Late 19th Century Fiction: Henry James
Henry James was born April 15, 1843 in New York City,the second of 5 children born to Henry James, Sr., and Mary Walsh James. Henry, Sr., was a well-known writer and was friendly with many prominent figures, including Ralph Waldo Emerson. Henry James, Sr., took advantage of his wealth to give his children the best education: the James children were privately tutored and went abroad for more schooling and travel between 1855 and 1860, when the family lived in London, Switzerland, France, and Germany. The children learned to speak French and German, and saw the great theaters, galleries, and cathedrals of Europe. They lived in an intensely intellectual atmosphere: their father was interested in philosophy, theology, and cultural life, and the James parents exposed their children to as much knowledge about the world as possible. They expected great things from their children and were not disappointed: Alice became a talented writer, and William became an accomplished philosopher and scientist. Henry became one of the greatest writers of the 19th century.
Henry studied painting briefly, then entered Harvard Law School at age 19. He eventually withdrew to write full-time. Two years later, his work had begun appearing regularly in two of the most influential literary journals, North American Review and Atlantic Monthly; he also contributed to The Nation. He travelled extensively in Europe during this time, and in 1869, he wrote to his mother, "We [Americans] seem a people of character; we seem to have energy, capacity, and intellectual stuff in equal measure. What I have pointed out as our vices are the elements of the modern man with culture quite left out. It's the absolute and incredible lack of culture that strikes you in common traveling Americans."
In another letter in 1870, he also said that one of the responsibilities of being American was "fighting against a superstitious valuation of Europe."
These letters express nicely the conflict he addresses in many of his works from early on: the theme of simultaneous cultural attraction and repulsion between Europe and America.
In 1876, James settled in London and lived there for most of the rest of his life. In 1915, frustrated by the U.S. refusal to enter World War I, and wanting to publicly support England, he became a British subject.
The First Period
In 1875, James published his first collection of stories, The Passionate Pilgrim. His first novel, Roderick Hudson, was serialized by the Atlantic Monthly. In it, a young American sculptor goes to Florence and is crushed by the artifice and materialism of international society. In this novel, the themes and techniques of his early work are firmly established.
During this period, he spent a great deal of time in Paris and met the writers Flaubert, Balzac, and Turgenev, who influenced his style, making it more "chiseled," as Flaubert called it.
In 1877, he published The American; in 1879, Daisy Miller; in 1881, The Portrait of a Lady; and in 1886, The Princess Cassamassima. In all of these, the recurring theme is the conflict caused by the traditionless American confronting the entrenched traditions and complexity of European life.
The Second Period
In 1890, James published The Tragic Muse, beginning what critics call his "Second Period." In the works he wrote during the next few years, he developed a more complex style, with more ambiguities, ellipses in dialogue, and complicated sentences. Influenced by Flaubert and Turgenev, he began experimenting with prose rhythm, as well. The better-known novels and novellas of this period include The Spoils of Poynton (1897), What Maisie Knew (1897), The Turn of the Screw (1898), The Awkward Age (1899), and The Sacred Fount (1901). During these years he developed close friendships with Stephen Crane and Edith Wharton, and had a great influence on their writing.
The Third Period
Many critics call this "The Major Phase." During these years he wrote some of his most complex novels. These are demanding, requiring that the reader be well-educated and prepared to read unhurriedly so as to notice subleties and implications. Among the great works of this period are The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904).
Aside from his novels, James also wrote many short stories and novellas. And even if he'd never written a novel in his life, he would be remembered as a perceptive literary critic, who wrote many influential essays about the art of fiction.
During the whole of James's literary career, and especially during the last phase of it, both Americans and Europeans objected to the narrow social range of his novels, to what was called "the hothouse life of the leisured classes." His work was too obscure for most readers. In addition, he was criticized by American audiences as being "anti-American"--they said he portrayed Americans as crass and shallow.
But James believed that prose, like poetry, could be intensified and invested with symbolic value. He pioneered the use of psychological devices which intensely explored character and situation. His work foreshadowed stream of consciousness. He had a profound influence on the following generation of writers, including D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, Virgina Woolf, Edith Wharton, Stephen Crane, Willa Cather, T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and Ernest Heningway; he was more popular with them than with general audiences, and they followed through on what he began.
In the fall of 1877, on a trip to France and Italy, James met Alice Bartlett, an American living in Rome. She told him of a young American girl who had been thought to be too familiar with an Italian man and had become a subject of gossip. James used this story as the seed for Daisy Miller. Daisy Miller is the story of a young American girl who clashes with the American expatriate community in Italy.
The story is told from the point of view of a member of that community, Winterbourne. The limited point of view requires a good deal of work from the reader: if the reader accepts Winterbourne's view of Daisy, he may see her erroneously, as Winterbourne does. James asks, instead, that you listen to Winterbourne's version of events and then step back to judge for yourself what is actually happening and what to think about the events, about Daisy, and about Winterbourne.
The names James uses symbolize the tensions of the story: "Daisy" (i.e., fresh as a) vs. Winterbourne (cold, static, limited, frozen), and so forth. The names of other characters are significant as well.
Daisy Miller was published in 1878, and was a big sensation. It angered some Americans, who thought James was portraying American girls as crass and promiscuous. Others applauded Daisy's independence and rejection of European convention. Whatever they thought of the book, Americans read it and talked about it. "Daisy Miller" hats were even sold in American shops for a while.
The Turn of the Screw
For years, The Turn of the Screw was read either as a ghost story, or as the story of a governess's descent into madness. Now, there is more recognition of the ambiguity of the text and its many possibilities.
When it was first published, it was hailed as a masterpiece by some and called "repulsive" by others. John D. Barry, writing for Ainslee's Magazine (Dec. 1898) said, "Henry James, I ought to add by way of caution, is by no means a safe author to give for a Christmas gift."
The Turn of the Screw is the story of a governess who takes a job caring for two angelic children in a remote country house. She slowly comes to realize that they are possessed by the evil spirits of two former caregivers, and enters into a competition with these spirits to save the children.
But as always with Henry James, it's not so simple. If you accept the governess's account of the events, you can read this purely as a story of ghosts and possession, of good against evil. But Harold Goddard and Edmund Wilson point out that perhaps the governess is not a reliable narrator. All of our information about the events comes from the governess, who was raised in a narrow environment, yearns for strangeness and adventure, and has fallen in love with her employer, whom she never sees. Goddard argues that the governess is slowly going insane, and that the children fear her, not any nonexistent ghosts.
Robert Heilman disagrees with this interpretation: he argues that the governess is a normal, healthy 20-year-old girl put into a difficult situation. She does not repress her feelings, and shows no sign of neurosis--certainly not as much as would be needed for her to descend so quickly into madness.
Other critics have posited other possible readings of the story which are combinations of these two interpretations.
Tzvetan Todorov writes of James's deliberate ambiguity, "in which perception constitutes a screen, rather than removes one." Henry James himself refused to say what he meant: "So long as the events are veiled, the imagination will run riot and depict all sorts of horrors, but as soon as the veil is lifted, all mystery disappears."
Perhaps James, like many of the 20th century authors whom he so deeply influenced, is less interested in giving us answers, and more interested in using language and story to make us aware of our own interpretive process.
Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Eds. George and Barbara Perkins. The American Tradition in Literature. 11th ed., Vol. 2. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007.
2. Eds. Susan Belasco and Linck Johnson. The Bedford Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 2. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008.
3. Eds. George McMichael, et al. Anthology of American Literature, 9th ed., Vol. 2. New Jersey: Pearson, 2007.
4. Harold C. Goddard. "A Pre-Freudian Reading of The Turn of the Screw." The Turn of the Screw Norton Critical Edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999. 161-169.
5. Edmund Wilson. "The Ambiguity of Henry James." The Turn of the Screw Norton Critical Edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999. 170-173.
6. Robert B. Heilman. "The Freudian Reading of The Turn of the Screw. The Turn of the Screw Norton Critical Edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999. 177-184.
7. Tzvetan Todorov. "The Fantastic." The Turn of the Screw Norton Critical Edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999. 193-196.