The Turn of the Screw: Biography: Henry James

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Henry James, Jr. was born in New York, NY, on April 15, 1843. His father was an eccentric intellectual, also named Henry James. His grandfather, known as William of Albany, at one time owned much of Schenectady, New York. However, that wealth was split between many children, so Henry, Sr. had to be prudent with his money. Henry, Sr. married a woman named Mary, and they had five children in six years. William, the eldest, went on to become a famous philosopher, and Henry, Jr., the second oldest, became one of America's leading novelists. The family moved around frequently, as Henry, Sr. felt this was the best education for his children.
When the Civil War broke out, Henry, Sr. was adamant that his two eldest sons not take part in it, even though he encouraged his younger sons, Robertson and Wilkerson, to fight. This kind of favoritism was typical of a father whose eccentricities turned the younger sons into personal and financial failures, his eldest sons into neurotic high-achievers, and his daughter, Alice, into a brilliant yet frequently bedridden hypochondriac.
Henry, Jr. went to Harvard Law School for a year but then settled down to writing in Boston. For a while, he went back and forth between Europe and America, writing in both continents. His short novel, Daisy Miller (1879) was his first big success. James settled in Europe as a young adult, possibly in order to be away from his brother, William, who he loved but continually competed with. James loved Italy and would go back every few years for long stays, but he didn't feel it could be home. He also loved France, but everyone there kept snubbing him. Finally, he settled in England, where he was welcomed by society. He had very distinguished friends, including the American novelist and critic William Dean Howells, Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev and French novelist Emile Zola. James gained a reputation as one of the most important writers of his day, yet his work was never meant to appeal to the masses, so he did not meet with great commercial success. His major works from this period include The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and The Bostonians (1886).
James always had a fondness for theater, and from 1890 to 1895 he tried to pursue that interest. But after getting hissed off the stage after his play Guy Domville, James returned to the novel form. Drawn to the theater out of a desire for recognition and financial success, James also believed the theater could be a subtle and beautiful medium when playwrights like Ibsen were performed. But his own plays were mediocre, although he refused to recognize this himself, preferring to blame the bad taste of the audience and the theater professionals for his failures. He returned to writing novels with a considerable chip on his shoulder, which influenced the books written in the years that followed, such as Turn of the Screw in 1898. Other notable later works were The Ambassadors (1903) and The Golden Bowl (1904).
James always struggled a bit with finances, although he was never poor. After achieving even more fame as a novelist but still little financial success, James decided to edit his substantial body of work, doing a great deal of rewriting and adding prefaces, for the New York editions in the early 1900s.
James remained an American citizen almost all of his life, and he would periodically return home after a close relative died. He was the last of the five siblings to die, on February 28, 1916. The year before, he had become a British subject. This was because he found his mobility restricted during war time, but also because he felt loyalty to England. Despite his Irish roots, he always tried to present himself as British. World War I (1914-1918) had greatly saddened him, and before he died he was working a lot with soldiers in the hospital, trying to entertain them. He remains one of America's most important writers.

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