Henry James' Love Life

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Jan. 13 1997 3:30 AM

Henry James' Love Life

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Dear Fred:

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       My book has been getting quite a lot of attention, not because it dwells on Henry James' sexuality, but because I have new things to say and use novel techniques to say them. Some newspapers have provoked arguments about one sexual episode that occupies less than a page. SLATEhas followed their lead and now you are sharing in the publicity. I don't blame you, but you are not speaking truthfully when you say that I and Random House have gone for the "sexy jugular," whatever that means.
       You make other remarks about me that I will let pass for now, except one. You accuse me of making ad hominem arguments. My answer to Leon Edel's insults was not directed at the man. Your own letter, however, contains quite a number of personal remarks. You describe yourself in generous terms, and speculate darkly on my motives and the defects in my character, evidently inferior to yours. That is what ad hominem means, Fred. I will take your self-revelations at face value; you are a truly terrific guy; but the things you say about me are not correct, and have no place here.
       The only substantive question you pose is this: You say you reviewed a lot of documents and didn't find any credible evidence that Henry James had a sex life. You say there is "reason to think," on the contrary, that James was celibate. (In your own biography, you certainly seem to assume that this was the case.) You don't say what those reasons might be.
       Despite your dark hints, I have no problem with virginity, if that's what James wanted, God bless him. But he didn't, and a biographer has some obligation to understand the reality of his subject's life.
       What was the evidence that you missed or ignored? Like most evidence about most things, it is scattered and fragmentary. Looking at it as a whole, as one must do, however, here is what it tells us.
       James was quite different from the person that Edel describes. Edel's James is a mild, shy, attractively dithery man, asexual, easily frightened but very bright; a wonderful observer and friend, through whose eyes one can watch the doings of the great and powerful. This portrait omits a lot of inconvenient evidence--as you know--and yet, your own portrait is not very much different.
       The historical James was quite different in some important respects and, in some ways, less attractive. He was vigorously, ambitiously social, and moved in a fast set among the capitals of Europe. He was prosperous and unmarried, and so was pursued by young people of both sexes. He regularly invited actively gay men to visit him overnight, sometimes in frankly imploring terms. Sometimes they accepted his invitations. He wrote remarkably erotic letters to them, before and after their visits.
       James repeatedly described celibacy (absent a vocation) as a perversion when voluntary, and a living death when not. I don't share his view, but I take him at his word.
       Further, and has often been noted, his letters and published works are drenched in sexuality. This sexuality is not just the eroticism of longing and desire. Beginning with very early stories, he repeatedly described sexual encounters using vivid, tactile language. His graphic portrayals (complete with tastes and smells) are found in accounts of what it feels like to embrace a man (or, in one famous passage in the story "A Light Man," to bring another man to climax); he never similarly described the sensation of embracing a woman (except as a dancing partner). His descriptions of kissing and fondling men (usually written from a woman's perspective) are immensely persuasive, and never seem to strike a false note. His descriptions of love for women, however, are sometimes ludicrously off-base.
       Least important of all, I think (but can't be sure) that one evening in the spring of 1865, James jacked off (since we are talking dirty) his young friend Oliver Wendell Holmes. This episode is not based, as you say, on a single passage in one document, but on reading together a half-dozen sources, as my book makes clear.
       For all these reasons, and others more specific--it would be tedious to multiply them--I have taken it for granted that James was actively gay. Other people have looked at the evidence now available, and have come to the same conclusion. Even Millicent Bell says you are wrong to incline so strongly toward the conclusion that James was celibate. This is what one means by a paradigm shift, Fred. New data are added, and the picture suddenly shifts. Why didn't you see it? You tell us.

Sincerely yours,
Sheldon M. Novick

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

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