension" in particular, where small rooms for servants had been multiplied, abounded in nooks and corners, in closets and passages, in the ramifications especially of an ample back staircase over which he leaned, many a time,… while aware that he might, for a spectator, have figured some solemn simpleton playing at hide-and-seek.
While playing at hide-and-seek with the "other," the self that he might have been, he is at liberty, as he indicates, to think, feel, and act as he so blissfully and egotistically wills within the walls and frames of his own psyche. Most at home in the front of the house, he is equally proud that he does not retreat from the upper rooms as he moves forward like a medieval knight with sword, his light, in hand (p. 747).
Upstairs, however, in the inner recesses or, in Brydon's words, in "the more intricate upper rooms" (p. 746), the game finally becomes insupportable. Behind the closed door which he had left open lurks the "other": "Ah this time at last they were, the two, the opposed projections of him, in presence; and this time, as much as one would, the question of danger loomed" (p. 749). The haunter is now the haunted. In this new role, Brydon approaches the closed door, terrified, knowing that if he should open it, he would confront the "other." At this point, of course, Brydon reaches an impasse, resolving to abandon the chase, now that the seeker has become the sought. "I spare you and I give up," he tells the alter ego. "I retire, I renounce—never on my honour, to try again. So rest for ever—and let me!" (p. 750). Having made peace with the past, having concluded that the "closing had practically been for him an act of mercy" (p. 752), he is prepared to "sacrifice" his "property": "They might come in now, the builders, the destroyers—they might come as soon as they would" (p. 753).
But in descending from the upper recesses, "he had the whole house to deal with, this fact was still there" (p. 753). In his flight of terror, "he stole back from where he had checked himself [the closed door]—merely to do so was suddenly like safety—and, making blindly for the greater staircase, left gaping rooms and sounding passages behind." Here, Brydon retreats from the inner recesses of mind, the subconscious, those "sounding passages." Yet, the house, a womb which contains life, holds more than Brydon anticipates:
The house, withal, seemed immense, the scale of space again inordinate; the open rooms to no one of which his eyes deflected, gloomed in their shuttered state like mouths of caverns; only the high skylight that formed the drown of the deep well created for him a medium in which he could advance….
As the metaphor of the mind, the house is indeed "immense"—the container of many selves, some of which are suppressed consciously and some unconsciously. Nevertheless, for Brydon, the building houses only the potential self of the past.
By now, having descended two flights of stairs, Brydon is in the middle of the third, "with only one more left" (p. 753). Retreating from the subconscious to the external, outer self, he "recognized the influence of the lower windows of half-drawn blinds, of the occasional gleam of streetlamps, of the glazed spaces of the vestibule." Here, too, as he sinks "a long look over the banisters," he sights "the marble squares of his childhood." Those reminders of childhood, "the old black-and-white slabs," are comforting. More soothing still, "the closed door, blessedly remote now, was still closed—and he had only in short to reach that [the door] of the house" (pp. 753-54). At this juncture, however, the greatest shock awaits him. Ironically, the front of the house where he had found the most "support" is the scene of the keenest terror, since the "other" he might have been, the alter ego he had lost at the rear of the fourth floor, is not as terrifying as the self he finally confronts. At the bottom of the lowest staircase, the double doors of the vestibule stand wide open, though he had left these closed. Steeling himself to confront the shadowy figure of the past, the "other" he has been tracking, he sees instead a man dressed in evening clothes, "his planted stillness, his vivid truth, his grizzled bent head and white masking hands, his queer actuality of evening dress, of dangling double eye-glass, of gleaming silk lappet and white linen, of pearl button and gold watchguard and polished shoe" (p. 755). For Brydon, however, the figure represents neither the past he left upstairs nor the present: "A thousand times yes, as it came upon him nearer now—the face was the face of a stranger." In short, he has been "'sold' … the waste of his nights had been only grotesque and the success of his adventure an irony" (p. 756).
Although Brydon thinks it an irony that his adventure should end with the confrontation of one who is "evil, odious, blatant," instead of the noble "other" he had envisioned, the irony is compounded since the face, which "was too hideous as his" (admitting this, Brydon still will not concede the identity), is an aspect of the self that "is." So terrifying is this possibility that Brydon can deal with it only by losing himself, falling unconscious in an attempt to repudiate it entirely. Alice, who had already seen the apparition twice, saw it in the early dawn at the moment it appeared to Brydon: "He didn't come to me," said Brydon, referring to the "other" who might have been. To this, Alice responds knowingly, "'You came to yourself,' she beautifully smiled" (p. 761). Whereas Brydon remains oblivious to her nuances, Alice plays the role of the clever protector, totally aware: "And it was as if, while her face hovered, he might have made out in it … some particular meaning blurred by a 'smile'" (p. 760). That Brydon conjures up his vision, since he is haunted by his own mind, is suggested when he compares himself to a Pantaloon, "buffeted and tricked from behind by ubiquitous Harlequin" (p. 744). The Harlequin that eludes him—that remains, in a real sense, beyond his comprehension—is the repugnant self that he cannot acknowledge. Alice, for her part, immersed in Brydon's fantasies and fears, is also haunted, though not terrified, by his vision.
Like Poe's William Wilson, then, Brydon "comes to" himself at the end when he confronts an aspect of the personality that he neither accepts nor recognizes as his own. Although he does not attempt to kill it, nonetheless, he falls unconscious as he tries to lose it. Unlike William Wilson, of course, Brydon's vision is not of the moral self but of the self that is "unknown, inconceivable, awful, disconnected from any possibility." Yet the figure is dressed in evening wear like Brydon who hunts "on tiptoe, the points of his evening-shoes, from room to room" (p. 741). Moreover, the figure appears against the background of the open vestibule doors, the world without the house, since it represents the self that "is," rather than the "other" of the past which Brydon leaves behind in the convoluted upper recesses. Whereas Brydon uses his monocle for charm and sophistication, the figure sports "a great convex pince-nez … for his poor ruined sight" (p. 762). However, because we are told that Brydon is that individual who has always been "more at ease … for the countenance, coldly general and impersonal," clearly the double eyeglass only further serves to underscore the blindness to the selfish egoism. Conceding that "it had been the theory of many … persons … that he was wasting [his] life in a surrender to sensations" (p. 741), Brydon is that individual whose "'thought' would still be almost altogether about something that concerns only" himself (p. 725). In fact, the superficial self that he wishes to deny at the end is indicated quite early in the tale: at parties, Brydon "circulated, talked, renewed, loosely and pleasantly, old relations…. He was a dim secondary social success—and all with people who had truly not an idea of him. It was all mere surface sound: this murmur of their welcome … just as his gestures of response were extravagant shadows, emphatic in proportion as they meant little" (pp. 739-40, italics mine).
Blissfully unaware, hence, Brydon visits the house, seeking the unknown self, oblivious to the empty reality of the self that "is." Whereas Brydon speaks of his "selfish frivolous scandalous life" to Alice, her reply means little to him, "You don't care for anything but yourself" (p. 737). In short, Brydon, who seeks to disprove the identity, refuses to acknowledge, before or after his vision, that the repugnant, selfish figure is the self that "is." Instead, "the missing two fingers, which were reduced to stumps as if accidentally shot away," are "proof" that the figure is a "stranger," even though the reader is aware that Brydon had been an adventurer and big-game hunter (p. 756).19
So great is Alice's love that she tells Brydon she has come to terms with the ghost, welcoming him because she recognizes him. Appropriately, the womb-like images of the house as a container of life recur in the third section in which Alice, as the all-forgiving, all-accepting mother figure, pillows and cradles Brydon's head in her lap. The return to childhood is further suggested by the fact that Brydon is symbolically reborn as he regains consciousness on the "old black-and-white slabs" of his youth, his thoughts child-like in his desire for protection and security (p. 757). Alice comforts her child-love with the reassurance, "He isn't—no, he isn't—you!" (p. 762). Given the fact that Brydon does not understand what has taken place, that Alice's and Brydon's lines of communication rarely converge, the ending is at best ambiguous. Theirs is an ironic exchange. "He [the 'ghost'] has been unhappy; he has been ravaged," she explains. To this, Brydon responds, uncomprehendingly: "And haven't I been unhappy? Am not I—you've only to look at me!—ravaged?" (p. 762). Although Alice justly observes that Brydon had come to himself in the morning hours, Brydon interprets the remark to mean his return to consciousness (p. 761). After declaring her love for Brydon, finally, Alice asks reasonably, "'So why,' she strangely smiled, 'shouldn't I like him?'" Unable to understand his plight, however, this remark only "brought Spencer Brydon to his feet. 'You "like" that horrow—?'" (pp. 761-62). Their conversation is, in effect, typical of the pattern throughout: Brydon's sole concern for self juxtaposed to Alice's generous offer of love. Unlike John Marcher in "The Beast in the Jungle" who has irrevocably forfeited his opportunity with May Bartram, Brydon is given another chance by Alice, but the reader has no assurance that Brydon will take advantage of her offer.
In James's A Passionate Pilgrim, the narrator advises the unhappy Clement Searle, "All that you have told me is but another way of saying that you have lived hitherto in yourself. The tenement's haunted! Live abroad—take an interest."20 Certainly, Brydon is haunted by himself, his "ghost," a manifestation of the internal, rather than external, situation. The "turn of the screw," the peculiar twist, is that the source of terror lies within: the aspect of a personality so terrifying that Brydon must repudiate it. Granted that the Gothic mode has come a long way from Manfred's chase and pursuit of Isabel in the caves beneath the castle, the basic pattern is identifiable, although James, enjoying the advantage of another era, discovers new images and innuendoes in the Gothic vocabulary: the house as an emblem of the mind haunted by itself; its victim alienated from those around him, a lonely prisoner incapable of understanding or controlling his descent into his private maelstrom of terror; the chase as the self in pursuit of the "other" warring impulse; the victim's terror as a correlative of the mind beset with images and haunted by itself where the ambiguities of existence are preserved by James's dual realization of man's strength and weakness conjoined. "We want it [the supernatural] clear, goodness knows," James had said, "but we also want it thick, and we get the thickness in the human consciousness that entertains and records, that amplifies and interprets it."21 As a result of his peregrination into self, Brydon discovers a horror which he fails to recognize as in any way related to himself. The apparition is but a projection of Brydon's haunted mind—the situation, an ironic one, since as a wish-fulfillment turned rancid, Brydon "scares up" his own nightmare figure within his own haunted house.
1. Ralph Barton Perry, The Thought and Character of William James, 2 vols. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1935), I, 264.
2. For a collection that gathers the supernatural tales together, see Henry James, Stories of the Supernatural, ed. Leon Edel (New York: Taplinger, 1970). All references to the tales are to this collection, with pagination cited parenthetically. References to the novels are from The Novels and Tales of Henry James, 26 vols., including 2 posthumous vols. (New York: Scribner's, 1907–17), pagination cited parenthetically.
3. See Martha Banta, "The House of the Seven Ushers and How They Grew: A Look at Jamesian Gothicism," Yale Review, 57:1 (1967), 56-65.
4. Relevant is J. M. S. Tompkins's observation that "the basis of Otranto is architectural and in this respect is the true starting point of the Gothic." The Popular Novel in England, 1770–1800 (1932; rpt. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1961), p. 226. Also see Montague Summers who, in making a similar point, observes that the castle often becomes the actual protagonist in Gothic tales, The Gothic Quest: A History of the Gothic Novel (London: The Fortune Press, 1938), pp. 189-91.
5. Henry James, Within the Rim and Other Essays, 1914–15 (London: W. Collins, [c. 1918]), pp. 19ff.
6. See Henry James, Sr., The Literary Remains, ed. with intro. William James (Upper Saddle River, N. J.: Literature House, 1970), pp. 59ff., and William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Longmans, Green, 1902), pp. 160ff.
7. See Alice James, Alice James: Her Brothers—Her Journal, ed. Anna Robeson Burr (1934; rpt. Boston: Milford House, 1972), pp. 181-82. Alice's remarks are filled with the jungle imagery which pervades "The Beast in the Jungle" and "The Jolly Corner."
8. Henry James, The Notebooks of Henry James, ed. F. O. Matthiessen and Kenneth B. Murdock (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1947), p. 41.
9. Somerset Maugham, ed., "Introduction," Tellers of Tales; 100 Short Stories from the United States, England, France, Russia and Germany (New York: Doubleday, 1939), pp. xxxv-xxxvi.
10. Henry James, A Small Boy and Others (New York: Scribner's, 1913), p. 348.
11. Henry James, The American Scene (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana Univ. Press, 1968), pp. 88ff.
12. Henry James, The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces, ed. R. P. Blackmur (New York: Charles Scribner's, 1934), p. 257.
13. E. F. Benson, ed., Henry James: Letters to A. C. Benson and Auguste Monod (1930; rpt. New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1969), p. 35.
14. James, The Notebooks, p. 178.
15. See, for example, Robert D. Hume, "Gothic Versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel," PMLA, 84 (1969), 282-90; Lowry Nelson, Jr., "Night Thoughts on the Gothic Novel," Yale Review, 52 (1962), 236-57; Francis Russell Hart, "The Experience of Character in the English Gothic Novel," Experience in the Novel, ed. Roy Harvey Pearce (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1968), pp. 83-105.
16. See, for example, The Letters of Henry James, ed. Percy Lubbock (London: Macmillan, 1920), I, 180-81; Perry, I, 427-28; James, The Letters, II, 83; Alice James, Her Journal, p. 112.
17. For more documentation of James's well-known interest in psychical phenomena, see Francis X. Roellinger, Jr., "Psychical Research and 'The Turn of the Screw,'" AL, 20 (1949), 401-12.
18. So, too, critics who find in the tale a reverberation of James's personal history suggest that the figure represents the self that might have been. See, for example, Christof Wegelin, The Image of Europe in Henry James (Dallas: Southern Methodist Univ. Press, 1958) or Marius Bewley, The Complex Fate: Hawthorne, Henry James and Some Other American Writers (London: Chatto and Windus, 1952). A somewhat different reading—which nonetheless also identifies the figure at the end as the self that might have been—is Saul Rosenzweig's well-known psychoanalytic study, "The Ghost of Henry James" in Art and psychoanalysis, ed. William Phillips (New York: Criterion Books, 1957), pp. 89-111. For Rosenzweig, the apparition is James's own "… ghost which [is] an apotheosis of his unlived life …," p. 109. The specter, thus, is typical of James: "Unlike the ghosts of other writers, the creatures of James's imagination represent not the shadows of lives once lived, but the immortal impulses of the unlived life." p. 104.
19. For further discussion of the figure as an aspect of the Brydon that "is," see Floyd Stovall, "Henry James's 'The Jolly Corner,'" NCF, 12 (June 1957), 72-84, a reading which runs counter to many critical readings in which the figure at the end is seen as the Brydon who might have been, had not his absence in Europe saved him from becoming a man of business.
20. Henry James, A Passionate Pilgrim (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1892), p. 37.
21. Henry James, "Preface to The Altar of the Dead," The Art of the Novel, p. 256.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1105
Edel, Leon. Henry James: A Life. New York: Harper Collins, 1985, 740 p.
Abridged version of Edel's five volume comprehensive biography of James's life; revised with additional source material.
Akiyama, Masayuki. "James and Nanboku: A Comparative Study of Supernatural Stories in the West and East." Comparative Literature Studies 22 (1985): 43-52.
Explores parallels between the Kabuki dramas of Nanboku and James's short fiction, especially East and West variations on the "revenge-beyond-the-grave" motif.
Banta, Martha. "The House of Seven Ushers and How They Grew: A Look at Jamesian Gothicism." Yale Review 57 (autumn 1967): 56-65.
Highlights James's Gothic consciousness in works such as The Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of a Dove.
――――――. Henry James and the Occult: The Great Extension. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972, 273 p.
Investigates James's psychological modification of the Gothic tradition in his tales and novels.
Beidler, Peter. Ghosts, Demons, and Henry James: The Turn of the Screw at the Turn of the Century. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989, 252 p.
Study of James's novella that includes discussions of James's use of the Gothic tradition and its motifs.
Burleson, Donald. "Identity and Alterity in Henry James' 'The Jolly Corner.'" Studies in Weird Fiction 8 (fall 1990): 1-11.
Explores the notions of "self" and "other" in "The Jolly Corner."
Craig, J. A. "James's The Bostonians." Explicator 49, no. 2 (winter 1991): 100-101.
Note on Gothic elements in James's novel.
Lustig, T. J. Henry James and the Ghostly. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, 317 p.
Full-length study of the use of occultism and the supernatural in James's fiction, arguing that the ghostly is a far more inclusive rubric in James's work than the reader might expect.
Matheson, Neill. "Talking Horrors: James, Euphemism, and the Specter of Wilde." American Literature 71, no. 4 (December 1999): 709-50.
Analyzes the use of Gothic tropes and indirect erotic language in The Turn of the Screw and argues that the novella comments on the homosexual scandal and trial involving Oscar Wilde.
Merivale, Patricia. "The Esthetics of Perversion: Gothic Artifice in Henry James and Witold Gombrowicz." PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 93, no. 5 (October 1978): 992-1002.
Compares James's The Turn of the Screw and The Sacred Fount to Witold Gombrowicz's "Gothic artist parables," arguing that both are metaphysical detective stories and self-reflexive texts.
Miall, David S. "Designed Horror: James's Vision of Evil in The Turn of the Screw." Nineteenth-Century Fiction 39, no. 3 (December 1984): 305-27.
Offers a reading of The Turn of the Screw based on Sigmund Freud's essay "The Uncanny."
Nettles, Elsa. "The Portrait of a Lady and the Gothic Romance." South Atlantic Bulletin 39, no. 4 (1974): 73-82.
Analyzes James's appropriation and transformation of stock Gothic types and tropes, including the heroine in distress, the villain-hero, and the imprisoning castle.
Punter, David. "The Ambivalence of Memory: Henry James and Walter de la Mare." In The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day. Vol. 2., pp. 47-66. Essex, England: Longman, 1996.
Compares The Turn of the Screw to Walter de la Mare's short stories, emphasizing the psychological sophistication, use of the unconscious, and the concern with the past in the works of both writers.
Rozenzweig, Saul. "The Ghosts of Henry James." Partisan Review 11, no. 4 (fall 1944): 436-55.
Psychological analysis of James's ghosts that maintains that the ghosts point to the irrepressible unlived life.
Salzberg, Joel. "The Gothic Hero in Transcendental Quest: Poe's 'Ligea' and James' 'The Beast in the Jungle.'" ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 67 (1972): 108-14.
Compares the heroes in ghostly tales by James and Edgar Allan Poe.
Savoy, Eric. "Spectres of Abjection: The Queer Subject of James's 'The Jolly Corner.'" In Spectral Readings: Towards a Gothic Geography, edited by Glennis Byron and David Punter, pp. 161-74. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.
Evaluates James's treatment of repressed identity—in terms of sexual orientation and homosexual desire—as a "ghostly double" in "The Jolly Corner."
Schleifer, Ronald. "The Trap of the Imagination: The Gothic Tradition, Fiction and The Turn of the Screw." Criticism 22, no. 4 (fall 1980): 297-319.
Points out James's debt in The Turn of the Screw to Bram Stoker's Dracula and asserts that the novella anticipates the irony, laughter, and self-consciousness of the twentieth-century Gothic writings of Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Isak Dinesen, and Thomas Mann.
Sklepowich, E. A. "Gossip and Gothicism in The Sacred Fount." Henry James Review 2 (1981): 112-15.
Shows how expertly James used Gothic properties and places in the urbane Gothicism of the novel and its dynamics of social stigmatization.
Sweeney, Gerard M. "Henry James's 'De Grey': The Gothic as Camouflage of the Medical." Modern Language Studies 21, no. 2 (1991): 36-44.
Offers a medical explanation for James's supernatural in "De Grey: A Romance," maintaining that the male line of the De Greys is infected with syphilis.
Thorberg, Raymond. "Terror Made Relevant: James's Ghost Stories." Dalhousie Review 47 (1967): 185-91.
Psychological reading of James's ghost stories.
Veeder, William. "The Nurturance of the Gothic: The Turn of the Screw." Gothic Studies 1 (1999): 47-85.
Asserts that the Gothic is a mechanism that was developed for society to heal their self-afflicted wounds.
Wiesenfarth, Joseph. "The Portrait of a Lady: Gothic Manners in Europe." In Reading and Writing Women's Lives: A Study of the Novel of Manners, edited by Bege K. Bowers and Barbara Brothers, pp. 119-40. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms International Research Press, 1990.
Discusses James's debt to George Eliot and his use of Gothic manners and the horror of respectability in The Portrait of a Lady.
Willen, Gerald, ed. A Casebook on Henry James's The Turn of the Screw. New York: Crowell, 1969, 325 p.
Notes and critical essays on James's most popular ghostly tale.
Zablotny, Elaine. "Henry James and the Demonic Vampire and Madonna." Psychocultural Review 3 (1979): 203-24.
Focuses on James's exploration of psychic vampirism in several of his ghost stories.
OTHER SOURCES FROM GALE:
Additional coverage of James's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers; American Writers: The Classics, Vol. 1; American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography and Resources, Vol. 2; British Writers, Vol. 6; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1865–1917; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 132; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 12, 71, 74, 189; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 13; DIS-Covering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Short Stories; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers; Novels for Students, Vols. 12, 16, 19; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 9; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 8, 32, 47; Supernatural Fiction Writers, Vol. 1; Twayne's United States Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 11, 24, 40, 47, 64; and World Literature Criticism.