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Book reviews James & Sexuality Hugh Stevens. Henry James and Sexuality. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 217 pp. $54.95 AS HUGH STEVENS points out in his rigorous yet engaging new book on Henry James, we have recently witnessed a proliferation of books and articles redefining Henry James as a canonical figure within "queer" literary studies. Stevens argues for a reorientation of this critical enterprise, one that would eschew biographical claims for a "gay" Henry James, which founder on the question of his putative celibacy, and seek instead to define James through his writings as a "gay novelist, who created lasting fictions which, ahead of their time, explore the workings of same-sex desire, and the difficulties of admitting such desires, within a cultural formation marked by homosexual prohibition." Stevens supports his assertions about James's self-consciously erotic and deviant representations in a variety of ways. Among them, he employs Judith Butler's theories of abjection and queer performativity as adapted for literary study by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. The ease and facility with which Stevens introduces the ideas of Butler , Sedgwick, Roland Barthes, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and other difficult theorists into his own exegesis, always pertinently and with remarkable clarity, is praiseworthy in and of itself. Stevens's readings are ingenious and dazzling, which we expect from text-centered criticism, without appearing heedless of social context. On the contrary, Stevens is profoundly attuned to the issues of James's era. He argues that while James was not a public participant in the homosexual rights movement or in the homosexual subculture, his writing demonstrates an acquaintance with the evolving medical, literary, and lay constructions of homosexuality and evidences a wish to represent same-sex desire. He notes that prior to 1890 James's fiction freely explores homoerotic passion, but after 1890 becomes increasingly "anxious , as the person who shows such desires faces the risk of identification as 'homosexual,' an increasingly recognized character type." James's disavowal of a homosexual identity is not, in Stevens's view, a sign of repression and panic, but rather a rejection of the crude binarisms : heterosexual and homosexual. Stevens reminds us that James's works don't just flirt with homoerotic themes, but also with themes of feminine masochism, adultery, and other soi-disant deviant behaviors. 115 ELT 43 : 1 2000 The book was originally planned as a study of James's representations of femininity. Stevens notes that, over time, he became increasingly interested in James's characterization of same-sex desire and, eventually, in the way in which "for James sexuality marks a space in which the very possibility of selfhood is questioned." Stevens's reflections on femininity per se do not appear as well integrated into the book's overall meditation on sexuality as the other topics named until chapter three, where the fierce cultural debates over woman's nature and role are said to force Maggie Verver to "discover femininity in a 'new country.'" James's interrogation of social and biological definitions of sexual and gender identity, together with his examination of the difficulties of that construction and the price of deviation from established norms, appeals to Stevens as modern and searching. Stevens argues that the last thing James accomplishes or attempts in novels such as The Wings of the Dove is a naturalization of gender categories. Building on his perception that James questions the very possibility of literary realism in The Wings of the Dove, Stevens shows how sex and gender identity are destabilized within the representational scheme of the novel, where Merton Densher's effemination is signaled by his passive compliance with the wishes of his powerful female co-conspirators. In tracing Merton's evolving resistance to Kate's plans, Stevens demonstrates that masculinity itself is on trial in the novel and aptly compares Merton's gender anxieties to John Marcher's "homosexual panic," a reference to Sedgwick's famous reading of "The Beast in the Jungle." Similarly, Stevens's parsing of Milly Theale's mysterious illness, where disease is treated as a metaphor for sexuality (based on extensive discussion of the hysterization of the New Woman), renders a private tragedy as a parable for society's...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 115-120
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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