This provocative book argues that in his fiction Henry James was more canny about sexual identities, more focused on sexual pleasure, and more insistent on flouting heterosexual convention than has been acknowledged by his critics and biographers. Without leaping to the construction of a "gay" Henry James, whose writings aver a conscious sexual preference, the author demonstrates James's deep engagement with the construct of sexual "inversion," his familiarity with the tropes and traffic of the late-Victorian sexual underground, and his resistance to the cultural codes and institutions that disciplined social and private behavior.
The volume aligns biographical and textual readings with specific topics in intellectual and cultural history, placing the novelist and his works within the key discursive frameworks that emerged during his lifetime: mental hygiene, sexology, psychiatry, and cultural anthropology. In reconsidering James's reputed celibacy and effeminacy, the author makes use of recent gender and queer theory, while remaining carefully attentive to the contemporary terms at James's disposal for understanding his own sexuality and gender identification.
The author also elaborates the family dynamics that affected James's gender and professional identity conflicts, notably his turbulent relations with his brother William James, whose pathologizing of the "unhygienic" creative life conditioned his thinking about both sexuality and art. Extended discussions of four novels—Roderick Hudson, The Bostonians, The Princess Casamassima, and The Wings of the Dove—underscore James's resistance to the disciplinary mechanisms that regulate homoerotic desire under the aegis of mental hygiene and sexual "responsibility." Understanding, with queer theory, that sublimation can be a form of pleasure in a non-heterosexual community, the book views James's erotic economy of artistic production—even as it increasingly emphasized self-discipline—as a means of circumventing the suppression of sexual nonconformity.
About the Author
Wendy Graham is Associate Professor of English at Vassar College.
What People are Saying About This
This work is a brilliant new analysis of Jamesian sexuality and gender identification. These are complicated issues, but Graham does a masterful job of honoring and explaining the complexities, largely because she pays such scrupulous attention to the historical and cultural moment. From first page to last, the book sparkles with insights into James's complex psychology.
Leland S. Person, University of Alabama at Birmingham