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  • The Queer Subject of “The Jolly Corner”
  • Eric Savoy

“‘He, I say—I cannot say, I.’”

—Robert Louis Stevenson

For several decades, critical commentary on “The Jolly Corner”—James’s 1908 tale of Spencer Brydon’s return to New York, his encounter with the ghostly double who represents Brydon’s unlived American life, and his disavowal of whatever the double obscurely embodies and signifies—has situated the claims of “America” within an undiscerning account of heterosexuality’s reclaiming of the expatriate bachelor. Dorothea Krook suggests that this tale is “‘The Beast in the Jungle’ with a happy ending,” an exposition of “the power to receive love” (334); Daniel Mark Fogel asserts that Spencer “accepts the best in his American identity when he is reborn to reciprocal love with Alice Staverton” (196); Millicent Bell argues that Spencer Brydon “is rewarded as are few Jamesian heroes: he has recovered a possibility foregone” (287). Although there are few incontrovertible certainties obtainable in this strange text, it seems evident that the gothic narrative of “The Jolly Corner” explores the insidious reach of heterosexual reclamation as the occasion of profound terror. In order to chart the dimensions of this terror, I must consider, first of all, the particularities of Spencer Brydon’s “European” subjectivity, and, second, the odd circumstance that his ghostly, hypothetical “American” double is double-authored by Brydon’s melancholic response to an unlived life in conjunction with Alice’s equally retrospective heterosexual “script,” her mourning of an eclipsed heterosexual vocation.

At this late moment in Jamesian criticism, we have come to understand the precarious situation of the bachelor, his liminal position in dominant culture and his permeable psychic boundaries which admit the rigors of homosexual panic. The bachelor’s indeterminate relation to identity and desire aligns this figure neatly with James’s narrative investments in “the incalculable.” The mapping of [End Page 1] the Jamesian bachelor by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has situated this recurring, almost generic figure on an incoherent, suspended point along “the treacherous middle stretch of the modern homosocial continuum” at which there is no “identity,” only “agonized sexual anesthesia” (Epistemology 188). Nowhere in subsequent criticism can we locate a self-identified, self-knowing “gay” bachelor; yet James, I would argue, establishes precisely such a subjectivity for Spencer Brydon upon his return from prolonged expatriation. James’s signalling of Brydon’s homosexuality takes the oblique form of connotation, but the play of connotation is sufficiently elaborate to acquire a solidity and a specificity in differential relation to the signs of heteronormative American masculinity. In some ways, the house on the jolly corner consolidates Brydon’s “gay” susceptibilities: he returns to “the black and white squares,” the “old marble of the hall pavement,” that “had then made in him . . . for the growth of an early conception of style” (455). If Brydon’s ancestral home provides an architecture, a spatial plotting of the temporality of the subject’s various “returns,” then this point of entry marks the uncovering of what might be conceptualized as the primal scene, the founding moment, of a homosexual “taste” that compelled Spencer to follow his “perverse young course—almost in the teeth of [his] father’s curse” (449) to Europe, where he led what he describes as “a selfish frivolous scandalous life” (450). “‘I know at least what I am,’” Spencer tells Alice, and what he knows is how New Yorkers have perceived him: “‘I’ve not been edifying—I believe I’m thought in a hundred quarters to have been barely decent’” (450). To dismiss these oblique self-revelations as instances of Jamesian conversational hyperbole would evade the point of what such hyperbole often serves in James’s texts: as a strategy of a logistical closet, it is a form of preterition that—as Richard Dellamora, Ed Cohen, and others have argued—allows “homosexuality” to accrue as a displaced referent under the metonymic cover of the sign of “aestheticism.” Recently, Wendy Graham has built on the work of Jonathan Freedman to survey the chain of associative signification that culminates in “homosexuality”: “the language of effeteness and effeminacy” translucently overlies “homosexuality as the unspoken subject . . . for which the term ‘aesthete’ has long served as a virtual synonym...