- An Emotional Reflection: Sexual Realization in Henry James’s Revisions to Roderick Hudson
In his Preface to the New York Edition of Roderick Hudson, Henry James described the original composition of the novel in terms of an initiation—as the completion of an artistic apprenticeship:
Roderick Hudson was my first attempt at a novel, a long fiction with a “complicated” subject, and I recall again the quite uplifted sense with which my idea, such as it was, permitted me at last to put quite out to sea . . . I had but hugged the shore on sundry previous small occasions . . . and master as yet of no vessel constructed to carry a sail. The subject of Roderick figured to me vividly this employment of canvas, and I have not forgotten, even after long years, how the blue southern sea seemed to spread immediately before me and the breath of the spice-islands to be already in the breeze. Yet it must even then have begun for me too, the ache of fear, that was to become so familiar, of being unduly tempted and led on by “developments.”( NYE 8)
The “‘complicated’ subject” of Roderick Hudson would, however, involve much more than a fictional portrayal of the male comradeship between Rowland Mallet and Roderick Hudson; it would provide an emotional framework for the realization of James’s own homosexual identity. The original version of the novel (published in book form by J. R. Osgood in November 1875) and the revised New [End Page 182] York Edition (Scribner’s 1907) trace the developing sexual awareness of the novelist from the non-tactile, idealized concept of male companionship held by him during the initial composition period (1874–75) to that of physical intimacy and possessive sexual yearning evident during the revision period (1905–06). 1 These progressive aspects of James’s homoerotic awareness are reflected in the alternately idealized or tactile language of his letters to, or concerning, male companions during the 1870s and the 1900s, a language which in turn finds its way into the contemporaneous versions of the Rowland Mallet-Roderick Hudson relationship.
James’s friendships with the novelist, Ivan Turgenev, and Russian painter Paul Joukowsky (characteristic of his male relationships of the 1870s), were based on an idealized love of the artistic imagination, shared aesthetic experience (Edel, Conquest 208), or an infatuation with the Parisian literary society into which James had been introduced by these individuals. James would ultimately be distanced from his Russian companions by Turgenev’s ill health and by Joukowsky’s defection to the “vile” Wagner circle at Naples (Edel, Conquest 404–05). His correspondence concerning these companions indicates a desire for eternal friendship without any overt indication of sexual passion for them.
The “ache of fear” referred to in the Preface to the New York Edition of Roderick Hudson would also have an application beyond that of the Master’s concern for textual continuity. James’s responses to queries concerning the unconventional comradeship of Rowland Mallet and Roderick Hudson (in the 1875 edition), as well as his reviews of other writers’ depictions of homoerotic relationships, are characterized either by agitated dismissal or cryptic allusions to an exclusive sexual fraternity of “the legendary sort” ( C 94). Behind this early criticism lay a continuing fear or anxiety of discovery which would later find voice in the Preface to the New York Edition; fear of “being unduly tempted and led on by ‘developments’” (NYE 8). This aspect of “covering” for his sexuality would gradually diminish in importance as James became more accepting of his own homoerotic tendencies and less fearful of his attraction to other men.
The period during and just subsequent to the composition of Roderick Hudson (1874–75) is characterized as much by James’s recognition of his deep-seated need for male companionship as it is by a defensive reticence to openly express his sexuality. After William James’s departure from Florence (where he had been visiting Henry) in February 1874, Henry would write to his mother:
Florence, fond as I have grown of it, is worth far too little to me, socially, for me to think complacently of another winter here. . . . What I desire now...