[Access article in PDF]
Henry James' Thwarted Love
Wendy Graham. Henry James' Thwarted Love. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999. xii + 289 pp.
In the past fifteen years, new critical approaches to Henry James's life and work have challenged the long-standing image of an oblivious James, wholly unaware of his own homoerotic inclinations and indifferent to the politics and mass culture of his own historical moment. New scholarship on James has moved chiefly in two directions: that which explores questions of gender and sexuality, exemplified by such critics as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Hugh Stevens, Leland Person, and others, and that which interrogates James's work within the historical and cultural contexts of late-nineteenth-century America. Wendy Graham's Henry James's Thwarted Love brings together these two approaches, considering James's sexual identity in the light of the post-bellum understanding of the relationship between sexuality and "mental hygiene."
Henry James's Thwarted Love takes the middle ground between the Edelian figure of the prudishly repressed James, who fled in horror from the open expression of sexual desire, and the recent tendency among queer theorists to construct a gay or proto-gay Henry James. Graham accepts the view of James as a lifelong celibate, but insists that his abstinence did not result from a pathological fear of sexuality, but from his acceptance, in his youth, of the mental-hygiene ethos that urged the conservation of nervous energy upon intellectuals and artists. Though he was not sexually active in the conventional sense, she maintains that James was not unaware of his own inclination toward men, that he was involved, later in life, in romantic friendships with a number of gay and bisexual men, and that he was deeply interested in the debate over the social status of homosexuality. As she notes, "James's abstention from full genital contact did not deprive him of a homosexual identity."
That is not to say, however, that James's relationship to this identity was entirely unambivalent. Graham explores the young James's exposure to the erotophobic tenets of mental-hygiene theory, particularly through his brother William, an early advocate who, like Henry, later abandoned these ideas. Post-bellum physiology understood nervous energy or "nerve-force" as a limited quantity, and too much expenditure--especially through irregular sexual indulgence, concentrated intellectual labor, and other activities--was held to deplete and damage the body. Wary of over-depleting his stock of energy, Graham argues, James consciously [End Page 482] chose writing over sexual activity. On another level, however, writing was a form of sexual activity for James, not only in his amorous correspondences, later in life, with partners such as the sculptor Hendrik Anderson, but also in his fiction.
Graham's interpretation of James's celibacy as a strategic decision, a transformation of energies, rather than an hysterical reaction to his own denied homoerotic longings, enables her to read those novels as bearing traces not of symptomatic "slips" about sexuality, but of James's active attempts to grapple with the question of same-sex desire. She tracks the evolution of James's thinking about sexuality across his career, examining in depth four novels which register these changes: Roderick Hudson, The Bostonians, The Princess Casamassima, and The Wings of the Dove. Bringing James's writing into dialogue with a rich and varied archive of contemporary medical and anthropological writings on nervousness, degeneration, reproduction, and homosexuality, she argues that James's attitude toward the doctrine of cultural sublimation changed markedly as he came to regret his own youthful espousal of its tenets. Graham's close attention to the complexity of the numerous overlapping, even contradictory, discourses that constitute the culture's conception of sexuality helps her to avoid the oversimplifications--about, say, James's infamous effeminacy or his relations with his male family members--that have served as pitfalls for other critics. Refusing the temptation to reduce the question of James's approach to sex to a singular assessment, pathological or progressive, she declares instead that "James's life history exemplifies the two extremes...