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Featured Books

Featured Books

The Turn of the Screw: A Case Study in Contemporary CriticismSummary and Reviews of The Turn of the Screw: A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism
The Portrait of a LadySummary and Reviews of The Portrait of a Lady
The American (Norton Critical Edition)Summary and Reviews of The American (Norton Critical Edition)
The Wings of the Dove (A Norton Critical Edition)Summary and Reviews of The Wings of the Dove (Norton Critical Editions)
Henry James: Complete Stories (Library of America)Summary and Reviews of Henry James: Complete Stories (Library of America)
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Henry James

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Henry James (1843-1916) took the English-language novel to new heights of artistic stature, and literary critics read, examine, and write about his work as vigorously today as ever.  James was born in New York City, but he always felt a little out of place in America.  He didn't really like American-style democracy, and he eventually relocated to England.  James was born wealthy and always felt he deserved it.  His father, James, Sr., emphasized the role of suffering service in life in his religious training of his family.  This submissive attitude was especially for women, his father, believed.  "Woman was not truly a person but a "form of personal affection," and her mission was to redeem man from his natural egotism and brutality."  Though, by most accounts a happy family, James grew tired of its oppressive aspects, and it was another reason he moved to England.

Henry had a sister, who was gifted herself but became bitter by the restrictions she felt because of her gender.  He also had two younger brothers, but it was his older brother, William, who became a prominent psychologist and the originator of the pragmatist philosophy.  Henry admired but always tried to compete with his older brother for public attention.

A a child, Henry began his fascination with the class distinctions of Europe.  He enjoyed the American version of aristocracy, including education by governesses, but aspired to the more formal European style of aristocracy.  It was during this formative part of his life that Henry back to read fiction by authors like Hawthorne, Balzac, George Sand, Turgenev, George Eliot, and many others.  James used these early influences later on in such classics as The Turn of the Screw and Portrait of a Lady.

In his early twenties, James started his literary career by publishing in popular American magazines.  He wrote "A Passionate Pilgrim" (1871) while he was in England, Switzerland and Italy on a fifteen-month journey, his first taste of the Europe he so admired.  He wrote again of an American abroad in "Madame de Mauves" (1874)   James made the relocation to the Old World permanent In 1875 and, over the next few years, wrote Roderick Hudson (1875), The American (1877), and The Portrait of a Lady (1881), all accounts of the class distinctions of Europe.  As part of this examination of Europe from an American perspective, James revealed the imperfections as well as the good qualities of European societal structure.

From 1875 to 1889, James began a period of realism in his writing.  He also wrote "The Art of Fiction," (1884) an essay on the nature of the novel as an art form.  Daisy Miller: A Study, a short novel by James, reflects James' theory that the novel is not a literary form that allows for the greatest creativity.  He believed that a novelist was much like a historian in that his or her work must reflect reality.

In 1880, James wrote Washington Square, one of few novels he wrote that were set in the United States.  The Bostonians, about the reform movements of the 1880s, was another novel set in America.

James tried writing popular plays for the British stage in the 1890s when his popularity was flagging, and in the closing years of the nineteenth century, he wrote several difficult works of fiction.  The Spoils of Poynton (1897), The Turn of the Screw (1898), and The Awkward Age (1899) were among these, with female lead characters who were often coming into their sexual awakening.  Many believe that What Maisie Knew (1897) is James' best work of this period.  The novel deals with a young girl's struggle to fit into an adult world.

Some believe that this period of writing about struggle helped James work through his own past struggles and led him into a period of mature writing that produced The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904), novels that are all now still in the canon. Unlike early realistic novels, these used imagery and symbolism to portray themes of struggle.  James' last great work, "The Beast in the Jungle" (1903), brings his work full circle because it is often seen as a critique of his earliest work.


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