Henry James' Love Life

Henry James' Love Life

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Jan. 24 1997 3:30 AM

Henry James' Love Life


Dear Fred:


       What are we talking about? In your original letter you raised only one substantive question: Was Henry James celibate? Let me repeat my position.
       There is ample evidence on the question of James' celibacy, and no particular reason to leave it unanswered. As with any factual question, one assembles evidence from disparate sources, and arrives at some conclusion as to their meaning. In my last letter (Jan. 12) I summarized facts from many sources that I relied upon. You seem particularly upset because there are no discoveries among them of the kind for which you yourself futilely searched: no confessions, no photographs. For the most part, I rely on facts that everyone knows, which is why no elaborate argument was needed. From the facts available to us both, it seems plain that Henry James knew what he was talking about when he so vividly described sexual acts, and that he had this knowledge from his young manhood onward.
       You don't dispute the data; you don't really respond to the evidence at all, except to say that I am "guessing." Sure, I'm guessing, if you like to call it that; anything one says about history is a guess. On the question that occupies us here, however, there is ample evidence that my guess is correct.
       In my book I did not think it necessary to make any elaborate argument about James' sexuality, precisely because the facts are so well known. (Why you and a few others looked at these without seeing them is another question.) And so I took the fact of James' sexuality as a given, and went on to tell his story. In this context, my conclusion as to the facts becomes an "assumption," something taken for granted. As one reviewer said, I have "accepted James' sexuality, and gone on from there." Why do you find this so difficult to understand?
       You say you have "evidence" that my conclusion is probably wrong, evidence that leads you to say sex was improbable, and celibacy more likely. Give us a hint of this "evidence," Fred. Did James say he was celibate or did his friends say it of him? Did he shy away from talk of sex, afraid to reveal his ignorance? Perhaps he spoke well of celibacy as a way of life; perhaps there were circumstances known to you that obliged him to remain celibate? Did he state principled reasons or even a simple preference for remaining celibate? Perhaps, as Leon Edel now claims, James was physically incapable?
       These are rhetorical questions, of course. We both know that the answer to each is negative. I have found no evidence of James' supposed celibacy to which one can give credence--except Leon Edel's artful narrative, which seemed so authoritative while he maintained control of the data, and which has been so frequently repeated and amplified that you and others take it for fact.
       You do have a position, Fred, although you try to squirm out of it. You say that James was probably celibate, and that it was improbable that he ever had sex. (Millicent Bell said "perhaps" your "caution" leads you this "improbability," the improbability that James was chaste. Is this really different from saying you incline toward a wrong conclusion?) Why do you say this?
       Forty years ago, we heard the same denials about Walt Whitman--there was no proof he was actively gay, we will never know, etc. Eventually the obvious asserted itself. And so it does with Henry James.
       You give yourself away by saying that James is a "specialized commodity," and that you don't know a single scholar who believes James was actively gay. You have spoken to such scholars in my presence; you have attended conferences at which they gave papers saying James was actively gay. There are many literary Jamesians who accept my conclusions, although considering the violence of the arguments going on in academia, I won't single them out here. Historians, biographers, and careful readers of Henry James, in reviewing my book, have accepted my premises and conclusions, and have praised my "rigorous scholarship" and "meticulous documentation." Other reviewers have disagreed; there has been a lively debate. But, no, James is not a specialized commodity, the property of the small circle who seem entirely to fill your own awareness.
       There is indeed a new paradigm. But your own book is firmly in the old Edelian one, however much you now try to disown it. The New York Times took your book for another one-volume edition of Edel, with a number of new documents assimilated to the same old story; many reviewers questioned the need for another such biography. You summarized your book this way: James "live[d?] most fully in his mind, his imagination, and his art."
       Well, no. Henry James lived most fully in his life; that is why he was able to write such wonderful books, full of wisdom and conscious art. His motto and his exhortation to the young was "live!"--not "fantasize!"

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.)