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Henry James - Biography

Henry James (1843-1916)
Commentary by Karen Bernardo

Henry James was what might be called an Anglophile; although born in New York City, he felt much more at home in England, and even when he is writing about Americans in American settings, his style has a crafted elegance that seems very unlike the "realistic" American prose of the late nineteenth century. 

James was fascinated with the clash of the social classes in the Victorian era, which he read in terms of the age-old conflict between experience and innocence, or artifice and naturalness. We can see this in both his novella  Daisy Miller and his short story "The Real Thing."

But what makes these works quintessentially "Jamesian" is not merely their depiction of the intrusion of one class into another -- other writers, such as Jane Austen, had done that admirably a century before -- but his delicate hand with the way the stories are developed. Both stories create their "world" through the development of character, and in turn, characters are revealed through their responses to conflict. James never tells us what happens; he shows us how his characters respond and what the characters say, and from this we are able to fill in the story's gaps from our own imaginations and hearts.

Henry James not only wrote marvelous works of social commentary, however; he also wrote marvelous horror stories. Unlike the works of Edgar Allen Poe or Nathaniel Hawthorne, though, James' stories seldom feature gory or sensationalistic settings; that would have offended James' delicate sensibility. Rather, as in all his fiction, James' focus was always locked squarely on characterization, and he never reveals more than the minimum required to achieve the desired effect. 

We are drawn into the life of James' character through that character's participation in an event which creates a conflict for him, and we learn about him through his response to it. We can see this through an examination of "The Ghostly Rental," as well as his classic novella The Turn of the Screw. "The Ghostly Rental" was written twenty years earlier, and it is apparent that James' fine art of tantalizing obscurity was not yet finely tuned; this story is told in a very straightforward manner, especially compared to The Turn of the Screw. But nonetheless, in the earlier story we see James' emphasis on characterization as a driving force, as well as his masterful ability to create a terrifying mood; and we see glimpses of the craftsmanship that would one day write one of the greatest ghost stories of all time.

Daisy Miller

The Real Thing

The Ghostly Rental

The Turn of the Screw

Would you like to read James' works in their entirety? Click here!

Tales of Henry James, Second Edition...

Turn of the Screw (Dover Thrift Editions)

Henry James: Complete Stories, 1874-1884...

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