Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"The Social Dusk of That Mysterious Democracy": Race, Sexology, and the New Woman in Henry James's: The Bostonians

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"The Social Dusk of That Mysterious Democracy": Race, Sexology, and the New Woman in Henry James's: The Bostonians

Article excerpt

When Henry James started compiling notes for The Bostonians in 1883, he summarized his intentions for the new project: "I wished to write a very American tale, a tale very characteristic of our social condition, and I asked myself what was the most salient and peculiar point in our social life. The answer was: the situation of woman, the decline of the sentiment of sex, the agitation on their behalf" (Notebooks 47, emphasis in original). In the author's attempt to capture the larger postbellum age through the emergence of women's suffrage, one cannot help but wonder if something else is left out. Given the immense upheaval the United States had experienced since 1860, writing an "American" tale in the early 1880s would be a project of almost epic proportion. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments had finally given African-American men legal citizenship and all accompanying privileges; yet, American women--black and white alike--would not receive full citizenship until 1920 with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. It is evident from the novel's subject matter--with its themes of women's suffrage, the "Boston marriage," and postbellum sectional discord--that James was somewhat attuned to the social and political controversies stirring in his native land. Still, it would have been unthinkable for the author, whose famous directive in "The Art of Fiction" is to be a writer "on whom nothing is lost," to overlook the racial issues that were so much a part of Gilded Age America (Tales 352).

By the 1880s, larger questions of race, gender, and sexuality had already hit the world stage, no more so than in the medical and scientific communities of Europe and the United States. At the time James published his novel in book form in 1886, a new discourse was developing that linked the codification of homosexuality (usually called "sexual inversion" at the time) to the codification of race. As sexologists Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds wrote in the 1890s, "And now that the problem of religion has practically been settled, and that the problem of labour has at least been placed on a practical foundation, the question of sex--with the racial questions that rest on it--stands before the coming generations as the chief problem for solution" (x). Thanks in large part to Siobhan B. Sommerville's recent study Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture, we are beginning to understand the larger implications of Ellis and Symonds's remarks. In giving coherence to these vague suggestions, she argues that "the formation of notions of heterosexuality and homosexuality emerged in the United States through (and not merely parallel to) a discourse saturated with assumptions about the racialization of bodies" (4). (1)

Wendy Graham has shown that James was deeply influenced by current-day sexological studies. In Henry James's Thwarted Love (1999), she explains that "James's self-portraits (fictional, epistolary, and autobiographical) are consistent with sexologists' constructions of homosexuality during his lifetime" (22). To what extent James was conscious of the imbrication of the racial and sexual discourse of which Sommerville speaks is not at all clear. Still, he was certainly aware of one thing: in the late nineteenth century, America and Europe had developed a widespread fear of women--alarm over their consumption habits in the marketplace and dread over their psychic mystery. This fear has been thoroughly discussed by a number of social historians and critics, but only recently has scholarship attempted to expose how the emerging "New Woman"--that androgynous specter gaining greater public visibility by the 1880s--was implicated in the criss-crossing discourses of race and homosexuality. (2)

Like Sommerville, Lisa Duggan engages these themes in Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence, and American Modernity (2000), wherein she recounts the events surrounding the 1892 murder of Freda Ward by her lover Alice Mitchell in Memphis, Tennessee. …

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