Henry James' Love Life

Henry James' Love Life

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Dec. 19 1996 3:30 AM

Henry James' Love Life


Dear Leon Edel:


       I was startled to find in SLATElast week your intemperate and rather personal diatribe about my book Henry James: The Young Master. Whatever your reasons, you have allowed yourself to be provoked into saying outrageous things, and I have no choice but to answer plainly.
       Your remarks focus obsessively on Henry James' sexuality. This is your obsession, not mine. You dwell on a single sexual encounter that takes no more than a page in my book and is not referred to again.
       What I do say in my book, and give considerably more prominence--and what you fail to mention--is that your own biography of James is no longer useful. For a modern reader, it badly distorts the record of the novelist's life. I point out numerous errors and outright inventions in your work, mistakes you give a fair sample of in your S
LATEstory. Contrary to what you say, there was not just one incident but a lifelong friendship between James and Paul Zhukovsky. The surviving letters span 20 years. I don't say they had an affair; that is your own fantasy. I quote and cite letters that you say I omit. And so on.
       You do yourself no credit by these exaggerated denunciations, and you make it difficult for me to respond with the respect that would otherwise be due your age and position. Your own much-praised biography was a product of its time. In it you took the standpoint of Freudian theory, circa 1940, and claimed to know James' unconscious motives. You rejected his own statements of fact and intention, and relied instead on Freud, your higher authority. So confident were you of your theory and your exclusive access to the James papers that you made it almost a point of principle to write without checking your sources, and you gave few citations. For all these reasons, scholars are now reconstructing the story of James' life from primary materials, to which they have access for the first time. My book summarizes a great deal of work done by others, as well as my own research--a point you neglect to mention. It would be more graceful for you to let a younger generation explore the data and form our own conclusions.
       You are correct, therefore, when you say I seek to overturn "half a century of scholarship"--at least, I mean to overturn some of the misconceptions created during the 40 years during which you controlled access to the James family papers, grew accustomed to making outrageous statements like those you have just aimed at me, and repressed independent scholarship with legendary vindictiveness.
       As you will see if you read it, my book is devoted largely to a discussion of James' intellectual development and his stories, novels, and critical essays. James' sexual orientation is necessarily portrayed, and I take it for granted--as most scholars do now--that he was a closeted gay man. I don't think you have ever really disputed this, but you now seem to be shying away from its implications. In your story you hint that James was impotent, and you quote a bizarre, homophobic pronouncement by a doctor who examined James once when he was ill and away from home, then announced to a breathless world that the famous novelist was badly hung. (You omit the more bizarre and self-discrediting portions of the announcement.)
       The point of all this seems to be for you to deny that James, although his principal affections were for men, ever had sexual contact with a man. As to the sexual encounter with Holmes that so excited the editors of S
LATE, you completely misstate both James' account and my own. James refers in a notebook entry to a "divine, unique" initiation that it would be "fatal, impossible" to enlarge upon in print (he is making notes for a book). Accordingly he quickly passes on to other memories. You want there to be only one memory--of literary events--but this reading does not seem possible. Even James, for all his fondness for florid language, would not describe receiving a letter of acceptance from the North American Review (it was not even his first published work) and a call from E.L. Godkin as a "divine, unique" initiation that would be "fatal, impossible" to recall in print.
       Holmes' involvement in what was more likely a sexual encounter is obliquely referred to in another memoir, not the notebook entry as you claim. In this second account, which I cited clearly enough but you ignore, James recalls the same time and place as the "initiation" and, in a welter of sexual imagery, evokes a picture of Holmes being put to bed. This might be just James' fantasy, but it was more probably a casual contact between two young men who had been drinking. I give it less than a page. That's it. Lighten up, professor.

Sincerely yours,
Sheldon M. Novick
Vermont Law School

(Editor's Note: Leon Edel, author of "Oh Henry!" in SLATE, is unable to continue this dialogue. Fred Kaplan is standing in for him.)