Monumental Anxieties: Homoerotic Desire and Feminine Influence in 19th Century U.S. Literature

By Scott S. Derrick | Go to book overview

PART 2
Circuits of Desire
AUTHORITY IN THE EARLY AND LATE FICTION OF HENRY JAMES

The novels of Henry James are natural subjects given the central themes of this book: the narrative construction of authority and authorship and the pressure exerted by such constructions on the representation of gender and sexuality. No U.S. writer has had a stronger will to cultural authority or a more exalted sense of the authority of literature than Henry James. As Richard Brodhead says, "[A]uthorship never had the status merely of a secular profession for James, but instead of a vocation in the religious sense: a life-structuring task through which one both performs one's work in the world and discharges one's obligations to the source of one's being."1 The demanding terms of this engagement virtually guaranteed that no public response to his work could serve as an adequate validation of his efforts, a shortfall of appreciation that would contribute heavily to the cavernous depressions that punctuated his creative career. Indeed, one obvious message of the prefaces to the New York edition, prophetic of its subsequent commercial failure, is that the only adequate reader of James in the nineteenth century was James himself.

John Carlos Rowe, in The Theoretical Dimensions of Henry James, has described the conflict between James's quest for authority and his concomitant identification with the disempowered positions of women.2 This conflict is complicated in turn by the question of James's apparent homosexuality, the importance of which has become more and more clear in the decade since the publication of The Theoretical Dimensions of Henry James. Recent work on James's sexuality, in turn, generally has not addressed how that sexuality intersects with his problematic desire for authority of a conventionally

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