Henry James' Love Life

Henry James' Love Life

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Jan. 18 1997 3:30 AM

Henry James' Love Life

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Dear Sheldon:

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       As you say, you've "taken it for granted that James was actively gay" (your words; my emphasis). I don't think that this is the kind of thing one should "take for granted" about anybody. You either know or you don't. If you don't, you can guess and then support your guess as best you can. But you call your guesses facts. And you provide support for your guesses that you call evidence, but it really isn't evidence at all: It's more guessing. In your latest comment, you shift your firm claim in your book--that James did something sexual to and with Holmes--to "I think (but can't be sure) that one evening in the spring of 1865 James jacked off ... his young friend Oliver Wendell Holmes." Now (as opposed to before) is it the case that you "think" James had a physical affair with Zhukovsky and/or others, or do you know? And so on. You say that "other people have looked at the evidence now available, and have come to the same conclusion." Which conclusion? That James "jacked off ... Holmes"? I don't know of any other James scholar who has come even to the conclusion that James was actively gay. There may be one, but I don't think so. Please state who these other scholars or Jamesians are and cite the passages. And then cite their evidence so we can evaluate it. And why aren't these other scholars (or even nonscholars) cited in your footnotes to support your claims about James' active sexual life?
       You use the phrase "now available" as if there were new evidence. You haven't provided one shred of new evidence, and for good reason: You have had nothing available to you that hasn't been available to other James scholars. No new evidence has come to light. But here's part of the problem: At one moment you readily claim that your claims are based on a reinterpretation of materials heretofore available; at another moment you imply new material with the word "now," and then claim new material by referring to "new data."
       "Even Millicent Bell says," you write, that I am "wrong to incline so strongly toward the conclusion that James was celibate." But that's not at all what Bell says. That's not a quotation. Those are your own words. What she writes is significantly different: "Kaplan is a scrupulous professional who keeps to the biographical contract to claim no more than he can prove. Perhaps his caution leads to an improbability. One cannot help hoping, for James' sake, that his life was not altogether devoid of sensual satisfaction." Notice the word "perhaps." And then the word "improbability." I think it was improbable James was actively homosexual, and I don't care whether he was or wasn't. Bell thinks perhaps (she isn't sure about this) it is improbable to think that James didn't have an active sexual life. She wishes, for James' sake, that he did have an active sex life. You "take for granted" that he was actively homosexual. Your use of Bell here is sophistical, even duplicitous. (I know, Sheldon, that this sounds ad hominem, but I don't know how else to say that you're misrepresenting Bell, and I don't mind your being ad hominem with me; it's being ad hominem with the 90-or-so-year-old Edel that I don't like. It's really nervy of you to deny that your response to Edel wasn't ad hominem. Let me quote you: "You [Edel] repressed independent scholarship with legendary vindictiveness." That's not ad hominem?)
       I'm baffled by your statement that my portrait of James is "not very much different" from Edel's. Most reviewers commented on the important differences, especially my emphasis on the active James, the James interested in money, in business, in power, and in sex. My book is not, should not, be at issue here. Your claims and your evidence are the issue.
       I don't know, as you claim, that your book has "been getting quite a lot of attention" separate from your claims about James' sex life. S
LATEof course has been promoting this controversy for its own purposes. I know you have asked for discussion of your book that isn't solely on the issue of your claims about James' sexual activities. I doubt that you've gotten much yet. The focus has been on the claims about James' sex life because many readers get ticked off when a biographer makes big (or at least sensational) claims on very little and poor evidence. But OK. Here now is some discussion that doesn't touch that issue at all: As I see it, what you've done in your book, Sheldon, is to have another look at the autobiographies, at the novels, and at the letters that others have looked at very closely before, and then you have created a narrative that sees the world partly through James' words and eyes, relying heavily on the phrasing and the narrative of the autobiographies. This may work for a reader who hasn't read the autobiographies. But for those who know James well, it may seem like vitiated or even ersatz James. I don't think it will work for even the non-Jamesian reader, if there is any such. James is a specialized commodity these days, and his readers tend to be soaked in his sensibility. I also think that the scholarly reviewers will take you to task for some of the inaccuracies and distortions in the text and in the notes to the biography, and especially for your reductive readings of the stories and novels: the cardinal sin for sophisticated literary people of reading directly from the fiction to the life, as if imagined scenes could establish literal, extra-fictional fact. Hence, if James describes some event in his fiction, then that is evidence that he experienced that event in his life.
       Alas, there isn't any "paradigm shift." There's a Novick shift. It's a series of nonscholarly and inconsistent twists, turns, and weak readings that leave you stumbling over your own feet (that's not ad hominem, that's ad pedium).

Best,
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.)