High Concept

Oh Henry!

What Henry James didn’t do with Oliver Wendell Holmes (or anyone else).

The newest biography of Henry James is the work of a Vermont law professor who has written one earlier biography, Honorable Justice, The Life of Oliver Wendell Holmes, of the “great dissenter” on the Supreme Court in the first half of our century. Proceeding from the law into literature, Sheldon M. Novick tells us in a book titled Henry James, The Young Master–as if James were a young Mozart or a Paganini and didn’t work hard to achieve literary mastery–that the celibate and sexually diffident novelist, who put most of his life into his art, was in reality a regular guy who “underwent the ordinary experiences of life.” In fact, says Novick, he had an affair at the end of the Civil War with–yes, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

This bit of news is quite startling. It upsets half a century of scholarship that seems to have clearly shown James was a firm bachelor with a “low amatory coefficient,” as one of his doctors put it in 1905 in New York. But Holmes is not the only homosexual lover Novick claims for James. He also says that James had an affair with Paul Zhukovski, a Russian aristocrat James met in 1876 in the entourage of Ivan Turgenev.

Novick’s attempt to find love affairs in James’ life reminds me of the 1920s, when there were no biographies of James, and critics loved to speculate on the mysteries of his privacy. Van Wyck Brooks, a skillful writer of pastiche, produced his quasi-biographical Pilgrimage of Henry James to prove the novelist was a literary failure because he had uprooted himself from the United States. Edna Kenton, a devoted Jamesian in Greenwich Village, demonstrated in a biting review in The Bookman that Brooks used important James quotations out of context. Years later, Brooks confessed to having nightmares “in which Henry James turned great luminous menacing eyes upon me.”

Another bit of imaginative projection upon James’ life can be found in Ernest Hemingway’s letters. This novelist, on learning that Brooks had written that James was “prevented by an accident from taking part in the Civil War,” immediately incorporated this into his nearly finished novel, The Sun Also Rises. In Chapter 12, Jake Barnes refers to his World War I accident, and Gorton says, “That’s the sort of thing that can’t be spoken of. That’s what you ought to work up into a mystery. Like Henry’s bicycle.” Barnes replies it wasn’t a bicycle; “he was riding horseback.” (In his memoirs, James spoke of having had a “horrid” but “obscure hurt.” He had strained his back during a stable fire while serving as a volunteer fireman.) Hemingway had originally inserted James’ name in the novel, but Scribner’s editor, Maxwell Perkins, vetoed this. Hemingway insisted. They finally compromised on the “Henry” alone. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to Brooks, “Why didn’t you touch more on James’ impotence (physical) and its influence?” The castration theme was picked up by R.P. Blackmur, Glenway Wescott, Lionel Trilling, and F.O. Matthiessen in their critical writings.

W hat evidence does Novick offer for the James-Holmes “affair”? Just two French words James uses in his long and vivid notebook entry recalling his early days in Boston, where his family settled in a brick house in Ashburton Place near the State House. The words are l’initiation première–“first initiation.” In the entry, James is writing generally of the “rite of passage” that inaugurated his literary career. He describes the strong emotions he felt at the assassination of Lincoln (on James’$2 22nd birthday); how he wept when Hawthorne died; and the dawning sense of freedom experienced after the war’s end. He mentions also his first book review on English novel-writing, published in the North American Review, whose editors paid him $12, praised his writing, and asked for more. He does mention Holmes, but only to describe a brief visit he made to Holmes’ mother to ask how her son was faring in England, and his own fierce envy of Holmes for traveling abroad while James remained at home.

These larger emotions apparently do not touch the single-minded Novick. He is caught by l’initiation première. “The passage seems impossible to misunderstand,” he says. (For the full quote, which Novick does not provide,.) In a footnote, he asserts, “James had his sexual initiation in Cambridge and Ashburton Place.” A bit enigmatically, he also says, “[I]t would be fatal to expand on that in the book for which these are the [foot]notes.” We are left wondering why Novick thinks it would be “fatal” to have what would be a bit more evidence. And he still hasn’t named James’ partner. A sentence in which he appears to be rummaging around for explanations says that the companion “seems to be a veteran, an officer.” He adds, “Henry hinted he was Wendell Holmes.” But it is Novick who is doing the hinting. Holmes was a close friend of Henry’s brother, William. Henry looked at Holmes with a certain aloofness.

And then, Novick gives himself away. He writes in another footnote that Holmes was someone with whom James “might have been intimate.” “Might have been”? There’s incertitude for you. My surmise is that Novick is trying to support his hypothesis of James’ initial sexual experience, and that he picks the name handiest to him. Why not James’ closer friends, John LaFarge or Thomas Perry? Novick seems to want to link his two subjects. It is clear the homosexuality doesn’t bother him. He simply wants us to know that James was a sexual man and a loving person. Biographers often develop strange attachments to their subjects.

Novick’s second “case” is as flimsy as the first, but it has more documentation. It is based on James’ letters from Paris between 1875 and 1876. He has met Ivan Turgenev, the Russian master, and finds himself moving among assorted Russians. One of them is Paul Zhukovski, son of a Russian poet who tutored Alexander II when he was a prince. Reared in the royal court, Zhukovski is soft, dependent, spoiled, and weak-willed, but graceful and entertaining. James has never known any Russians, and Zhukovski becomes an agreeable companion; he is “picturesque,” and while James tells his parents that “human fellowship” is not his specialty, the two get along very comfortably. They dine with Turgenev, and with countesses, a duke, princesses. They make sorties into cabarets and cafes. James reports that he and Zhukovski have sworn “eternal fellowship.” One could read sex into this–as Novick does–but it sounds more like the drinking and singing that often takes place among young males, their swagger and “brotherhood.” At every turn, Novick introduces suggestions of a love affair.

At the end of 1876, James moved to London. So far as we know, Zhukovski faded into the distance. James published seven books during the next three years and became a celebrity in London society. But Novick continues to allude to Zhukovski as if the relationship were of paramount importance to James. Only one letter from the Russian, written in 1879, survives. Zhukovski is in Italy and invites James to join him at the Villa Postiglione, his pension, at Posilipo, near Naples. While in Rome, James reserves a room in the pension for five days.

The rest of the story emerges after James abruptly leaves the villa at the end of the third day. He lodges at a hotel in Sorrento and writes several lively letters indicating he fled from Zhukovski and a nest of young homosexuals. They were attached to the composer, Richard Wagner, who lives in a nearby villa. Zhukovski is now a crusading Wagnerian. He wants to introduce James. The novelist refuses. Wagner speaks neither French nor English. James doesn’t speak German.

Writing to his sister Alice, James characterized Zhukovski as “the same impracticable and indeed ridiculous mixture of Nihilism and bric-à-brac as before.” He adds that Zhukovski always needs to be sheltered by a strong figure: “First he was under Turgenev, then the Princess Urusov, whom he now detests and who despises him, then under H.J. Jr. (!!), then under that of a certain disagreeable Onegin (the original of Turgenev’s Nazhdanov, in Virgin Soil) now under Wagner, and apparently in the near future that of Madame Wagner.” Novick bypasses these letters; he avoids looking at facts that might spoil his case. He does allude to the James remark about Zhukovski’s bric-a-brac, but he seems to misunderstand its irony. He claims that James was “cautious” about this visit because of crime and disease in the Naples area–all this, says Novick, is “out of keeping with the collection of bric-à-brac with which Zhukovski was surrounded.” James may indeed have been referring to the villa’s human bric-a-brac.

In a letter written from Sorrento to Grace Norton in Cambridge, he described a group of English persons he visited in Frascati after leaving Posilipo. They were of an “admirable, honest, reasonable, wholesome English nature,” in sharp contrast to the “fantastic immorality and aesthetics of the circle I had left at Naples.”

So Novick is deprived of the happy romance he wanted to chronicle at Posilipo. He consoles himself by a detailed account of Zhukovski’s adoption into Bayreuth, his painting the sets for Parsifal and being considered a kind of son by the Wagners. Novick seems to be trying to walk down two streets at once–the street of the refinements of literary biography and the more rigid roadway of the prosecutorial argument. He attempts to turn certain of his fancies into fact–but his data is simply too vague for him to get away with it.