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Henry James, OM (15 April 1843 – 28 February 1916) was an American author regarded as a key transitional figure between literary realism and literary modernism, and is considered by many to be among the greatest novelists in the English language. He was the son of Henry James Sr. and the brother of renowned philosopher and psychologist William James and diarist Alice James. John Singer Sargent reputedly exercised a strange power over Henry James, "a great queen-bee," who was "mesmerized by John, as one is mesmerized by an exotic flower." Sally Ledger has argued that male writers tended to present female same-sex relationships in a different way from women novelists, explicity pathologising their New Women characters as unmarried and lesbian, as in the case of Olive Chancellor in Henry James' The Bostonians (1886) and Cecilia Cullen in George Moore's A Drama in Muslin (1886).
He is best known for a number of novels dealing with the social and marital interplay between emigre Americans, English people, and continental Europeans – examples of such novels include The Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors, and The Wings of the Dove. His later works were increasingly experimental. In describing the internal states of mind and social dynamics of his characters, James often made use of a personal style in which ambiguous or contradictory motivations and impressions were overlaid or closely juxtaposed in the discussion of a single character's psyche. For their unique ambiguity, as well as for other aspects of their composition, his late works have been compared to impressionist painting.
In addition to voluminous works of fiction, James published articles and books of criticism, travel, biography, autobiography, and plays. Born in the United States, James largely relocated to Europe as a young man and eventually settled in England, becoming a British subject in 1915, one year before his death. James was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1911, 1912, and 1916.
Henry James by Ellen Emmet Rand
Henry James by Jacques-Emile Blanche (1861-1942)
Westminster Abbey, London
James regularly rejected suggestions that he should marry, and after settling in London proclaimed himself "a bachelor". F. W. Dupee, in several volumes on the James family, originated the theory that he had been in love with his cousin Mary ("Minnie") Temple, but that a neurotic fear of sex kept him from admitting such affections: "James's invalidism ... was itself the symptom of some fear of or scruple against sexual love on his part." Dupee used an episode from James's memoir A Small Boy and Others, recounting a dream of a Napoleonic image in the Louvre, to exemplify James's romanticism about Europe, a Napoleonic fantasy into which he fled.
Dupee had not had access to the James family papers and worked principally from James's published memoir of his older brother, William, and the limited collection of letters edited by Percy Lubbock, heavily weighted toward James's last years. His account therefore moved directly from James's childhood, when he trailed after his older brother, to elderly invalidism. As more material became available to scholars, including the diaries of contemporaries and hundreds of affectionate and sometimes erotic letters written by James to younger men, the picture of neurotic celibacy gave way to a portrait of a closeted homosexual.
Between 1953 and 1972, Leon Edel authored a major five–volume biography of James, which accessed unpublished letters and documents after Edel gained the permission of James's family. Edel's portrayal of James included the suggestion he was celibate. It was a view first propounded by critic Saul Rosenzweig in 1943. In 2004 Sheldon M. Novick published Henry James: The Young Master, followed by Henry James: The Mature Master. The first book "caused something of an uproar in Jamesian circles" as it challenged the previous received notion of celibacy, a once-familiar paradigm in biographies of homosexuals when direct evidence was non-existent. Novick also criticised Edel for following the discounted Freudian interpretation of homosexuality "as a kind of failure." The difference of opinion erupted in a series of exchanges between Edel and Novick which were published by the online magazine Slate, with the latter arguing that even the suggestion of celibacy went against James's own injunction "live!"--not "fantasize!" The interpretation of James as living a less austere emotional life has been subsequently explored by other scholars. The often intense politics of Jamesian scholarship has also been the subject of studies.
Author Colm Tóibín has said that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet made a landmark difference to Jamesian scholarship by arguing that he be read as a homosexual writer whose desire to keep his sexuality a secret shaped his layered style and dramatic artistry. According to Tóibín such a reading "removed James from the realm of dead white males who wrote about posh people. He became our contemporary."
Drum-Taps, first published in 1865, is a collection of poetry written by American poet Walt Whitman during the American Civil War. Especially interesting, however, somewhat on the other side, is the reaction from the Jameses—soon to move from Beacon Hill’s Ashburton Place to their more famous abode on Quincy Street, overlooking Harvard Yard—and particularly from young Henry, to Whitman’s Civil War poetry, Drum-Taps. Sheldon Novick notes the book was “making a stir in Boston” and that it was “much admired” by James’s father and by Ralph Waldo Emerson. But young Henry “dismissed [it] almost with anger.” All James’s biographers have to address his initial reaction because in later years Whitman became virtually James’s favorite American poet. Sheldon Novick gets it just right, telling very well the tale of how Edith Wharton recalled James reading Leaves of Grass by her fireplace in Lennox; “his voice filled the hushed room like an organ adagio.” Adds Novick: “Wharton was delighted to discover that he thought Whitman, as she did, ‘the greatest of American poets.’ She was unaware of Henry James’s hostile review of Drum-Taps years before and of the long process of sexual self-acceptance that had allowed yet another Harvard man to become a lover of Whitman.”
In the spring of 1865 young Henry performed his “first acts of love” within sight of, if not actually in, the Back Bay and not with a woman, but with a man, a fellow Harvard student, no less than young Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
One of John Singer Sargent's most famous paintings is The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, which is the pride of the Musuem of Fine Arts of Boston. The Boits met Sargent in the late 1870s. One daughter, Florie Boit, was a lesbian who would eventually settle into a happy Boston marriage with her cousin, Jane Boit Patten. Henry James met Sargent by 1882, the same year Sargent painted the Boit daughters. He was immediately infatuated with the painter and asked the Boits to put in a good work for him. But Sargent was still very attached to his studio mate at the time, Albert de Belleroche, whom Sargent painted a very sensuous painting of that year. "Almost androgynous in appearance, Belleroche displays a sultry sexual presence" and the painting would be the center of attention in Sargent's London dining room for the rest of his life. Six years later Sargent would paint another sensual portrait of a man, the singer George Henschel. It was so wonderfully erotic that a friend asked Sargent how he could put so much emotion into a painting. Sargent replied, "I loved him." When Sargent faced scandal and ruin in Paris for painting the now much admired Portrait of Madame X in 1884, he took James' suggestion to move to London.
When in 1882 Oscar Wilde announced to Henry James, “I am going to Bossston; there I have a letter to the dearest friend of my dearest friend—Charles Eliot Norton from Burne-Jones,” James was not only offended at the name-dropping but, in Richard Ellmann’s words, “revolted by Wilde’s knee breeches, contemptuous at the self-advertising … and nervous about the sensuality … . James’s homosexuality was latent, Wilde’s patent.”
Henry James wrote to John Addington Symonds from Paris on 22 February 1884, referring to his article on Italy: I sent it you because it was a constructive way of expressing the good will I felt for you in consequence of what you have written about the land of Italy – and of intimating to you, somewhat dumbly, that I am an attentive and sympathetic reader. I nourish for the said Italy an unspeakably tender passion, and your pages always seemed to say to me that you were one of a small number of people who love it as much as I do – in addition to your knowing it immeasurably better. I wanted to recognize this (to your knowledge); for it seemed to me that the victims of a common passion should sometimes exchange a look.
When a youthful John Singer Sargent was first launching his career, some of his closest associates were very flamboyant. Most conspicuous among them was Robert de Montesquiou - "the so-called "Prince of Decadence"" - whose incarnation of dandified aestheticism was to Paris what Oscar Wilde's was to London. Another was Samuel Jean de Pozzi, whose sexual exploits were almost as legendary as his pioneering work in the field of gynecology; both aspects of his character were dashingly suggested in Sargent's full-lenght portrait of 1881, Dr. Pozzi at Home. In the summer of 1885, Sargent have these friends (and the composer Prince Edmond de Polignac) a collective letter of introduction to Henry James, who dutifully arranged a dinner for them to meet James Abbott McNeill Whistler for a chance to see the artist's fabled "Peacock Room" in the home of Frederick Richards Leyland, a shipping magnate whose house was at 49 Prince's Gate. According to James, "on the whole nothing that relates to Whistler is queerer than anything else." That all three Frenchmen would later resurface in the masterwork A la recherche du temps perdu) of another gay writer, Marcel Proust, makes the anterior coincidence queerer still.
James's letters to expatriate American sculptor Hendrik Christian Andersen have attracted particular attention. James met the 27-year-old Andersen in Rome in 1899, when James was 56, and wrote letters to Andersen that are intensely emotional: "I hold you, dearest boy, in my innermost love, & count on your feeling me—in every throb of your soul". In a letter of 6 May 1904, to his brother William, James referred to himself as "always your hopelessly celibate even though sexagenarian Henry". How accurate that description might have been is the subject of contention among James's biographers,[nb 1] but the letters to Andersen were occasionally quasi-erotic: "I put, my dear boy, my arm around you, & feel the pulsation, thereby, as it were, of our excellent future & your admirable endowment." To his homosexual friend Howard Sturgis, James could write: "I repeat, almost to indiscretion, that I could live with you. Meanwhile I can only try to live without you."
His many letters to the many young gay men among his close male friends are more forthcoming. In a letter to Howard Sturgis, following a long visit, James refers jocularly to their "happy little congress of two" and in letters to Hugh Walpole he pursues convoluted jokes and puns about their relationship, referring to himself as an elephant who "paws you oh so benevolently" and winds about Walpole his "well meaning old trunk". His letters to Walter Berry printed by the Black Sun Press have long been celebrated for their lightly veiled eroticism.
In 1897–1898 he moved to Rye, Sussex, and wrote The Turn of the Screw. 1899–1900 saw the publication of The Awkward Age and The Sacred Fount. During 1902–1904 he wrote The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl.
Henry James corresponded in almost equally extravagant language with his many female friends, writing, for example, to fellow novelist Lucy Clifford: "Dearest Lucy! What shall I say? when I love you so very, very much, and see you nine times for once that I see Others! Therefore I think that—if you want it made clear to the meanest intelligence—I love you more than I love Others." To his New York friend Mary Cadwalader Jones: "Dearest Mary Cadwalader. I yearn over you, but I yearn in vain; & your long silence really breaks my heart, mystifies, depresses, almost alarms me, to the point even of making me wonder if poor unconscious & doting old Célimare [Jones's pet name for James] has 'done' anything, in some dark somnambulism of the spirit, which has ... given you a bad moment, or a wrong impression, or a 'colourable pretext' ... However these things may be, he loves you as tenderly as ever; nothing, to the end of time, will ever detach him from you, & he remembers those Eleventh St. matutinal intimes hours, those telephonic matinées, as the most romantic of his life ..." His long friendship with American novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, in whose house he lived for a number of weeks in Italy in 1887, and his shock and grief over her suicide in 1894, are discussed in detail in Edel's biography and play a central role in a study by Lyndall Gordon. (Edel conjectured that Woolson was in love with James and killed herself in part because of his coldness, but Woolson's biographers have objected to Edel's account.)[nb 2]
Henry James settled at Lamb House outside of London in 1897. As closeted as he was in his earlier years, there is greater documentation from his last decades regarding his affairs, or at least his romantic infatuations, with other men. One of these was with an undistinguished sculptor named Hendrik Andersen. They met in Rome at the home of Julia Ward Howe's daughter in 1899 when James was 56 and Andersen was 27. Andersen and his brothers had been poor carpenters and house painters for the wealthy in Newport when Isabella Steward Gardner was taken by their talent and sponsored their travels and education. Andersen also attracted the interest of Lord Ronald Gower. The talented seducer of young men offered to adopt Andersen and make him his heir. Andersen declined. Gower was close to Oscar Wilde, who reportedly used him as a model for Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Gower was also implicated in the notorious Cleveland Street Scandal of 1889, though his name did not come up until the following year. The scandal involved telegraph delivery boys exchanging sex for money from important men including, it was rumored, the Prince of Wales. Gower was never indicted. James was infatuated with Andersen and he was careful to keep him away from Howard Sturgis and his other gay friends, even disinviting Sturgis when Andersen was visiting Lamb House. Though the two only met a total of six times, they had a robust correspondence up until James' death. There is tenderness and eroticism in the letters. When he learned of the death of Andersen's brother, for example, James wrote that he wants to put his "hands on you (oh, how lovingly I should lay them!)" and that he wants to "make you lean on me as on a brother and a lover, and keep you on and on."
Isabella Stewart Gardner introduced Gaillard Lapsley to Henry James. Lapsley, a close friend of George Santayana at Harvard and perhaps a one-time love interest of Arthur Little, went on to a distinguished career as an Oxford don. Through these men, Lapsley met Edith Wharton and the two became lifelong close friends.
Henry James became closer to Howard Sturgis after 1900 when he developed an intense crush on him. George Santayana wrote that Sturgis "became, save for the accident of sex, which was not yet a serious encumbrance, a perfect young lady of the Victorian type."
In 1903, Henry James immortalized the community of American women sculptors in Rome (Harriet Hosmer, Edmonia Lewis, Anne Whitney, Vinnie Ream; Emma Stebbins, Margaret Foley, Sarah Fisher Ames, and Louisa Lander) by characterizing them as “that strange sisterhood of American lady sculptors who at one time settled upon the seven hills [of Rome] in a white marmorean flock.”
In 1904 he revisited America and lectured on Balzac. Henry James translated his acquaintance with Charlotte Cushman’s history (Cushman was in a relationship with Emma Crow, who was married to her stepson, Ned Cushman) into the heterosexual plot of The Golden Bowl (1904), in which a father marries his daughter’s husband’s lover, also named Charlotte.
Henry James met Edith Wharton at the Paris home of Edward Darley Boit, whose daughters would be the subject of the marvelous painting by John Singer Sargent at the MFA in Boston. They had other connections. Wharton was friends with Howard Sturgis, whom she had met in Newport. James had met Sturgis when he was 18 and James was 30. The Sturgises were an old Yankee Boston family and Howard's father had settled in London to run the Barings Bank. Later, Wharton and James were involved in a triangular relationship with Morton Fullerton, a Harvard graduate. Introduced to James in 1890 by Harvard Professor Charles Eliot Norton, Fullerton was a correspondent for the London Times and "well-groomed and extremely well-dressed, Fullerton, from numerous accounts, exuded great charm and had powerfully seductive ways, with a slim build, bushy yet groomed mustache, slicked hair and intense eyes." James was captivated. "I'd do anything for you," he wrote. James introduced Wharton to Fullerton. The journalist and bon vivant was involved with the gay circles of Paris and London. Fullerton dined with the gay poet Paul Verlaine, for example, and Oscar Wilde turned to him for help when he arrived in Paris bankrupt after being released from jail. At first, James was intrigued by Fullerton's and Wharton's attraction and encouraged it. Then he began to feel like a third wheel as their affair deepened and the two spent increasing amount of time alone. He grew depressed and left the lovers in France.
In 1906–1910 James published The American Scene and edited the "New York Edition", a 24-volume collection of his works.
By 1909, Henry James was in a reciprocated semi-public infatuation with Hugh Walpole, a man 40 years his junior. The reactions of his friends, including gay men, ranged from disapproval to bemused acceptance. James soon moved on to another younger (in his 30s) man, Jocelyn Persse.
In 1910 Henry James' brother William died; Henry had just joined William from an unsuccessful search for relief in Europe on what then turned out to be his (Henry's) last visit to the United States (from summer 1910 to July 1911), and was near him, according to a letter he wrote, when he died.
In 1913 he wrote his autobiographies, A Small Boy and Others, and Notes of a Son and Brother. After the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 he did war work. In 1915 he became a British subject. In 1916 he was awarded the Order of Merit. He died on 28 February 1916, in Chelsea, London. A memorial service was held at Chelsea Old Church, where a memorial table was later placed in the More Chapel. The design of the tablet is by American expatriat and gay architect John Joseph Borie, III. As he requested, his ashes were buried in Cambridge Cemetery in Massachusetts.
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