Biography of Henry James

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Among James's most famous literary works are 1878's The Europeans, 1878's commercial success Daisy Miller, 1880's critically acclaimed Washington Square, 1886's The Bostonians, and 1898's The Turn of the Screw. James met and corresponded with a number of American and European literary figures of his day. Among them, Ivan Turgenov, Joseph Conrad, Oscar Wilde, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Edith Wharton and Stephen Crane influenced his literary style and his beliefs.

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

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


Study Guides on Works by Henry James

The Ambassadors is divided into twelve sections called "books." In 1903, these sections were published, in serial form, in a journal called The North American Review. Later that year, the novel was published as a whole, though there were...

During Henry James's youth, James came into contact with many of the literary greats of the time due to his family's prominence. When he was a young boy, Ralph Waldo Emerson visited often and he once was introduced to William Thackeray. As...

First serialized in Harper's Magazine in 1880, Washington Square is one of Henry James' most famous (and most accessible) novels. In 1881, Washington Square was published in novel formthe same year that Portrait of a Lady was published....