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Henry James | Biography

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Born into an intellectual and powerful family on April 15, 1843, Henry James spent his early life in New York City. He was a shy, well-read child who had a lifelong friendship and rivalry with his older brother William James, the esteemed Harvard professor known for his impact on the emerging field of psychology before turning his attention to philosophy, where he had a similarly large impact. Trips to Europe as children gave the five James siblings a sense of global citizenship and bred cultural differences.

James began Harvard Law School in Boston when he was 19. His childhood fascination with Europe led him, in 1869, to begin the long process of emigrating to Europe—living in France, Italy, Switzerland, but mostly in England. He befriended European realist writers like Gustave Flaubert, Ivan Turgenev, and Guy de Maupassant. Two of James's early novels, Daisy Miller (1878) and The Portrait of a Lady (1880–81), deal with cultural clashes between young, hopeful American women and the traditional, unforgiving "Old World" of Europe. The Turn of the Screw features a similarly young, naive woman in a different situation.

In the 1890s James suffered personal troubles. The deaths of both his sister and another close friend affected him deeply. He'd begun to write plays, and they weren't well-received. His 1895 play Guy Domville was a critical failure. James was at a creative crossroads. Soon after the play failed, he and his friend Edward White Benson (the archbishop of Canterbury) discussed a subject interesting to both of them—ghosts. Benson told him a story about mistreated children haunted by the ghosts of their servants. The story lingered with James.

Still drawn to theater, James used dramatic and experimental storytelling in his prose. He also wanted more readers. When the New York magazine Collier's Weekly asked James to write a 12-part ghost story they'd publish in installments, he agreed. The Turn of the Screw, published in Collier's in 1898, features dramatic techniques such as withholding information from the reader and transitioning between scenes and "pictures," or images. The Turn of the Screw was a smashing success in James's own time, and today, is considered one of the most frightening and compelling ghost stories ever written. It has been the topic of thousands of pages of scholarly debate over how to interpret the story and James's intent regarding the nature of psychological madness or supernatural evil.

James died on February 28, 1916.

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