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The Sex Lives of the James Family

ISSUE:  Winter 1988
All biographers secretly want to annex and channel the sex-lives of their subjects; you must make your judgment on me as well as on Flaubert.
Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot

Within the last two years, two books have appeared which are likely to tell us virtually everything we want or need to know about the James family, Leon Edel’s Henry James: A Life, a revised and updated condensation of the five-volume Life of Henry James, and Jane Maher’s Biography of Broken Fortunes: Wilkie and Bob, Brothers of William, Henry, and Alice James. Bibliographies of Henry James list nearly ninety biographical articles and books on him alone, and the Edel and Maher volumes join a list already notable for Henry’s autobiography (1913—17), F.O. Mathiessen’s The James Family (1947), Gay Wilson Allen’s William James (1967), Edel’s prize-winning five-volume original (1953—72), Jean Strouse’s Alice James (1980), and such helpful anecdotal compilations as Simon Nowell-Smith’s The Legend of the Master (1948) and Norman Page’s Henry James: Interviews and Recollections (1984). Maher’s book thoroughly illuminates the mystery of the two “failed” James brothers, and Edel’s adds a handful of rich detail to a portrait that must now be considered complete. Specifically, these two latest books have much to say about the sex lives of the James family, by which is meant not biological coupling (in this department, the Jameses probably were somewhat less active than the average family) but the forces of attraction and denial that operate among loving human beings, forces that make it possible for people to achieve what they want biologically and, in the case of Henry, artistically as well.

Any study of Henry James’ sexuality begins with a consideration of his celebrated “obscure hurt,” the phrase he uses in Notes of a Son and Brother (1914) to describe the injury he suffered while helping to put out a stable fire near his parents’ house in Newport, Rhode Island; Henry was 18 at the time and thus hypothetically on the threshold of adult sexual activity. Anyone who has ever taken a course in 19th-century American literature has heard that the “obscure hurt” amounted to physical castration or at least severe damage to the genitals and that it accounts both for Henry’s failure to fight in the Civil War (as did his younger brothers Wilkie and Bob) and, more tellingly, his lifelong disinterest in marriage. The narrator of Flaubert’s Parrot is right: all biographers want to rescript the sex lives of their subjects, but what they write is often more self-revealing than otherwise. In his new book, Edel traces the first occurrence in print of the castration rumor to Chapter XII of The Sun Also Rises (1926) in which Bill Gorton advises the emasculated Jake Barnes to make of his condition a mystery along the lines of “Henry’s bicycle”; Barnes replies that it was not a bicycle but a horse who gave Henry an injury equal to his own. Hemingway’s fantasy was accepted with little qualification by Glenway Westcott, who wrote in Hound and Horn (1943) of “expatriation and castration,” and by R.P. Blackmur, who equated Henry’s accident with the castration of Abelard in Literary History of the United States (1950); it also served as the source for such affirmations of Henry’s “impotence” as occur in Stephen Spender’s The Destructive Element (1935), F.O. Mathiessen’s The James Family (1947), and Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination (1950). Reports of so thoroughly documented an injury are bound to persist, if only so that they might be denied. There is something delicious in speaking of so horrible a maiming and then saying that it might not have happened—that if not actually castrated, Henry might have suffered nonetheless a severe traumatizing of the genitals and that, at any rate, no one can be sure exactly what happened, though the fact that remains that he didn’t join the army like his brothers and didn’t get married . . . . Since there is a heavy component of scandalous anecdote in all successful literature courses (Poe was a dope addict, Emily Dickinson was crazy), it seems likely that, with each new generation of undergraduates, the romantic notion will persist that Henry James was castrated on the very eve of his sexual awakening.

The pedestrian truth is that Henry probably underwent a compression of one of his lumbar discs, thereby acquiring the colloquial “bad back” that has complicated both the martial and the marital careers of millions of other sufferers with the same complaint. Henry’s penchant for the orotund phrase is partly to blame; after all, “obscure hurt” is not very precise (this is the same Henry who wrote in his autobiography of consuming an “oblong farinaceous compound”—a waffle— for breakfast one morning). But there is nothing like a little reflection to illuminate any obscurity:

  • (1)

    Common sense is never out of place in such considerations as these, and if it were possible for accidental castration to take place so easily, there would be more of them. The male body is designed to shelter the genitals rather effectively, and the normal method of dress completes the process. Even debilitating trauma is unlikely; we have all seen athletes suffer tremendous blows to the groin area and then reenter the fray.

  • (2)

    Had Henry in particular been castrated, the world would surely know. Only so much secrecy is possible once one has attained a certain level of celebrity. Too, the Jameses were true graphomaniacs, and there is nothing in their letters, diaries, journals, notebooks, published writings, or recorded conversations to suggest that Henry suffered so palpable an injury. The Jameses were not just wordy; they were also extremely solicitous of each other’s health and well-being, and there is nothing in their extensive commentary on each other’s cardiac difficulties, constipation, gout, hysteria, bronchial asthma, eye problems, and melancholia to even remotely suggest a traumatizing of the genitals.

  • (3)

    A back injury would be consistent with the activity he was engaged in at the time of the fire. Contrary to what is said in The Sun Also Rises, Henry was not riding a bicycle or horse when he was injured but trying to get a balky engine to pump water. The bending and straining involved were more likely to lead to back problems than anything else.

  • (4)

    Henry’s language in his memoir, though vague, is appropriate to back injury. The pain was felt as “at once extraordinarily intimate and quite awkwardly irrelevant,” two characteristics which back-pain sufferers will recognize immediately: the pain is somewhere at the core of one’s body and cannot be fingered specifically, like a broken limb or a missing tooth; it is for that reason impossible to substantiate short of X-rays, as anyone knows who has tried to get out of a job of heavy lifting because of a bad back, only to suffer the scorn of those who think him a malingerer. Henry also describes the sensation as “a huge comprehensive ache.” Exactly: the feeling is of being hinged, as it were, like a piece of paper that has been folded too many times and may tear if folded again. This is not a feeling to inspire athletics either on the battlefield or in the bedroom.

  • (5)

    The subsequent testimony leads away from castration and toward back pain. A “great surgeon” to whom Henry was taken by his father treated the future novelist to a “comparative pooh-pooh,” according to the autobiography, leaving the sufferer to reflect on “the strange fact of there being nothing to speak of the matter with me.” Thus might one react to an annoyingly invisible backache, but not to the destruction of one’s sexual organs. Finally, the standard reference in the James family’s private writings is to the recurrence of “Henry’s back-ache”—not “a back-ache” that occurred singly and then went away, but “Henry’s back-ache,” part of his permanent physical property that, if it kept him from the exploits of the battlefield and the boudoir, certainly helped determine the career of our most sedentary, most contemplative novelist.

  • II

    The twin tales of back injury and castration will continue to rival each other for acceptance, the one because it is the more likely to be true, even if less interesting, and the other because it not only has the pure energy of all shocking gossip but also amounts to a kind of revenge on a novelist who is not everyone’s cup of tea, being fussy, hard to read, and even unmanly, at least in the Hemingway sense. Henry’s sexual behavior will also continue to fascinate scholars since sexuality takes so many forms (mostly indirect) in his fiction yet was so noticeably absent from his personal life. The question runs both ways: how could someone write so probingly on the effects of pedophilia (“The Pupil”), the sexual corruption of minors (“The Author of Beltraffio,” The Turn of the Screw), infidelity (What Maisie Knew), lesbianism (The Bostonians), fornication (The Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors, The Wings of a Dove), and adultery (The Golden Bowl) without having practiced some form of what he preached? Conversely, how innocent can Henry have been since his work evinces more than a passing acquaintance with mainstream sex as well as some of its better-known tributaries, even though his references are mainly to the aftermath of sex than to some panting manifestation of the act itself?

    Answers to these questions have been offered by, among others, Richard Hall in an April-May 1979 New Republic article in which he contends that Henry’s frustrated desire for his brother William was the main sexual force in his life. Henry and William enjoyed the now-competitive, now-loving relationship that most siblings do, a relationship made even more anxious by their precosity and their father’s ambitions for them, and doubtless their feelings for each other provided a good deal of raw material for Henry’s fiction: a number of the works, especially the earlier ones, feature brotherly pairs of characters (Roderick Hudson, The American, The Princess Casamassima), just as several of the later ones feature romantic triangles based on the one created by William’s marriage in 1878 to Alice Gibbens (The Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl). In the end, though, the story of Henry and William seems more like one that describes the highly charged nature of relations between members of gifted families and less like a tale of “fraternal incest,” to use Hall’s unsettling phrase, a closer examination of which will lead “into the very abyss.”

    Those who would peer into that abyss may find themselves developing eye problems worse than any the James family had before they see anything new. In Henry James: A Life, Leon Edel ponders the affectionate language Henry used late in life in letters to two much younger men, the sculptor Hendrik Andersen and the good-natured socialite Jocelyn Persse, and, after asking himself if this verbal passion were ever “acted out” in either case, concludes, “We simply do not know,” even though Edel himself seems to take the conservative view and even though the 68-year-old Henry who writes “I want to see you—and so I hold out my arms to you” to the 39-year-old Hendrik Andersen sounds more like a lonely and doting uncle than an aging lover.

    What does not emerge in his life nonetheless emerges in his work, however; Henry’s writing contains a rather complete catalog of human frailty, and because many of his works seem unintentionally self-revealing, scholars interested in his sexuality continue to turn to the fiction for clues. Most recently, an unfinished short story entitled “Hugh Merrow” appeared in an October 1986 issue of The New York Times Magazine. The story involves two characters who commission the portrait of a child they are incapable of having, the catch being that the painter, Hugh Merrow, must choose the sex of the child. In an introduction to the tale, Cynthia Ozick speculates that Henry left it incomplete because “James was pressing himself to decide his own sex, a charge impossible to satisfy.” Having revived the canard about castration (“some have even gone so far as to hint at a castrating accident”), Ozick brings up Henry’s supposed homosexuality, again attributing the dirty mind to someone other than herself (“he was at various times attracted to artistic young men, and there has always been speculation about suppressed homoeroticism”). Her thesis is that Hugh Merrow was unable to decide the sex of the fictional child because Henry himself was unable to decide whether he was male, that is, a heterosexual, or female and therefore a homosexual; hence the story could not be completed. Evidently there are no leather bars in Cynthia Ozick’s neighborhood, or else she would not believe that all male homosexuals think of themselves as women. As for the story not being finished, that is less due to Henry’s unsuccessfully “flinging himself past the threshold of the erotic into the very birth canal itself,” as Ozick says, than to the fact that he had already written a number of stories about the limitations of art, notably “The Madonna of the Future,” which also ends with a blank canvas. Or one may simply say that “Hugh Merrow” is finished; certainly the false optimism of the final paragraph, in which the deluded couple are sure that the painter will be able to bring off his preposterous assignment, strikes the modern reader as both ironic and final.


    While Henry was supposedly trying to decide whether he was male or female, hetero or homo, incestuous or otherwise, what were the rest of the Jameses doing? In the family’s copious memoirs, the elder Jameses figure as a conventionally happy couple who border occasionally on the ideal. The father was eloquent, good-natured, and somewhat dependent on the mother, who was quietly strong, disciplined (and disciplining) yet yielding. All five of the children recall the lively hilarity of the dinner table, the spirited exchanges between themselves and their father as their mother looked on smilingly. The proof of the success of the parents’ marriage lies in the lifelong affection with which Henry, Sr. and Mary Walsh James regarded each other, an affection that survived the considerable strain placed upon it by the raising of five highly unconventional children.

    The eldest son, William, married Alice Gibbens and fathered four sons and a daughter, precisely reproducing the number and sexes of his parents’ offspring in what must be a child’s ultimate tribute to the union of his parents. The sister, Alice, stayed sick most of her life, but that was a time when straitened choices (especially for single women) and inexpensive health care made illness an acceptable career, as it were. Alice had strong views on men (her biographer Jean Strouse says “she saw sex and childbearing not as facts of nature or positive female functions, but as evidence of male cruelty”) and may, at least in the opinions of Alice Gibbens James and possibly Henry as well, have had a lesbian relationship with her companion Katharine Loring, although, as Leon Edel says about Henry’s putative love life, we simply do not know.

    With the appearance of Jane Maher’s Biography of Broken Fortunes, we know all we are likely to know about the two remaining James siblings, and what we learn from Maher may make her book as important to students of the dynamics of family relationships as it is to students of the Jameses. In many ways, the Maher book is more interesting than any of the many biographical items devoted to the other siblings, whose interest resides less in their lives than in their work; even Alice James kept a diary which was eventually published. Not surprisingly, Garth Wilkinson and Robertson James (Wilkie and Bob) resemble a number of characters in Henry’s fiction, notably in their plaintiveness, their very smallness, so to speak, in the face of indifference, ill luck, and, perhaps the greatest theme in the fiction of Henry James, cruelty disguised as love. To the extent that villains can be fingered, the villains of Maher’s book are the parents, Henry, Sr. and Mary Walsh James, though their most egregious fault would appear to be weakness rather than anything like outright hostility toward their two youngest children. In a word, the parents invested most of their emotional and intellectual stock in the two oldest children, Henry and William, and found they had none left over for the three youngest. Perhaps the senior Jameses were exhausted (the James family was never noted for its robustness, and each member had his or her own catalog of pet ailments), or perhaps they simply made the mistake that parents of large families make when they tell themselves they have done everything they possibly could for “the children” without realizing that they have done virtually everything for a favored few, usually the older ones, and virtually nothing for the others. Either way, the two younger boys felt the pain of parental neglect early; here is the 14-year-old Wilkie writing to his father on one of the many occasions when the family was apart (like his brothers, Wilkie received much of his early education in European boarding schools):

    How do you find Paris and London? I would give a great deal to be there with you, to be arm in arm with you in Regent’s [sic] Street or St. John’s Wood. But I suppose those sweet days have passed and that we are now not to depend so much upon the pleasures that unity or friendship can afford, because we are growing older and must prepare to harden ourselves to deny ourselves the mere affections, so that in the world to come we may have peace and as much of these pleasures as we like . . . . Father, you cannot imagine how much we miss you, and what a blank space your absence makes in this house. Even away off at school I feel it. I have a sort of unprotected feeling (not physically so, but mentally)—I feel as if there were something missing—but I have no doubt it does an immense deal of good to both sides to have occasionally these little separations.

    Wilkie’s touching attempts to be manful do not mask his realization that, whereas his parents would subsidize and encourage the higher education and careers of William and Henry, he and Bob were essentially on their own from adolescence forward. The last straw was Henry, Sr.’s enrollment of Wilkie and Bob in a coeducational school in Concord, Massachusetts founded by abolitionist Franklin B. Sanborn and endorsed by Ralph Waldo Emerson. At 15 and 14, Wilkie and especially Bob had little interest in even more dubious schooling in pursuit of the “sensuous education” Henry, Sr. admired; Bob was clearly sent to the Sanborn School to serve as Wilkie’s companion, and he complained of not being trained for a particular trade or profession. As a consequence of their unhappiness, the two boys took a step which would scar and abbreviate their lives. At an age when their older brothers were studying art leisurely in Newport and preparing for careers in medicine and literature, for travel and contact with the finest minds of the age, Wilkie and Bob joined the ranks of the Northern army, not as a result of the Sanborn school and its abolitionist ideals, as some students of the James family have contended, but as an escape from it.

    Initially assigned to the 44th Infantry, Wilkie joined the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the famed all-black regiment commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. More blacks were recruited than needed for the 54th, and soon the 55th Massachusetts, the regiment in which Bob would serve, was formed. Both boys were officers in their teens, and the demands made on them were exacerbated by their having to command black troops. Even in the North, the black soldiers were looked down upon, jeered, and even attacked while on parade. The two black regiments were paid less than white troops, their pay was occasionally withheld and arbitrarily lowered, and they were the first sent into battle, where they suffered disproportionately due to the savage assaults of the outraged Southerners. The boys were mustered out of service in 1865, both having been wounded but refusing medical discharges and both having been promoted to captain.

    Their lives after the war will appear rather less than credible to those who associate the James family with the rarefied environs of Boston and London. Wilkie became one of the thousands of luckless Northerners who bought land cheaply in the South (near Gainesville, Florida, in his case) and tried to raise cotton, using former slaves as labor; he was joined there by Bob, who had taken a railroad job in Burlington, Iowa at age 19 and then decided to throw in with his brother after being denied the opportunity to return to his parents’ household. Perhaps recalling the days of his “sensuous education,” Bob had written piteous letters from Iowa begging for books, prints, and newspapers; finally, he asked to come home and begin preparations for a career such as his older brothers wanted. In an extraordinary letter to Wilkie, Mary Walsh James explained that, as the senior Jameses Were going to leave Boston for a summer house 15 miles away, they “could give [Bob] no home” and that, further, they would not support Bob’s plans to study architecture because that profession “can never be money making except for the few,” that “cotton planting . . .would suit his genius much better.” The elder Jameses’ refusal to help Bob or even tolerate his presence must be seen in light of their somehow finding rooms for William and Henry in nearby Cambridge; their support of William’s and Henry’s efforts in art and literature, professions which are hardly money-making “except for the few”; and their certain knowledge that Bob had no farming experience and detested the outdoor work he had done for the railroad.

    Inexperience, bad weather, and the enmity of Southern farmers put an end to the Florida enterprise. Both boys went to work for the railroad, this time in Milwaukee; Bob still abhorred the work, and Wilkie found it as little to his liking. It is at this time that each began to show an interest in sex and marriage, an interest that might appear conventionally romantic in some respects yet seems to express a pitiable desire to be accepted and loved. In 1869, Bob became secretly engaged to a cousin, but his family found out and successfully pressured him to break off the relationship. By 1872, he had met, courted, and married Mary Holton of Milwaukee, even though he disliked her father, a feeling shared by the other Jameses. By 1873, Wilkie had married Mary Holton’s friend Caroline Cary, whom the elder Jameses disliked instantly: they thought her silly and accused her of putting on airs. The degree of the parents’ abhorrence of Wilkie’s wife may be indicated by the fact that, although pictures of every other member of the James family and numerous letters exist in various collections, neither a single photograph nor letter by Carrie James (as she was called) survives.

    Neither marriage was happy; Wilkie suffered from rheumatism stemming from his war wounds as well as heart and kidney problems; Bob, who had had serious problems with alcohol, was beginning to show signs of mental disorder; neither brother proved capable of holding a job or running a business. There was little in their relations with family members to encourage them. When Henry, Sr. died in 1882, his will provided that the estate be divided unequally. The financially inept Bob’s share had been reduced by $7,000; Henry, Sr. had given that much for Bob to buy a farm near Milwaukee in 1874 and was now deducting it, even though he deducted nothing from Henry’s and William’s shares to equal the outlay for their tuition, travels, and support as they began their careers or from Alice’s to offset the cost of her health care. Worse, because he too was deemed irresponsible and because his in-laws were thought to be wealthy enough to provide, Wilkie was excluded from his father’s estate altogether. Wilkie, who was to die in less than a year, was devastated. He wrote to Bob that the will was “a base cowardly act of father’s . . .a death stab at the only two of his children who dared fight through the war for the defense of the family and the only two who attempted while very young to earn their own living . . . .” Wilkie’s resentment of his older brothers’ easy path must have been complicated by the fact that Henry fought to redivide the estate fairly even though he was opposed by William, who also thought that Wilkie did not need any more money than Carrie’s family had. The negotiations were protracted and difficult; at one point, William agreed that the estate should be divided equally but that Wilkie’s share be reduced by $5,000. Finally, Henry prevailed: Wilkie received an equal share, the improvident Bob turned Over most of his gains to his wife while retaining some property in Syracuse, New York, and Henry gave his share to Alice. Curiously, the settling of an estate in a manner that showed disfavor and revealed kindliness occurred again in the James family. When Alice died in 1892, she left equal amounts to Henry and William but less to a protesting Bob, to whom the ever-generous Henry gave $5,000 of his own; as before, William disapproved of Henry’s amiable gesture and clung fast to his part of the legacy, unwilling to share.

    Wilkie died in 1883, within a few months of the dispute over his father’s will. Bob outlived Wilkie by nearly 27 years; he was 63 when he died, but for most of his life, when not confined to one sanatorium or another for alcoholism and nervous collapse, he figured as a minor character in a Henry James novel might: he had a good deal of talent as an artist, and photographs of him show a self-possessed, almost defiant individual, someone who seems to know that he deserved better than he got.

    Because of what is now known about the two younger brothers, our understanding of the James family will have to be revised. Conventional wisdom has it that Henry, Sr.’s attempts at “sensuous education” worked splendidly on the two oldest children but disturbed and ultimately destroyed the three youngest. However, new information now makes it impossible to divide the children simplistically into two groups, the successful and the sick. There are three groups, in fact, not two: the fortunate ones, Henry and William; Alice and Wilkie, who were both genuinely ill all of their adult lives; and Bob, the most interesting of all, the boy who promised to outshine his two older brothers but who suffered torments which make those of Alice and Wilkie seem mild in comparison.

    It is difficult to say what goes into the makeup of an unstable personality, but parental indifference may account for much of Bob’s later depression and feelings of worthlessness, just as the squabbling over the two wills indicates hurtful attitudes on the part of Alice and William. In addition to what Bob suffered within the family, his outlook cannot have been improved by the experience of leading untested troops into battle at 16 years of age; too, like Wilkie, no doubt he resented the success of his older brothers. Whatever the cause, the younger James boys remained boys forever. The same Wilkie whom Henry remembered in his autobiography for his childhood abilities to converse and make friends is praised in like terms in a Milwaukee Sentinel obituary: “He possessed rare conversational powers, and was eminently social in nature. He was a delightful companion, genial, unpretending, genuine. Everybody that knew him loved him.” (But Wilkie’s “genius for making friends,” Henry remembered, “was the only genius he had.”) Bob, too, never quite matured: like the adolescent Henry and William, at one point Bob went to study art in Boston, only he was 37 at the time, a husband and the father of two children, and a confirmed alcoholic. When he returned in 1884, Bob was appointed curator of the Milwaukee Art Museum, a seemingly apt position for a James until one learns that the museum was located in the rear of Poposkey’s, an art and photography store; at any rate, Bob quit both the job and the city again in three months. Perhaps only the satirically-minded Henry who invented a “Hotel de l’Univers et Cheltenham” for one of his stories could appreciate the deflating irony of such a post going to one who, says Jane Maher, was once described by his father as having “ten times the go-ahead of all the rest of his children.”


    As a consequence of their immaturity, both Bob and Wilkie married hastily: they were still in their twenties, they had not known their fiancees long, and neither had had much experience with the opposite sex. By comparison, William did not marry until he was 36, while Henry and Alice remained single all their lives. Here again, conventional wisdom must be questioned. While late marriage and the single state are still considered exceptional by most people and perhaps indicative of sexual fear, it may be more accurate to view the socially acceptable choices of Bob and Wilkie as ill-advised and even pathetic. Both men married unhappily—certainly their wives and children must have been horribly unhappy— and both appear to have married in order to find the love that they felt had been denied them by their parents and siblings. In general, early and ill-advised marriages are attributable to a lack of parental affection; young people who feel unwanted seek in a partner the love they never had at home. Of course, promiscuity is another reaction to this feeling of lovelessness, as we see in the example of the Don Juan who searches for his remote mother in the women he seduces compulsively or in the real-life example of Marilyn Monroe, who was neglected in childhood and not only married early and frequently (the first time at 15) but also had numberless affairs. But this was the 19th century, and these were the children of Henry James, ST., philosopher and moralist. Within the family, Bob had a reputation as a womanizer, but it seems to stem mainly from his fantasies about the opposite sex as well as his compulsion to flagellate himself for these longings. In a letter to William, Bob once wrote: “I burn one day with lust and vengeance and conceit; and then all the strength seems to leave me, and I have nothing but content and peace and beauty springing up all around . . . . I have unutterable longings &c but no attainments apparently. But I cling to you and father and the good everywhere. Don’t think I forget you when I forget to write: at these times I am in the suburbs of hell but not in the town.”

    This letter tells less about Bob’s sexual activity (of which there appears to have been no abnormal amount) and more about the thinking of a repressed age and that of one of its victims. Had Bob James lived in the time of Henry Miller, say, his self-criticisms would have appeared ridiculous. As it was, he lived at a time when sexual desire had to be confronted indirectly, more often than not, and while his novelist-brother was making splendid fictions out of that social convention, Bob could only make a poor marriage. Both Bob and Wilkie evinced the need for a wife rather than the need to be a husband; that is, they appear to have married largely for their own sakes, as emotionally and sexually unhappy people do, and not at all for the hope of bringing joy to anyone else.

    But could they have done otherwise? They were born into the generation before that of Freud, who said that sex was the impulse that not only gives direction to our other impulses but in fact is the key to understanding our mental and emotional processes. By contrast, H.L. Mencken (who was born in 1880 and whose outlook remained unswervingly Victorian, even though he lived well into the 20th century) wrote, “I do not believe that the lives of normal men are much colored or conditioned, either directly or indirectly, by purely sexual considerations. I believe that nine-tenths of them would carry on all the activities which engage them now, and with precisely the same humorless diligence, if there were not a woman in the world.” Though Freud’s ideas had been elaborated by the time Mencken made this statement, the older attitude died hard; in the face of it, the perfectly conventional longings of Bob James must have seemed terrible indeed and no doubt convinced him that he should marry when and whom he did, no matter how wrongly.

    By Mencken’s standards, at least, Henry James was a normal man. In Henry James: A Life, Leon Edel observes that “the little Henry, looking at his father and mother, . . .never quite grasped what occurred between them.” Far from being a liability, this lack of certain knowledge is clearly an energy source for the most contemplative of our novelists: if the little Henry never knew what went on between married men and women, the big Henry certainly spent a lot of time thinking about it, and by thinking about it, he came to realize and then capture the significance of love more fully than his contemporaries and fellow realists William Dean Howells and Mark Twain, even though they had the seeming advantage of having done what married people do. Sex works like everything else in the Master of Indirection: indirectly. And eventually it works successfully, too. In his 20th novel and last major work of fiction, The Golden Bowl, James not only describes a marriage that survives the threat of adultery but also produces a child who lives, and while it is not true that “for the first and only time in all of James’ fiction the offspring is allowed to live,” as Leon Edel writes (Maisie of What Maisie Knew is emphatic proof otherwise), the fact remains that the Principino does live, as few of Henry’s fictional children do. More importantly, The Golden Bowl sees a reconciliation between characters from the Old and the New Worlds, something that does not happen in any of Henry’s 19 previous novels.

    In their choice of sexual roles, the James siblings represent the full spectrum of possibilities. Their choices were finite, though not made without difficulty, and by understanding why they chose ultimately as they did, we can understand something of our own freedom and limitations. William waited late to marry and picked a helpmeet who was perfectly suited to assist him in his quest for personal and professional success. Wilkie and Bob, resentful of their parents and siblings and unsure of themselves, married hastily and unhappily. Alice, the youngest child and only female, was not only sickly but seems to have had a surfeit of male domination; she entered into an emotionally intense and possibly homosexual relationship with her friend and nurse Katherine Loring. Henry, who was inclined since his earliest days to viewing the world with detachment and who suffered a debilitating back injury just as he might have begun to become sexually active, probably chose to remain celibate.

    Certainly the artlessness of the passionate language he used in his letters to Hendrik Andersen and Jocelyn Perssee suggests this. Henry was well aware of his status and knew that his letters would be saved and read by others, and it is unlikely that one so private as he would have betrayed his intimate desires to the world. To put it another way, had he thought that what he had written would be subject to the scandalmongering that sometimes passes for biographical study, he simply would not have written it.


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    Alex Clarke's picture
    Alex Clarke · 3 years ago

    I know it's a bit late but I just want to say how impressive I thought this survey of Henry James' family was. I also wanted the add that 'the obscure hurt' James suffered during the firefighting operation - specifically his manning a heavy pump - might have been a severe hernia. Could that have rendered him sexless?


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