Henry James and Queer Modernity

Henry James and Queer Modernity

Henry James and Queer Modernity

Henry James and Queer Modernity

Synopsis

Eric Haralson examines the far-reaching changes in gender politics and the emergence of modern male homosexuality in writings of Henry James and three authors greatly influenced by him: Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway. Emphasizing American masculinity portrayed in fiction between 1875 and 1935, Haralson traces James' engagement with sexual politics from his first novels of the 1870s to his "major phase" at the turn of the century.

Excerpt

“I never read [ My Sexual Problem ]. That was…Henry James, right?…the sequel to The Turn of the Screw ?”

(Alvy Singer, in Woody Allen's Annie Hall, 1977)

At the risk of understatement, the gothic mode returned with a vengeance in The Turn of the Screw, which Henry James published in 1898 but which embellished on a ghost story—a “mere vague, undetailed, faint sketch”— that he had heard in early 1895 (N 178). the narrative seed had been planted in the author's mind, that is, just in time for cultivation in the heated atmosphere of the Oscar Wilde trials, a fact that will be instrumental to my treatment of the novella here. Upon the work's stunning début, a typical British review declared that “Mr. James is in a queer mood, ” for James appeared to have gone out of his way to make the loyal reader of his fiction— as the tale's famous governess would say—“a receptacle of lurid things” (ts 348). James's most offensive piece of “putrescence” involved what the reviewer considered a fundamental “misunderstanding of child nature”: “Even in colder moments, if we admit the fact of infant depravity… we must deny…the extent of the corruption as suggested here…We have never read a more sickening… tale” (cr 304). Other British journals chimed in, agreeing that the work's “morbid psychology” and the “weird knowledge” attributed to young Miles and his sister Flora would “outrage many minds far from prudish, ” for James seemed to imply that sin could be found “nestling in the fairest of all fair places, ” the consciousness—if not indeed the physical experience—of childhood. Taking a different tack toward the same end, discomfited American reviewers hastened to reassure themselves and their audience that Miles and Flora, just as children, could have been only “dimly conscious” of any foul deeds that transpired between Peter Quint, a former valet at the remote country estate of Bly, and Miss Jessel, the governess's predecessor (cr 303, 308, 305).

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