On Our Expectation that Henry James Was Far More Than Just Curious


With the publication of Henry James: The Mature Master, the second in a two-volume biography by Sheldon Novick, we can expect the coming weeks/months/years to be marked by the usual chorus of naysayers who like to challenge any assertion of same-sex activity by a historical figure — even one like James with such a recognizable gay “voice” — for lacking sufficient “proof,” as if such things need to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Novick’s first volume (Henry James: The Young Master, published in 1996) suggested — based on some less-than-detailed journal entries and an incontestable series of meetings — that James had sex with Oliver Wendell Holmes (yes, the Supreme Court jurist, and how awesome is that!) among others, which contradicted the prevailing image of him as a homosexually inclined but ultimately celibate effete who never engaged with the world he so brilliantly described.

Leading the naysayers ten years ago was Leon Edel, who wrote a five-volume biography of James for which he won a Pulitzer in 1963, and who said of Novick’s work: “[Novick] attempts to turn certain of his fancies into fact–but his data is simply too vague for him to get away with it.” Though we can be encouraged that Edel is now dead, we are somewhat disappointed to learn that — and here we quote from David Leavitt’s excellent review of the book in today’s Times — “[r]ather than directly stating that James had sex with any of the young men for whom he developed such passionate feelings, Novick relies on euphemisms to get his point across. Indeed, he inundates the reader with euphemisms. On Jonathan Sturges: ‘Their long visit in Torquay marked a new intimacy in their relations, … an intimacy that presaged regular visits and long stays in James’s house.’ On Arthur Benson: ‘It was the first of many overnight visits and marked a new stage of intimacy in their relations.’ On Hendrik Andersen: ‘Visit would follow visit, and Andersen would be a most intimate friend.'”

Leavitt titles his book review “A Beast in the Jungle” after one of James’ short stories, which — in case you haven’t read it (and we highly recommend you do) — presents an agonizing description of a man possessed by (unspecified, at least to the reader) desires that cannot be expressed; in short, it is (at least as we read it) a definitive treatment on the angst of the “closet-case,” which resonates as much today as when (or so we imagine) it was written 100 years ago.

What this means about James — as Leavitt points out — is anybody’s guess; but for the record, knowing that James was a famous literary figure who spent a lot of time in the company of similarly inclined queens (and the photographs are quite convincing on this point), we think the matter is barely worthy of debate, given that 1) men having sex with men — however you label it — is a historical certainty in the same way it is a geographical one today (even in Iran); and 2) James’ writing seethes with a mature, sophisticated sensuality and heartbroken wit that speaks of having lived thousands of lives and having died an equal number of deaths, which begs the question of why — unless you’re somehow against sex — would you ever want to imagine him otherwise?

Henry James and “friend” Hendrik Andersen in Rome, 1907.

(Photograph modified from “Henry James: The Mature Master.)

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