Henry James' Love Life

Henry James' Love Life

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Jan. 7 1997 3:30 AM

Henry James' Love Life

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Dear Sheldon:

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       I'm as homoerotic as the next man. Maybe more so. I'm not sure. It's certainly been a valuable education in this regard to have written a biography of Henry James (among other things, it forced on me the necessity to think about my own sexuality) and to be writing now (with the subject's full cooperation) a biography of Gore Vidal. I'd like James to have had sex (mutual masturbation? belly rub? anal intercourse? even hot kissing?--that kind of thing) with someone else, male or female, if he would have wanted to. I don't know for certain that he wanted to (and I've read at least every document that you have). The evidence simply isn't there, as far as I can see, in regard to Zhukovsky, Morton Fullerton, Hendrik Andersen, Jocelyn Persse (each one of whom, at different times in his life, James was in love with), and now, courtesy of Novick alone, Holmes.
       James was a fastidious man with a strong homoerotic sensibility. He did "love" some men, whatever that means. For the life of me, though, I can't see how you can deduce from the passage he wrote that James did do something along these lines with Oliver Wendell Holmes (or anyone else). He may have, but there isn't any credible evidence to support a claim that he did. There's reason to think (but not to be certain) that he didn't. So why are you so sure that he did? Nothing in your book or in your statements answers that question. You essentially say that you can't conceive that James didn't. And then you proceed to say, without credible evidence, that he did. Perhaps that's more about you than about James. Myself, I'd like to know for certain one way or the other. I don't think, though, that I ever will. New evidence is not likely to appear. You grant that, too, and interestingly, you don't claim that the passage you cite in support of your claims is new evidence. You do claim that nobody else has really understood the passage before. Myself, I don't care very much either way. But I'm baffled as to why you think that James would be somehow lesser, even diminished, if he hadn't fucked or sucked or whatever with someone. Lots of people live very credible (even estimable) lives without ever having had homosexual or heterosexual experience. Some dream. Some don't. Some start. Some stop. So what? James was a great artist, the best novelist that America has produced. His novels do have, more or less, strong but indirect erotic content. What the source of that was in James' life we don't precisely know. I think you would have done well to have stated this opinion and left it at that. Instead, you make unsupportable claims of fact and then semi-invent things, as Millicent Bell points out in her review in the Times Literary Supplement (Dec. 6, 1996). Your answer to Bell is unconvincing, even evasive (TLS, Dec. 12, 1996). So, Edel is far from alone in seeing deep flaws in your claims and in his evidentiary procedures. So far, you haven't effectively addressed these criticisms. You're apparently outraged that so much attention has gone to this issue rather than to other aspects of your biography. But how could it be otherwise? Both author and publisher chose to go for the sexy jugular. Of course some blood is being spilled, much of it yours.
       I never thought I'd sympathize with Leon Edel, not that he even now needs my sympathy. But your response seem unwarrantedly ad hominem. Ages ago Edel, who had the trust of the James family executor who forced a very willing Harvard to limit access, had a lock on the material. That's the way things were done then. But that's a long, long time ago, and the world (including Harvard) has, thank God, changed. Edel did Henry James and us a great (even if mixed) service as biographer and editor. Attacks on him should not be part of the discussion.

Yours,
Fred Kaplan

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