Read between the lines to delve between the sheets

Henry James and Sexuality

July 16, 1999

What Hugh Stevens refers to as same-sex "genital contact" is extraordinarily easy to allege and almost impossible to prove. The question of Henry James's sexual orientations, whether he had any and where they might have led him, has become a kind of prurient board game: Fred Kaplan's biography asserts the desire, but proscribes its physical satisfaction; much the same is true of Kelly Cannon's Henry James and Masculinity , a book Stevens ignores.

Stevens's title is a misnomer: although Maggie ( The Wings of the Dove ) and Olive Chancellor (The Bostonians) continue, more or less, an initial strain organised around femininity, the commitment of this book is to male same-sex relationships in James's writing.

Stevens is cautious about James but dogmatic about his writing: he rejects the "biographical claim that the younger Henry James was a novelist who was gay", but nevertheless concludes that he was already "a gay novelist". Mapped on to James is an argument whose contours are familiar enough from Michel Foucault, Jeffrey Weeks, and a number of the other usual suspects.

The Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885), the Cleveland Street Scandal (1889-90) and, of course, the trial of Oscar Wilde participated in the constitution of homosexual identity. The relevance of all this for James is that his "fictions turn from tragedy - the love that cannot find its name - to anxiety - the love that dare not speak its name."

On the tragic side are Roderick Hudson (about which Stevens is entirely convincing), The Princess Casamassima and The Bostonians : anxiety and suicide shape much of the late short fiction, and the author is especially acute on The Jolly Corner and The Altar of the Dead .

Stevens mixes the judicious and the flagrant in a book that is occasionally stronger on advocacy than evidence. He is at his best when he allows the naughty bits to speak for themselves: in arguing that "the house in The Jolly Corner represents a typology of the human body", an italicisation of the nodal points is enough: "he had stiffened his will", "he had never withdrawn so soon", and so on.

The "camp" James, at the epistolary level at least, of the early 20th century is construed as a progenitor of subsequent "gay fiction": the attempt is to establish an intercourse between James, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster and others. Stevens is eager to enlist James as precursor of "identity politics".

James, I think, would have been with Sartre: the overflow of the self ("you are what you are not and you are not what you are") cannot be arrested by a monochromatic identity, however transgressive. Regardless of the 1885 act and the rest, sex is not what you are but what you do from time to time.

Peter Rawlings is associate professor, Kyushu University, Japan.

Henry James and Sexuality

Author - Hugh Stevens
ISBN - 0 521 62559 X
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 217

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