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An End to Novel Writing: Howard Overing Sturgis FREDERICK KIRCHHOFF Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne HOWARD OVERING STURGIS holds anecdotal place in literary history as the friend of Henry James and Edith Wharton, George Santayana and E. M. Forster.1 In his own right, however, he is remarkable, not for his literary friendships, but for his rejection of literature: having published three promising novels—Tim (1892), All That Was Possible (1895), and Belchamber (1905)2—he abandoned fiction. Forster summarizes the usual explanation: Sturgis "wrote to please his friends, and deterred by his failure to do so he gave up the practice of literature and devoted himself instead to embroidery, of which he had always been fond."3 The transition from writing to needlework may seem accidental, but it is not. In fact, the two activities played a similar role in Sturgis 's confrontation with the world. Both represented assaults on the gender system; both mobilized the capacity for ironic imitation central to his personality. But the equivalence between embroidery and fiction does not explain why Sturgis stopped writing novels. James's criticism of Belchamber has been blamed for the termination of Sturgis 's career. However, writers like Wharton praised the novel; and Sturgis's unpublished story, "The China Pot," shows an awareness of James's shortcomings that could have enabled him to survive his criticism.4 In his correspondence with Elmer Borklund, Percy Lubbock denied James's influence: '"Sturgis often said to me . . . that he would like to write another novel, but couldn't think of another subject:—which simply means that he had no urge from within to write, as well as no external need. A curious case, considering what talent he had shown.'"5 But the disruption of Sturgis's career is not merely a sign that the "urge from within" generating his fiction had ceased its promptings . The closing pages of Belchamber suggest a collapse of the narrative conventions that until then sustain the events of Sturgis's 425 ELT: Volume 33:4, 1990 fiction. Suddenly, a novel which seems able to resolve its tensions within the repertoire of the conventionally novelistic finds itself at a loss for significant action. The omniscient narrator disappears and the fate of the hero is left, not ambiguous, but unknown. It is as if Sturgis had experienced the end of novel writing within the process of drafting his novel—as if the project of Belchamber had confronted him with the formal inadequacy of his narrative technique. The problem posed by Sturgis's fiction is the relationship between this narratological dilemma and the impulse that initiated his career as a novelist. As Borklund observes, all three novels deal with central figures who fail, in some sense, to "fit"; and it seems reasonable to identify Sturgis's wish to explore and perhaps vindicate the role of the outsider with the "urge from within" to write novels. But insofar as the narrative conventions he adopted for this purpose replicated the social conventions he sought to challenge, he was faced with a primary conflict between ends and means. Sturgis's choice of the theme of social deviance links him with the literary mainstream—specifically, with the exploration of overt or thinly disguised homoeroticism in writers like Wilde, James, Forster, and Proust. Whether or not Sturgis was a homosexual, he was clearly a type many would now label gay. Youngest son of an aggressive American businessman turned British banker, brought up as his beautiful mother's favorite child, he became, at least as Santayana6 pictured him, "her last and permanent baby": The dear child was sensitive and affectionate, with abundant golden hair, large blue eyes, and well-turned chubby arms and legs. Her boudoir became his nursery and his playroom. As if by miracle, for he was wonderfully imitative, he became, save for the accident of sex, which was not yet a serious encumbrance, a perfect young lady of the Victorian type.7 Santayana's irony is defensive: it is convenient to have a sissy handy when you want to stress your own manhood. But even Forster cannot resist a smile at Sturgis's needlework. The point to be made, however, is not...


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pp. 425-441
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Will Be Archived 2021
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