Printer Friendly

Haralson, Eric. Henry James and Queer Modernity.

HARALSON, ERIC. Henry James and Queer Modernity. Cambridge University Press, 2003. 265 pp. $60.00.

Eric Haralson's Henry James and Queer Modernity is a welcome addition to the crowded scene of life-writing, fictional, and literary-critical approaches devoted to James's purported homosexuality. Treating James as a "culturally resonant representative" of the fraught conjuncture of changing gender roles and sexual politics between 1875 and 1935, Haralson wisely abjures the critical burden of proof of the author's sexuality in favor of reception theory, where what matters is the reader's attunement to the "dissident modes of masculinity" displayed in James's texts and by his authorial persona (23). Because "James's manner of engaging the social and personal fact of same-sex passion (by no means a rare manner) was furtive and intermittent, vacillating between detection and deflection, flirtation and flight" (61), James's depiction of resistance to gender norms registers with readers as an early model of sexual dissidence avant la lettre (48). By cogently summarizing the etymology of his key term, queer, in relation to the emerging identity category, homosexual, Haralson is able to side-step nagging questions of anachronism, without ignoring them, and to explore the prescient receptivity of James and his successors to the indeterminate, shifting, and experimental modes of gender and sexual identity emerging in their own time: "This caucus of modern ... writers huddled almost obsessively over the Jamesian corpus as part of their own self-definitional trials at the fraught intersections of gender, sexual, and national (or 'racial') identity" (176).

More than a queer literary genealogy, substantiating James's unidirectional influence on modernism, Haralson's book explores the "interplay between James's work and that of his modernist interlocutors" (19). Gertrude Stein, Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, and Ernest Hemingway are said to "talk back" to James's writings, revealing or discovering their "proleptic queerness," attesting to James's anticipation of modern sexual and textual politics (19). Throughout, but most intensively in its final two chapters, Henry James and Queer Modernity is an exemplary study of queer intertextuality, whose operative trope is "dialogue" rather than influence (19). Treating homosexuality as a discursive formation, Haralson explains how "various powerful social actors" (presumably, reformers, doctors, clergymen, psychologists, jurists) and "their modes of 'reading' homosexuality interacted with [stimulated and constrained] the development and self-expression of gay creative writers (who were constantly 'reading' themselves and each other as well)" (18). Thus, Sherwood Anderson's "willingness to yield meaning-making to individual readers--to let them dare to feel the queerness--" is shown to counteract Anderson's disavowal of same-sex passion, such as his effort to "sanitize the representation of fervent same-sex bonds" in the story "Queer" (13). Haralson's methodology permits the phraseology of the closet, homosexual codes, camp, the stamp of effeminacy, and queerness to resonate with readers of Roderiek Hudson (1875), although documentation of their transgressive burden is sketchy prior to 1925. Haralson productively highlights the reader's attunement to "protogay" language, gesture, and signification (29) by citing "an appreciable fund of circumstantial evidence [that] has accrued from gay readers of Henry James" (E.M. Forster, Stephen Spender, Christopher Isherwood, Glenway Wescott, Louis Umfreville Wilkinson, et al.), without privileging the gay response as somehow decisive (18). At its best, as in the splendid introduction, Haralson's writing evinces the wit and surety of his more outspoken protagonists, as when he calls Djuna Barnes's Nightwood a "transexual fantasia" (8) or styles Sappho and Emily Dickinson a "deviant sorority" (6).

In a cautionary note, Haralson sets sensible limits on his "argument for a Jamesian text commensurate with the reader's boldest flexibility and broadest range of interpretation" (22); Haralson is reluctant to authorize a version of James himself as a precociously self-aware, even tendentious, 'gay' novelist. For Haralson, James's homoerotic writing exhibits a "powerful prolepsis"; it is "at once prior to and already participatory--not consciously, but not accidentally, contributing to the movement in Anglo-American arts and letters that culminates (for convenience's sake) in Carl Van Vechten's quip in the early 1920s: 'A thing of beauty is a boy forever'" (41). The book's proleptic schema cleverly circumvents the expectation that the novelist's ambiguous intentions (What were they? How can we know for sure?) will have to be reconciled with the homoerotic content of his work, which "anticipates" and "looks forward" to the definitive elaboration or debut of the homosexual subject: "Roderick Hudson is not 'about' homosexuality so much as it is about to be about homosexuality" (45). Meanwhile, Haralson's ambitious dialogical strategy is not well served by the chronological layout of the first four chapters, which evokes a traditional, historical template. The decision to trace the evolution of James's conception of dissident masculinity (camp, effeminacy, bohemianism in Roderick Hudson and The Europeans; dandaical aestheticism in The Tragic Muse) through his mature fictive challenge to the sexual regulatory apparatus of his culture (destructive forces of patriarchy in The Turn of the Screw) and culminating in The Ambassadors' "bachelor-aesthete Lambert Strether," the paragon of "James's quest to imagine a sympathetic masculinity whose bearings are homosexual" (25), begs the question of how James's evolving consciousness of his own sexual and gender anomalousness (as well as his familiarity with Anglo-American formulations of the homosexual) influenced the depictions of queer characters and themes in his works over time.

This procedural uncertainty leads Haralson to ruminate over James's access to key events and players in the discourse on homosexuality. Haralson's understandable conviction that the Wilde trials of 1895 and the Cleveland Street Affair of 1889-90 were decisive events in the history of the homosexual as a publicly compromised entity, of whom James would have been cognizant, countermands the ingenious methodological protocols of Haralson's introduction. The appeal to 'fact' and 'event' as guarantors of the queer meanings found in James's books ("the picture of an author who teased out the queernesses in his own early writing mainly in retrospect" [35]) belongs to a different conceptual program. In the plus column, each and every one of these chapters is chock full of unexpected sources ("psychomedical authorities," Frederic Meyers and Dr. Louis Waldstein, write to James directly for confirmation of their mutual apprehension of themes of "lesbian love" and male-male desire in The Turn of the Screw [93-94]), brilliant insights, and inspiring prose. As anyone knows, that is, anyone who has slogged through the recent and not so recent spate of books and articles devoted to queering Henry James with an eye to writing one, there are more pitfalls than opportunities attending the belatedness of one's effort. In Haralson's case, the temptation to revisit the well traveled terrain of 19th-century sexology and Victorian sexual dissidence as a cultural phenomenon, to say nothing of biography, has largely been mastered. I do not mean to belabor that aspect in my review. I would much rather celebrate Haralson's redefinition of the debate in terms of James's rejection of the prescriptions and expectations for masculine performance on the part of the hegemonic sex/gender system (109), which rendered him in the minds of his successors, variously, an object of veneration, emulation, and disdain.

For Willa Cather, James served as a paragon of "redemptive aestheticism just masculine enough and replete with a lavish but chaste sensualism" to counteract the hyperaestheticism of Oscar Wilde, her bete noir (137). From 1895 through The Professor's House (1925), Cather relied on James to mediate the "fate of masculinities against the grain, including, by projection, the masculinity distinctively embodied in Cather herself" (134). Haralson's scripting of Cather's identification with James as an imaginative projection of her own anxieties and desires dovetails with the delicate balancing act, between same-sex desire and homophobic reaction, James is said to have achieved in his portrayal of an aesthete in The Tragic Muse: "In Nash, that is, James sketched a protogay, protocamp character but smudged those lineaments that were most personally troubling to him, as well as most susceptible to the 'complicated and ingenious machinery' of law and order that would soon enmesh Wilde" (76). Haralson's deft interpretation of One of Ours, a war novel in which Cather tests the "limits of homosexual feeling" (154), prepares the ground for the stunning final chapter, in which Ernest Hemingway emerges as the embattled tyro of masculine modernism. In Hemingway's view, a view shared by Sinclair Lewis and Edmund Wilson, Cather's gender doomed her imaginative forays into the trenches to solipsism and melodrama (154).

Concomitantly, Haralson captures Ernest Hemingway's fraught relation to James in all its symptomatic (homophobic) complexity: "More privately, Hemingway went on to demean the drawing-room 'fairies' who languished about in James's The Awkward Age (1899), to scorn his predecessor under the sign of emasculation (James had 'no balls') and effeminacy (one of the 'male old women'), to dismiss James's writing as 'snobbish, difficultly written shit'" (173). Harlason's most intriguing move is to permit Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson to confer over young Hemingway's compulsion to suppress his "truly sensitive capacity for emotion," as Stein put it, partly in reaction against the interiority, aestheticism, homoeroticism, and subtle sociability of James's work (174). Anderson and Stein are mutually attuned to Hemingway's careerism and pandering to an American market, whose cult of literary celebrity admired the brag and "the compensatory swagger of the manly man," a role Hemingway taught himself to play (174). Hemingway's "theatre of hypermasculinity" (174) inspires Stein's observation that Hemingway looks "like a modern" but "smells of the museums," whereas the "future feeling" James "felt the method of the twentieth century" (173). For some readers of Henry James and Queer Modernity, Haralson's definition of modernity may be too narrowly focused on turn-of-the century redefinitions of sexuality. It is certainly true that gender and sexual dissidence are among the hallmarks of modernity as well as prevailing features of modern subjectivity. Haralson has made good his promise to show that James's proleptic queerness inspired his modernist interlocutors both to read and rewrite his works, giving "James's sexual/textual politics a Steinian signature" or simply talking back to James (19).

WENDY GRAHAM, Vassar College
COPYRIGHT 2005 Johns Hopkins University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Graham, Wendy
Publication:Studies in the Novel
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2005
Previous Article:Granofsky, Ronald. D.H. Lawrence and Survival: Darwinism in the Fiction of the Transitional Period.
Next Article:Krauth, Leland. Mark Twain & Company: Six Literary Relations.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters