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James, Henry (1843-1916)  
 
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Since the 1980s, however, interest in James's sexuality has led to a reappraisal of his life and writings. A number of insightful analyses of his novels have been produced, leading to a reassessment of James as a gay literary figure, and lending his novels' famous "ambiguity" a different hue.

Whether James's homosexuality was active remains an open question (Hugh Walpole told a story of how he propositioned James, only to meet with a horrified, "I can't! I can't!"), but, as Fred Kaplan demonstrates in his 1992 biography, The Imagination of Genius, the author had a number of intimate relationships with young men.

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In 1876, James met and fell in love with Paul Joukowsky, a young Russian painter and intellectual. Although his association with Joukowsky was short-lived, the friendships he established with men like Jonathan Sturges and Morton Fullerton were to endure for many years. These friendships appear to have been primarily spiritual and asexual, but his attachment to Hendrik Andersen, a young sculptor, generated an intensely erotic correspondence. James treasured his relationship with Andersen, and this relationship was to provide him with a source of joy throughout his later life.

James on Oscar Wilde

James was ambivalent about his own sexuality, and his ambivalence is perhaps most apparent in his response to Oscar Wilde. James was by no means an advocate of gay rights, and was, in fact, horrified by Wilde's flamboyant sexuality (as well as jealous of Wilde's popularity).

In letters to intimate friends, he spoke of the Wilde trial in no uncertain terms, drawing attention to his view that Wilde's fate was

hideously, atrociously dramatic & really interesting. ... It is the squalid gratuitousness of it all ... of the mere exposure--that blurs the spectacle. But the fall ... to that sordid prison-cell & this gulf of obscenity over which the ghoulish public hangs & gloats--it is beyond any utterance of irony or any pang of compassion! He was never in the smallest degree interesting to me--but this hideous human history has made him so--in a manner.

James also refused to sign the petition circulated in 1896 requesting a pardon for Wilde. Of course, one can speculate that Wilde's fate made no small impression on James, and strengthened his desire to keep his own relationships private and hidden from public view.

Relationships between Men (and Women) in James's Fiction

Although James was praised for his innovative portrayals of women (particularly of the "American girl," whom he made famous), many of his novels also focus on relationships between men. As Leland S. Person, Jr. has demonstrated, James's writings often construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct masculinity in a number of intriguing ways.

The author's first acknowledged novel, Roderick Hudson (1876), traces the development of a friendship between an older and wealthy art connoisseur, Rowland Mallett, and his protégé, the brilliant sculptor, Roderick Hudson. The passages devoted to the budding friendship between the two men are among the most powerful in the novel; and though the friendship is doomed and, indeed, the novel concludes with Hudson's suicide, the young sculptor's impact on Mallett's life provides the focal point of the text.

In The Bostonians, published in 1885, James shifts his literary focus and dramatizes a relationship between two Boston women. The latent lesbianism in the novel has received a great deal of critical attention, and in 1978, Judith Fetterley contested conventional views of the relationship between Olive Chancellor and Verena Tarrant as "deranged" and "abnormal."

Fetterley points out that the novel was inspired by Henry's sister, Alice, and her longtime companion, Katherine Loring, and argues that "James's understanding of their relationship, though at times critical, is imbued by a genuine sympathy. Thus, if one looks to the external context surrounding the conception of The Bostonians, one can find only support for the love between Olive and Verena."

Fetterley's analysis engenders a different reading of Olive and Verena's association, but this association, much like the male homoerotic relationships in James's literary oeuvre, is doomed within the text. The Bostonians details how a Southern macho hero, Basil Ransom, intrudes into the women's friendship, ultimately "winning" Verena, and leaving Olive bereft. The portrayal of Ransom's virility, and the problems exposed therein, however, also work to undercut and subvert traditional representations of masculinity.

The critique of normative role-playing, which is an important aspect of The Bostonians and of a number of James's later fictions, often underpins the construction of the famous Jamesian observer. The observer--a man outside the social circle represented in the texts, who records the foibles of those whom he is watching--is frequently in a position to analyze and comment on the structure of normative heterosexual relations.

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