Henry James is Super Gay

Hello friends--

This week’s Thursday Letter is really a Friday Letter. First some news: my short story “As Though That Were Love” appears in the newest issue of American Short Fiction, alongside some truly spectator stories. Go check it out. I’m really thrilled to have placed a story at that journal. It’s been a goal of mine ever since I started sending stories out. They’ve published some of my favorite writers, and so this is a real dream come true for me.

This weekend, I am meeting a friend to discuss The Wings of the Dove by Henry James. If you don’t know the novel, it’s about a group of young-ish people: Kate Croy (beautiful, cunning, but broke and reliant on her wealthy aunt) wants to marry Merton Densher, who is handsome and charming, but also a lowkey soft fuckboi. Rich, beautiful, and doomed Milly Theale comes to town with her definitely gay companion Susan Stringham. Aunt Maud and Susan know each other from way back, if you get what I mean.  Kate befriends the dying Milly and schemes to have her fall for Merton so that he can have her money and later marry her, Kate. Aunt Maud would love to see Milly foisted off upon Merton as well because she wants Kate to marry a wealthy (and also probably gay) Lord. Everyone is scheming against everyone else, pushing and pulling on poor Milly who just wants to see as much of life as possible before she dies. They go to Venice. They go to country estates. They have parties. They visit doctors in secret. There are kisses! Held hands! Longing! Secrets! Plots!

It’s a strange novel, to be sure. Whereas much of the early parts of The Portrait of a Lady and The Bostonians are dominated by intricate and rich scene work, James does not seem particularly interested in scenes in Wings. Sometimes, you go for ten or so pages before you remember that the characters are at a dinner, talking to each other. Other times, chapters open with a wall of exposition, explaining the how and why and the when of the various things that have happened to get you to this point only for the curtain to drop on the chapter before the characters actually say anything to one another. It’s not the easiest novel to get into if you’re accustomed to a certain kind of realist fiction. The tempo seems to shift by the page. It’s hard to know where anything is going. But then it changes. Subtly at first, but the scenes begin to accrue detail. The dialogue grows fuller. And suddenly, all of that exposition makes sense. It was to get to this part of the novel, fleet and swift, and so full of changing, whirling feeling. It’s a novel about gossip and what we tell ourselves about the world as well as those we love most. It’s a novel about circumstances and material freedom, and the freedom of the soul. It’s really moving. I recommend it, but definitely, not if it’s your first Henry James novel. 

This is more or less the extension of a random decision I made last year to read all of Henry James’s novels. I wanted to really take him on and form actual, adult thoughts about the work because preceding that, I only had nebulous, flimsy attitudes about him that I had absorbed from the culture via social media like a filter feeder. This was my feeling about many authors because my reading education has always been fitful and self-directed. I did a similar thing with Raymond Carver and John Cheever and Jean Stafford, writers about whom I knew nothing initially and regarded with a cool suspicion because of the particularities of their identity and how it related (or didn’t relate) to my identity.

Anyway, I read the Cheever and the Carver and the Stafford, and found that I loved them a lot. So then, I turned to Henry James. Last year, I ended up not making much headway in my project. I read The Portrait of a Lady and The Bostonians (also a very gay novel), but then I was sidetracked by exhaustion (from life) and by preparing my novel manuscript for publication. I told my friend about the project, and he more or less invited himself into it, and we made a club. He went on to read the other novels, but I lagged behind. But a couple weeks ago, we decided spontaneously to get the band back together, so here we are, meeting to discuss the first chunk of The Wings of the Dove

For a long time, I was in this furious mode of wanting to fasten my identity securely to myself by reinforcing it through the acquisition of opinions about the larger culture and its agents. It was as if, having spent my whole life in absence of a self and having suddenly found one, I was desperate not to relinquish it again.

This is all to say that while I was a certain kind of insufferable person who talked about privilege and class and race and not seeing myself and obsolete whiteness and straightness without a real, deep understanding of the things I was rejecting. I wanted to be cool. Even if it meant faking it. Sometimes I think about things I said at parties about writers I’ve come to really admire and enjoy, and I cringe in embarrassment. I think, Oh God, I can’t believe I said that about Carver. I used to titter behind my cup about Cheever’s middle class antics. I used to consider myself quite about Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Safran Foer. But then I read their novels, and I felt like someone had punched me in the face—their subject matter was not dissimilar from the things I cared about or thought about most. Their writing wasn’t boring. It was electric and alive. I think it’s perilous to sneer at novelists without actually reading their work.

I think that out of hand dismissal is particularly appealing on social media, where it’s possible to instantaneously crystalize an opinion in a process akin to flash-freezing. You can adopt a dozen different attitudes a day, and no one will be any the wiser because of the constant scroll. We toss off strong opinions like so much rice at a wedding, not really thinking about who will be there to clean it up.

Consider this a prompt for meditation, as long or as brief as you want. A moment to think back over an opinion or idea rapidly formed and dispensed out into the universe. A chance to take it back or buff it up or leave it alone. An opportunity to change the angle of your view or not. This is not a challenge or an invalidation. This is just a pause. A beat. One little moment to dwell and to consider, to mull and noodle on it.