- Henry James and the Suspense of Masculinity
Leland Person has an impressive way of making you feel that perhaps you have not really read the James work in question, or anyway that you ought to go and read it again, carefully. Better yet, let us simply enjoy reading Person reading James and marshaling many overlooked passages toward a compelling argument about Jamesian masculinities (decidedly plural and subject to colorful crises), his fine close readings buttressed by period reviews and a breathtaking survey of the criticism. Space-savingly, I will proceed to these fresh readings and skimp on the book's introduction, in which we recognize an expansion of Person's excellent PMLA article on The Ambassadors and James's essays on George Sand and Balzac as illustrative texts: in essence, the long engagement with the profligate Sand revealed an author "interrogating the notion that a male artist's gender simply engenders his writing" and toying with the more exciting (and terrifying) alternative that he "constructs a gendered and sexual identity in the act of engendering the work of art" (Balzac, as a bachelor Master-figure defying gender boundaries, supplies leverage against the Sandian encroachment on male-authorial entitlements) (34).
Roderick Hudson initiates James's quest for "more supple and versatile" lines of male identification, although growing entangled in the "many complications" that beset any hope of homoerotic fulfillment (40). Not simply a tour of the Victorian closet, the novel limns "the distribution of desire within a vexing economy" of different possible pairings; James beats sexology to the punch by probing the reflexive "power of object choice to engender a male self" (43). Especially good is the treatment of "homo-aesthetic creativity" as an ulterior [End Page 201] means of expressing inexpressible longings, as against Christina Light's normative insistences (47, 54). The work's male-male "erotic charge" registers obliquely in "a fantasy of substitution and guilty self-abuse" on Rowland Mallet's part, and yet his "grudging appreciation" of Christina's theatricality gives an inkling of "a gendered selfhood . . . open to multiple enactments" (57–59). The novel makes a gateway into the thematics of pluralized masculinity in James's mature oeuvre, or as Person niftily puts it: "James creates suspense that he would spend the rest of his writing career trying not to resolve" (64).
Chapter 2 strongly reads The American as James's "search for a male utopia in which the exchanges that constitute identity" are "disinfected . . . of complicating others," and "homosocial man-ufacture" produces symbiotic masculinities (73). James seeks purer modes of both heterosexual and homosocial bonding, and to this end he disturbs any inertial settling of character into a singular male role. Yet he does not so much de-center as "recenter" phallic signification, "shifting the terms of masculine self-aggrandizement but not the form" (74). Much of Newman's self-definition falls within homosocial matrices: against Reverend Babcock's admonitions to rigor and fixity, he strives to "keep his [gender] investment options open" (77). In the examples of Tristram and Valentin, Person sees cautionary tales about "subjection to female authority"—a narrative orbit that encompasses Newman's own lingering "tension between female-authored manhood and manly man-making" (79). Subject to others' scripts, Newman's reform efforts show the "catastrophic consequences that a radical reconstruction might entail," including "absence of selfhood" and "a state of perpetual suspense or dissociation" (82–83). James consigns his hero, after vacillating between phallic grandiosity and impotent collapse, to a caricature of manliness whose sole consolation is the "autoerotic pleasure" of revenge fantasy (84). The avenue to greater flexibility in gender performance opened in Newman's dalliances with other men is closed off by imperatives of the "heterotextual plot" (85).
Equally keen is the reading of multiple masculinities in The Portrait of a Lady. Person sets Gilbert Osmond down as "a self-made Masculine Failure," attended by such a "litany of negatives" as to create "almost a genderless and sexless tabula rasa" for narrative inquiry (94). Yet despite James's "desire to open and destabilize" traditionally...