Introduction to Michael
Wood's Essay About the Mystery of Henry James's Testicles
A long time ago, I heard a rumor that
Henry James had injured his testicles.
In my novel The Extra Man, I used this rumor in the following
bit of dialogue between the characters Louis Ives and Henry Harrison (the
first speaker is Louis; he is also the narrator):
"It's really very strange that
I'll be moving to New York. It's all
because I was looking at the cover of Henry James's Washington Square
and I thought I should be in New York."
"I can't stand James!" Henry
"I know what you mean." I was worried that I had said the wrong
thing, but then I stood up for myself and James a little bit by saying,
"But the earlier books are quite good, like Daisy Miller, or Washington
"Yes, that's true, his style did
change. I wonder why. He burned himself, you know. Sat on a stove and shriveled his testicles. That may account for the change in
I then recycled this rumor in my next
book, my so-called memoir What's Not to Love?:
In my small East Village apartment,
the bathtub is in the kitchen. I
can't shower in my tub, but attached to the faucet is a hose with a
showerhead, and I use this to rinse off while I sit there . . .
Last Sunday morning, I was in the
tub and I was working on my head with my scalp invigorator. The rubber hose was lying coiled at the
bottom of the tub like a snake; water was jetting out of the showerhead,
warming my ankles. Then I nudged the
snake and at that precise moment something happened to the building's
cold-water supply -- it was cut off -- and the nudging moved the showerhead
so that it was aimed not at my ankles, but at my testicles. My tiny balls were then scalded and I
screamed and threw the scalp invigorator into the air.
I quickly shut off the water and stared
down at myself. Was I going to have
to call 911 for singed testicles? I
had heard many stories over the years of children burned in their bathtubs,
and then I thought of Henry James and the myth that his testicles had been
burned, or punctured on a fence, and this had caused his legendary asexuality
-- was this to be my fate?
Well, a few months ago a young scholar named Michael Wood
wrote to me after reading The Extra Man and What's Not to Love?
and asked me if I had any proof to back up this Henry James testicle
rumor. I did not have any proof, but
I asked him if he could look into it for me, for us. It was my hope that he would discover just
what the hell happened to Henry James.
Well, the following extraordinary
essay, on this very important literary matter, is the result.
The Mystery of Henry's Bicycle
by Michael Wood
thing that should put us on our guard with James is that, more than most
writers, he tended to live and make fiction behind a mask. In spite of the Herculean labors of Leon
Edel, our image of James remains in many respects precisely the image he
designed for us. He was very careful
to doctor certain facts about his life and to conceal others. He sifted and destroyed documents [...]
Many surviving family letters allude by date to others that are no longer
extant; some of this missing correspondence undoubtedly requested the
recipient to burn the letter after reading it. [...] Furthermore, many of
these missing letters date from certain critical periods in the lives of one
or more of the Jameses. There are
many ambiguities about Henry James that we cannot sort out, and there are
probably many important facts we do not even suspect
Habegger, Henry James and the "Woman Business" (p.8)
I was talking with a couple of friends about sex and art and
one of them mentioned The Great Gatsby. "Nick," he said, "is totally gay." As evidence, he read to us - emphasizing
with gusto every suggestive phrase - the end of Chapter II, in which Nick (drunk
for only the second time in his life) leaves Tom and Mrs. Wilson's party with
Mr. McKee - who he had previously wiped some shaving lather off of - "a
pale, feminine male":
to lunch,' he suggested, as we groaned down in the elevator.
'Keep your hands off the lever,'
snapped the elevator boy.
'I beg your
pardon,' said Mr McKee with dignity, 'I didn't know I was touching it.'
'All right,' I agreed, 'I'll be glad
was standing besides his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad
in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.
and the Beast...Loneliness...Old Grocery Horse...Brook'n Bridge...'
Then I was lying half asleep in the cold
lower level of the Pennsylvania Station, staring at the morning Tribune, and
waiting for the four o'clock train.
(Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The
Great Gatsby. New York, Charles Scribner's Sons: 1925.)
I hadn't read Gatsby for years
and when I had, I hadn't noticed any homosexual undertones; then, as I
thought about it, I realized it made perfect sense and I had been a fool to
have missed it. And then, as my mind
was reeling over this development an image started to form in my head and when
it became clear, what I saw in my mind's eye was Henry James, impeccably
dressed in a three-piece suit and bow tie, hoisting his testicles onto a
knew this was somehow relevant to our discussion but my prudery got the best
of me and all I could offer was that I'd heard a story about The Portrait
of a Lady author sitting on a stove, because he thought he deserved it,
and that that must mean something.
thought he deserved to burn his bum?"
"I've never heard
it was definitely something like that.
I think it had something to do with, yeah - you know?" I was
hoping that one of them would jump in with details of the story but that
wasn't happening. I was racking my
head for an elegant way to suggest that it was the gonads, not the buttocks
that had been the focus of the scorching when it hit me where I'd read about
the incident: it wasn't from a biography on James, but from a novel called The
Extra Man by Jonathan Ames.
I realized that if
something had happened to Henry James' testicles, that my friends didn't know
about it, because if they did, it'd just be weird that they didn't mention it
- given what we were talking about.
And I thought this was sort of neat because one of my friends had done
his Ph.D. on James, and even he didn't know about the guy's self-castration! I instantly resolved to solve the mystery.
I said, exited now, "I'm pretty sure something happened down there, so
I'm going to check it out. And when I
do find out - "
let us know.
look forward to it."
think it was the personal nature of Ames writing that made me feel
comfortable in e-mailing him. In his
essays he addressed such topics as his poo-ing misadventures in France, his
late puberty, and his Oedipal complex.
I knew about his first sexual encounter, (which was with a
prostitute,) so why would I be embarrassed about contacting him? Ames seemed like the kind of author who
would bother to write back when a fan asked a sexually specific question;
true to my suspicions, he responded quickly to my query:
alluded to this rumor in both 'the extra man' and in 'what's not to love?'.
i heard it somewhere, don't know if it's fact, but i'm pretty sure
something did happen to henry james's testicles. he may have gotten
them spiked on a fence or something. please find out the real story and
report back . . .
It was exiting to hear back from Ames and the fence rumor (had
puncturing been involved?) coupled with his exhortation to "find out the
real story" sent a shot of adrenaline through my body.
After sorting through
the mishmash an internet search for "Henry James + testicles"
revealed, I came upon the first of several literary feuds I would encounter
during the course of my investigation:
In the 1950's, Leon Edel published his five volume biography of James;
Edel also edited the equally massive Henry James: Letters as well as
writing and editing many other works on James. In 1996 Sheldon Novick published Henry James: The Young
Master, a biography which refuted many of Edel's ideas. The two got catty in a couple of articles
published in 'Slate', Edel striking first, with his piece 'Oh Henry! What
Henry James didn't do with Oliver Wendell Holmes (or anyone else)'. Edel takes issue with Novick's claim that
James and the Supreme Court Justice were lovers. "It upsets," he writes, "a century of
scholarship that seems to have clearly shown James was a firm bachelor with a
'low amatory coefficient,' as one of his doctors put it in 1905 in New York."
Edel goes on:
Another bit of imaginative projection upon James'
life can be found in Ernest Hemingway's letters. This novelist, on learning
that Brooks [Van Wyck Brooks, author of The Pilgrimage of Henry James]
had written that James was 'prevented by an accident from taking part in the
Civil War,' immediately incorporated this into his nearly finished novel, 'The
Sun Also Rises'. In Chapter 12, Jake Barnes refers to his World War I
accident, and Gorton says, 'That's the sort of thing that can't be spoken of.
That's what you ought to work up into a mystery. Like Henry's bicycle.'
Barnes replies it wasn't a bicycle; 'he was riding horseback.' (In his
memoirs, James spoke of having had a 'horrid' but 'obscure hurt.' He had
strained his back during a stable fire while serving as a volunteer fireman.)
Hemingway had originally inserted James' name in the novel, but Scribner's
editor, Maxwell Perkins, vetoed this. Hemingway insisted. They finally
compromised on the 'Henry' alone. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to Brooks, 'Why
didn't you touch more on James' impotence (physical) and its influence?'
Novick (a Professor of Law at The University of
Vermont) responded to Edel's attack in the form of a letter
directed at Edel himself:
I was startled to find in SLATE last week your
intemperate and rather personal diatribe about my book Henry James: The
Young Master. Whatever your reasons, you have allowed yourself to be provoked
into saying outrageous things, and I have no choice but to answer
plainly. Your remarks focus
obsessively on Henry James' sexuality. This is your obsession, not mine. You
dwell on a single sexual encounter that takes no more than a page in my book
and is not referred to again. What I
do say in my book, and give considerably more prominence—and what you fail to
mention--is that your own biography of James is no longer useful. For a
modern reader, it badly distorts the record of the novelist's life. I point
out numerous errors and outright inventions in your work, mistakes you give a
fair sample of in your SLATE story. [...]As you will see if you read it, my
book is devoted largely to a discussion of James' intellectual development
and his stories, novels, and critical essays. James' sexual orientation is
necessarily portrayed, and I take it for granted--as most scholars do
now--that he was a closeted gay man. I don't think you have ever really
disputed this, but you now seem to be shying away from its implications. In
your story you hint that James was impotent, and you quote a bizarre,
homophobic pronouncement by a doctor who examined James once when he was ill
and away from home, then announced to a breathless world that the famous
novelist was badly hung. (You omit the more bizarre and self-discrediting
portions of the announcement.)
What I like best about Novick's response is how he chides Edel for not
admitting that much of his life's work, "is no longer useful". As I
read Novick's article, I instantly accepted his picture of Leon Edel as a
crusty old man, ensconced in the ways of the past and unwilling to confront
far as the original mystery went, I had some clues, but nothing
definite. Had the accident James
suffered as a fireman involved flames, or a fence? Was this what I was after? And was this Pre-Civil War accident
connected to the "bizarre, homophobic" report in 1905 by James'
doctor? I was also intrigued by the
Hemingway-Fitzgerald connection because Ames, in numerous essays, had
professed a strong affection for both these writers; perhaps what he'd done
in The Extra Man was an intentional echo of the reference in The
Sun Also Rises. But if this was
so, why hadn't he told me? Either he
hadn't thought it worth mentioning, or he didn't know about it - which would
mean that he and Hemingway had each independently decided to include what was
to both men only gossip about Henry James' sex organs into their
fiction. What was it about James'
genitalia that inspired generations of writers?
knew that if I was going to solve this caper I would have to broaden my
investigative techniques, and so, in a series of trips to the New York Public
Library's Main Branch, and it's less glamorous neighbor, the Mid-Manhattan
Branch I delved into the lore of Henry James - or at least that lore
connected to his private parts.
At this point I'm going
to tell you what happened to Henry James' testicles: basically, he hurt them on a fence,
helping put out a fire. Well, he
definitely hurt his back - how much he hurt the testicles is open to debate;
but the story Edel mentions in his 'Slate' article is definitely the basis
not only for the rumor Hemingway heard, but also Ames (who says he was
unaware of the reference in The Sun Also Rises).
I learned more about the case I constantly picked up interesting tangential
information: every impotence rumor quashed would reveal another literary
fight, or another incredible coincidence.
I would e-mail Ames progress reports and he was always enthusiastic
and encouraging, though I wondered if, privately, he wasn't at all disturbed
my increasingly long and minutia-filled communiqué. While I knew that what I was finding out was news to Ames and
me I was also aware that, as much as I liked to play the gumshoe, tracking
down clues and solving the insolvable, that that's not what was going
on. And how could it? All the information I was getting was from
books that were already published; the testicles' story (and all the stories
it connects to) aren't exactly State secrets. Plus, I'm a complete idiot.
In narrowing my search
from the infinitely fertile ground of topics related to Henry James, I
decided to zero in on following areas:
A) the testicles story
B) any sex stuff (particularly insinuations of
C) literary back stabbings
Here's what I found out:
In 1914, James' Notes
on A Son and Brother was published.
In it, he writes of the 1861 accident he had as a volunteer
fireman. During the blaze, the
eighteen year old Henry James was:
into the acute angle between two high fences, where the rhythmic play of my
arms, in tune with that of several other pairs, but at a dire disadvantage of
positions, induced a rural, a rusty, a quasi-extemporised old engine to work
and saving the stream to flow, I had done myself a horrid even if obscure
hurt; and what was interesting from the first was my not doubting in the
least its duration - though what seemed equally clear was that I needn't as a
matter of course adopt and appropriate it, so to speak, or place it for
increase of interest on exhibition.
Notes Of A Son and Brother.
New York, Charles Scribner's Sons: 1914. p. 297-8)
The above is just a small part of James' recount of the saga; James
stretches the story to many pages, recalling his sensations and motivations
without revealing exactly what happened.
Elsewhere he writes of seeing a doctor about the pain:
have little forgotten how I felt myself, the warning absent, treated but to a
comparative pooh-pooh - an impression I long looked back to as a sharp
parting of the ways, with an adoption of the wrong one distinctly
determined. (Ibid., p. 300)
In summarizing James' account
various critics have tackled the challenge of condensing and making clear
James' famously circumlocutory, flowery and often opaque prose. Leon Edel does a relatively good job in
the first volume of his biography, in capturing the spirit of the story and in
chronicling the brouhaha which ensued:
hurt is 'horrid' but it is also 'obscure.'
It is a 'catastrophe,' but it is in the very same phrase only a
'difficulty.' It is a passage of
history 'most entirely personal' yet apparently not too personal to be
broadcast to the world in his memoirs[...]It is also 'extraordinarily
intimate' and at the same time 'awkwardly intimate.'[...] His readers were to
imagine the worst.
What, after all is the
most odious, horrid, intimate, thing that can happen to a man? However much different men might have different
answers, in the case of Henry James critics tended to see a relationship
between the accident and his celibacy, his apparent avoidance of involvements
with women and the absence of overt sexuality in his work. Thus there emerged a 'theory' - promptly
converted into a rumor - that the
novelist suffered a hurt, during those 'odious twenty minutes' which amounted
to castration. In the April-June 1934
House & Hound issue, devoted entirely to James, Glenway Wescott
reported it almost as a fact:
"Henry James, expatriation and castration. . . . Henry James it
is rumored, could not have had a child.
But if he was as badly hurt, in the pre-Civil War accident as that -
since he triumphed over other authors of his epoch - perhaps the injury was a
help to him." Stephen Spender
quotes this passage in The Destructive Element and suggests that
"Castration, or the fear of castration, is supposed to preoccupy the
mind with ideas about suicide and death." He goes on to show how this is true of many of James's characters. Mr. Spender, however does have a second
thought and adds in a footnote: "The rumor of castration seems
exaggerated and improbable, but it seems likely that James sustained a
serious injury." (Edel, Leon. Henry James: The Untried Years: 1843-1870.
Philadelphia, New York: J.B. Lippincott Company: 1953. p.175-176)
In the above, you will notice, I am quoting Edel, who quotes Wescott
and Spender, and the part of Westcott that Edel quotes is the same part of
the Wescott that Spender quotes. In
my research I saw this sort of thing happening a lot: one person writes
something, then someone else quotes it and adds their two cents to it, then
someone quotes that person, and on and on until you get a shmuck like me
quoting Edel. One might think this would
lead to an increase in the universe's store of knowledge, but as far as I can
tell, what happens as often as not is we get a bunch of critics playing
Edel chooses not to quote Spender when
Spender writes erroneously:
is another reference to the accident in Miss Rebecca West's little book on
James. Apparently he was called on as
a volunteer to help with a fire engine to put out a bad fire. There was an accident, in which he was
very severely scalded. (Spender, Stephen. The Destructive Element: A Study
of Modern Writers and Beliefs. 1935.
Folcroft Library Editions: 1977. p.36)
What is spurious is not that Rebecca West
references the incident, but that James was burned. In his 1996 'Slate' piece, Edel again doesn't mention West when
he could have, an omission resulting in a misstatement of fact:
"Novick's attempt to find love affairs in James' life reminds me of the
1920's, when there were no biographies of James".
fact, Rebecca West's Henry James was published in 1916 - just two
years after Notes on A Son and Brother - when West was twenty-three
years old. Her reference is the
earliest example that I've been able to find of an author mentioning the
episode, and speculating on its significance:
In 1861 the Civil War broke out; and had it not
been for an accident the whole character of Mr. James' genius would have been
altered. If he had seen America by
the light of bursting shells and flaming forest he might never have taken his
eyes off her again, he might have watched her fascinated through all the
changes of tone and organisation which began at the close of the war, he
might have been the Great American Novelist in subject as well as
origin. But it happened, in that soft
spring when he and every other young man of the North realised that there was
a crisis at hand in which their honour was concerned and they must answer
Lincoln's appeal for recruits, that he was one day called to help putting out
a fire. In working the fire-engine he
sustained an injury so serious that he could never hope to share the Northern
glory, that there were before him years of continuous pain and weakness, that
ultimately he formed a curious and on the whole mischievous conception of
himself. (West, Rebecca. Henry James. London, Nisbet & Co. LTD.: 1916.)
West's comments are interesting as much for what they say, as for what
they don't. She suggests that the
accident changed James, but not because it may have left him impotent or
castrated. She doesn't mention (as
far as I've read) the exact nature of the accident and unless she does it
means that Spender was sloppy for assuming that the accident James suffered
helping put out a fire involved his being burned. If West does say that fire was the culprit, than both she and I
are guilty of poor reportage, and Spender's statement is more excusable. It's also possible that West (as I
suspect) doesn't write that James was burned but someone in the twenty-one
years between when West and Spender wrote did make that assumption and that's
the story Spender heard. However,
considering that James clearly states that it was a fence issue and no
roasting was involved, it's fair to say that Spender made an avoidable
charge (and worse) was leveled against Van Wyck Brooks almost immediately after
The Pilgrimage of Henry James appeared in 1925. As Leon Edel writes:
Edna Kenton, a devoted Jamesian in Greenwich
Village, demonstrated in a biting review in The Bookman that Brooks used
important James quotations out of context. Years later, Brooks confessed to
having nightmares "in which Henry James turned great luminous menacing
eyes upon me."
In The Legacy of Van Wyck Brooks; A Study of
Maladies and Motives, William Wasserstrom quotes from an amusing letter
written by the then seventeen year old Brooks:
I don't know much about Henry James, except that
he's a brother of Prof. James, of Harvard, is an infernal snob, and does
know how to write English. His books
are very psychological, aren't they?
His brother is the greatest psychologist in the world. I think Henry James is the reprobate who
wrote Daisy Miller. Read that and you
won't think much of him. He lives in
Europe in a sort of Williams-Waldorf-Astor style.( Wasserstrom, William. The
Legacy of Van Wyck Brooks; A Study of Maladies and Motives. Carbondal and Edwardsville, Southern
Illionois University Press: 1971.p. 47)
own experience with The Pilgrimage of Henry James was rather
pleasant. Brooks' voice is excitable
and dramatic; he uses exclamation marks a lot, (which I have a soft spot for)
as when he writes:
Was he not, for comprehensible reasons, the prey
of that "fear of life" to which Flaubert also confessed himself a
victim? Undoubtedly; and to this may
be traced perhaps the deep longing for security, privacy, ceremony that was
to mark his later years. But to
return from the ultimate to the immediate, what a light this fact seems to
throw upon the great "renunciation" with which his career opened!
(Brooks, Van Wyck. The Pilgrimage of Henry James. New York, Dutton: 1925. p.31-32)
While I was generally charmed by Brooks' prose
style, I wondered where he got the chutzpah to write his introductory
note. I'm tempted to think I'm
misreading what he's saying, because what I think he's saying is so blatant
Readers who are familiar with Henry James will
observe that many phrases and even long passages from his writings have been
incorporated in the text of this book, usually without any indication of
their source. The author has resorted
to this expedient because he knows of no other means of conveying with strict
accuracy at moments what he conceives to have been James's thoughts and
feelings. (Ibid., p.v)
If we read the above without the phrase, "usually without any
indication of their source" it kind of makes sense: Brooks is telling us that in his book he
quotes James a lot, because he's found that it's a quick and accurate way of
communicating what James thinks. Fair
enough. But the inclusion of the
phrase makes it seem as if Brooks thinks that it is his not including
the source of his quotations which will make his account of James even more
precise. Is the "expedient"
quoting James, or quoting James without a source? It's confusing.
you'll remember, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to Brooks, asking, "Why
didn't you touch more on James' impotence (physical) and its influence?"
Here's all of that letter, written from Paris and dated June 13, 1925:
I read the James book, so did Zelda +
Ernest Hemingway + everyone I've been able to lend it to and I think it rises
above either Bunny's carping or Seldes tag on it. It is exquisitely done + entirely fascinating
One reason it is of
particular interest to us over here is obvious. In my own case I have no such delicate doubts - nor does anyone
need to have them now since the American scene has become so complicated +
ramified but the question of freshening material exists. I shall come back after one more novel.
Why didn't you touch
more on James impotence (physical) and its influence? I think if hadn't had [sic] at least one
poignant emotional love affair with an American girl on American soil he
might have lived there twice as long, tried twice as hard, had the picaresque
past of Huck Finn + yet never struck roots.
Novelists like he (him) + in a sense (to descend a good bit) me, have
to love as a main concern since our interest lies outside the economic
struggle of the life of violence, as conditioned to some extent by our lives
However this is just
shooting in the dark at a target on which you have expended you fine talent
in full daylight. It was a really
thrilling pleasure for a writer to read.
Thanking you for writing me about my book so kindly + for sending me
(Broccoli, Matthew J., and Margret M. Duggan
eds., with the assistance of Susan Walker. Correspondence of F. Scott
Fitzgerald. New York, Random
House: 1980. p. 170)
Fitzgerald's letter is interesting for many
reasons. First, there is the
reference to Hemingway, who was also living in France. Wasserstrom writes
that Brooks had "set out to examine the validity of James's assumption
that the artist cannot thrive in the American atmosphere." (Wasserstrom,
47) and this accounts for the "One reason it is of particular interest
to us over here". Fitzgerald comments on this subject, then moves on to
the impotence issue.
Fitzgerald, it seems a given that James was impotent. His interpretation of its possible effects
are illuminating in terms of how Fitzgerald views himself as an artist, but
seem naive with regards to James.
Unless we take the letter to have been written with tongue firmly in
cheek, it seems that Fitzgerald was unaware of James' homosexuality.
way to read Fitzgerald's letter is that he's being insincere. Maybe he didn't find the book
"exquisitely done" and "a really thrilling pleasure for a
writer to read" but wrote this to keep things friendly between he and
Brooks. Maybe Fitzgerald was just
being polite, perhaps even employing a subtle sarcasm; I prefer to read the
letter as being from the heart, but I'm obviously in no position to make any
sort of meaningful judgment.
was almost a year to the day after Fitzgerald wrote to Brooks, that Ernest
Hemingway wrote to Maxwell Perkins with regards to The Sun Also Rises:
As for the Henry James thing- I haven't the
second part of the Ms. Here - it is over at Scott's - so I can't recall the
wording. But I believe that it is a
reference to some accident that is generally known to have happened to Henry
James in his youth. To me Henry James
is as historical a name as Byron, Keats, or any other great writer about
whose life, personal and literary, books have been written. I do not believe that the reference is
sneering, or if it is, it is not the writer who is sneering as the writer
does not appear in this book. Henry
James is dead and left no descendants to hurt, nor any wife, and therefore I
feel he is as dead as will ever be. I
wish I had the ms. here to see exactly what it said. If Henry James never had an accident of
that sort I should think it would be libelous to say he had no matter how
long he were dead. But if he did I do
not see how it can affect him - now he is dead. As I recall Gorton and Barnes are talking humourously around
the subject of Barnes' mutilation and to them Henry James is not a man to be
insulted or protected from insult but simply an historical example. I remember there was something about an
airplane and a bicycle - but that had nothing to do with James and was simply
a non-sequitor. Scott said he saw
nothing off-color about it. (Baker, Carlos ed. Ernest Hemingway: Selected
Letters,1917-1961. New York,
Charles Schribner's Sons: 1981. p.208-9)
It's cute that in Fitzgerald's letter he mentions Hemingway, and in
Hemingway's he mentions, "Scott".
Their friendship has been examined in numerous books and in reading
these accounts it is always fun to imagine this wonderfully odd couple
traipsing around 1920's France. In Fitzgerald and Hemingway: A Dangerous
Friendship, Matthew J. Broccoli chronicles the history of the
relationship, asking such questions as: How did they affect one another as
people? To what degree did they influence each others writing? To what extent did the fact that they
didn't want to be influenced by each other affect their work? It should go without saying that I'm just
going to talk about the speculation that they were gay lovers.
Nancy Milford's biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, she writes on page 153:
On a boat to Europe Zelda had mentioned to Scott
that she thought a friend from the ballet was homosexual. Now, desperately uncertain of herself, she
accused Scott of a homosexual liaison with Ernest Hemingway. Scott, who had gone without Zelda to have
a drink one evening with Hemingway and his wife, had returned home
intoxicated and had fallen into a deep sleep. In his sleep he murmured, "no more baby," which was taken by Zelda as absolute proof of
her suspicions. (Milford, Nancy. Zelda: A Biography. New York, Harper & Row: 1970. p.153)
Milford also mentions the following letter Fitzgerald wrote to Perkins
about accusations made by the American writer Robert McAlmon:
By the way McAlmon is a bitter rat and I'm not
surprised at anything he does or says.
He's failed as a writer and tries to fortify himself by tying up to
the big boys like Joyce and Stein and despising everything else. Part of his quarrel with Ernest some years
ago was because he assured Ernest that I was a fairy - God knows he shows
more creative imagination in his malice than in his work. Next he told
Callaghan that Ernest was a fairy.
He's a pretty good person to avoid. (Turnbull, Andrew ed. and intro. The
Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
New York, Charles Scribner's Sons: 1963. p.216)
We sense, I think, in Fitzgerald's words, an overly defensive
posture. Scott Donaldson quotes
Fitzgerald as writing in his notebooks of Hemingway:
I really loved him, but of course it wore out
like a love affair. The fairies have
spoiled all that. (Donaldson, Scott. Fool
For Love. Compton: 1983. p. 75)
What are we to make Fitzgerald's words? And more, how does all of this relate to Nick Carraway's
sexuality? A clue can possibly be found in looking at the draft of Gatsby
which Fitzgerald sent to Perkins in 1924. In examining this version we find
that the end of Chapter II is nearly identical to that which was
published the next year:
...I was standing besides his bed and he was
sitting up between the sheets, still clad in his underwear, and
with a great portfolio in his hands. (Fitzgerald, F. Scott. Trimalchio: An Early Version of The
Great Gatsby. Ed. James L. W.
West III. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2000. p. 32.
The additional "and" seems unimportant, but the
"still" is interesting, suggesting different scenarios. Does it imply that McKee is soon to be
separated from his underwear? Perhaps it suggests that Nick had attempted to
dislodge McKee from the underwear, but had been unsuccessful. In this
reading, the "and" could be seen as emphasising Nick's frustration:
'Not only wasn't he naked, but he had this massive portfolio in his
hands.' On the other hand, we could
read Nick's words in as an effusive denial (much like Fitzgerald's) of any
homosexual shenanigans: 'Hey look, he
still had his on the underwear - nothing happened.' Or maybe Nick had
intended to access McKee's genitals, but had second thoughts before McKee was
denuded. - However we interpret what Nick and McKee are meant to have done
between the time McKee is described as underwear-clad and Nick's ending up in
Penn Station, it is clear that they did not make love within the
period marked by the ellipses, a possibility which does exist in Gatsby. Therefore, it is possible that
"still" was removed to allow for more gay sex.
It seems clear to me
that 1) F. Scott Fitzgerald was gay, but completely paranoid about people
finding this out 2) Nick Carraway is also gay, and so therefore 3) Fitzgerald
used Carraway's homosexuality – never explicitly stated – as a surrogate and
mask for his own sexuality, a sexuality he could never reveal, could in fact,
only obliquely hint at through the vessel of his fiction. Either that, or he was straight and really
Now, it was decade or
so earlier that a curious book, whose title page reads:
Boon, The Mind of the Race, The Wild Asses
of the Devil, and The Last Trump Being a First
Selection from the Literary Remains of George Boon, Appropriate to the Times
Prepared for publication by Reginald Bliss, with an Ambiguous Introduction
by H.G. Wells (Wells, H.G. Boon, The Mind of the Race, The Wild Asses of the Devil, and
The Last Trump. New York, George
H. Doran Company: Copyright 1915, Reginald Bliss.)
was published. Wells' biographers Norman and Jean
MacKenzie write of Boon:
The book is a rag-bag of pieces supposedly
written by the popular novelist George Boon who is forced to write successful
romances while he secretly yearns for literary success. Into these fragments H.G. inserted a
bitter satire on James, portraying him as a portentous mandarin who
pontificated on art and who denigrated those who wished to use literature as
a means of saving the world from ruin. (MacKenzie, Norman and Jean MacKenzie.
H.G. Wells: A Biography. Simon
& Schuster: 1973. p. 291)
I am including this passage from Boon both because it gives a
flavor or the chapter on James, and because of the sexually suggestive
He doesn't find things out. He doesn't even seem to want to find
things out. You can see that in him;
he is eager to accept things - elaborately.
You can see from his books that he accepts etiquettes, precedence,
associations, claims. That is his
peculiarity. He accepts very readily
and then - elaborates. He has, I am
convinced, one of the strongest, most abundant minds alive in the whole
world, and he has the smallest penetration.
Indeed, he has no penetration. (Boon. p. 104-105)
After James read what Wells had written he was understandably upset;
the two had been friends for years and it is my theory, based entirely on the
following letter, (written three years before Boon was published) that
James had a crush on Wells:
Meanwhile if I've been deprived of you on one
plane I've been living with you very hard on another; you may not have
forgotten that you kindly sent me Marriage [...] I have read you, as I
always read you, and as I read no one else, with a complete abdication of all
those "principles of criticism," canons of form, preconceptions of
felicity, references to the idea of method or the sacred laws of composition,
which I roam, which I totter, through the pages of others attended in some
dim degree by the fond yet feeble theory of, but which I shake off, as I
advance under your spell, with the most cynical inconsistency. For under your spell I do advance - save
when I pull myself up stock still in order not to break with so much as the
breath of appreciation; I live with you and in you and (almost cannibal-like)
on you, on you H.G.W. [...]I consume you crude and whole and to the
last morsel, cannibalistically, quite, as I say; licking the platter clean of
the last possibility of a savour and remain thus yours abjectly
[Edel, Leon ed. Henry James: Letters, Vol. IV. 1895-1916. Cambridge, Mass. The
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: 1984.p. 635-636]
Now, by an incredible coincidence, at the same time that Wells was
having his Boon induced-spat with James, he was also in the midst of
what was to be a ten-year affair with Henry James's biographer, Rebecca
West. The two met after West wrote a
not entirely favorable review of Wells' Marriage - the book James
praises so enthusiastically in the above letter. (MacKenzie 283-284) So:
Wells was forty-six years old and married when he wrote Marriage,
which was published in 1911. West (who was nineteen at the time) didn't like Marriage,
but Henry James did. By 1913 however,
it was West, not James, who was sleeping with H.G. Wells. In 1914 they had a son (Wells was still
married) and the next year Boon was published. 1916 saw the first
appearance of West's James-friendly Henry James as well as the last
appearance of Henry James, who died in February of that year.
To return to the fence incident
(and the possible testicle crushing it resulted in) when, we justly ask, did
this accident take place? In Edel
claims a victory in solving this mystery:
It is clear that Henry James's blurring of the
date of the hurt (the same dark hour" as the outbreak of the Civil War)
served to, minimize his failure during the first six months to spring to the
colors with other young men. To take
his timing literally would fix the hurt as occurring in April or perhaps May
of 1861. Had it occurred that spring,
however, it is doubtful whether he would have climbed mountains in New
Hampshire with T.S. Perry during July.
Fortunately it is no longer necessary to speculate, since Perry comes
to our assistance with specific dates.
In a letter to James's nephew and executor, written shortly after
publication of Notes of a Son and Brother, alluding directly to the
"obscure hurt" passage, Perry wrote that "the fire at West
Stables was in the night of Oct. 28, '61." (Edel, Leon. Henry James: The Untried Years: 1843-1870. Philadelphia,
New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1953.p. 176-177)
Edel goes on to give a description of the fire, based on newspaper
records and the "official report written by one of the firemen"
(Ibid.), which is great, if we concur on the date he fixes for the fire. Sheldon Novick doesn't, and in a note in
his book, he explains why:
Edel claimed that the strain occurred at a fire
in a stable in October 1861, which was reported in the local press. Edel has psychoanalytic reasons for linking
HJ's sense of injury to a fire very much like the one in which HJ Sr. lost
his leg; but the evidence makes the coincidence extremely unlikely. There is no evidence HJ was at the fire in
October, to begin with. HJ visited
his brother William in Cambridge three days later, without apparent
difficulty. William's letter home
describing the visit says nothing about Harry's supposed back injury. In a family that monitored their own and
each other's health as closely as the Jameses, it is not credible that Harry
could have visited William, shortly after injuring his back, without
provoking comment. (Novick,
Sheldon. Henry James: The Young Master. New York, Random House: 1996.p. 465)
Like the exact nature of the accident, it seems the date will be
forever shrouded in controversy. For
my part, I'd like to offer what I think is a comprehensive list of the
possibilities which exist with regard to the outcome of the accident and
James' sexuality. I'm not going to
comment on how each scenario might be seen to change how we "approach
James' work": if James was a gay man who died an impotent virgin, you
can read into that whatever you think is appropriate. Here's what I came up with:
Let's say James was heterosexual: during the accident he was either left
impotent, or he wasn't. If he was
impotent this explains the lack of relations with women. If he wasn't rendered impotent, we can
infer that either he just wasn't very lucky with the ladies, he did have sex
with women (and we just don't know about it) or he choose to live a chaste
life. Or maybe he was a straight man
who had sex (or didn't) with women, but also fooled around with a few guys.
Now, if James was gay, than this explains the dearth of female
companionship in his life. If he
wasn't impotent then he could have had sex with Oliver Wendell Holmes or any
other guys, and maybe a few gals. He
could have also been physically able to engage in the sex act, but unwilling
to do so, for whatever reason; in this instance, he would have died a gay, potent,
virgin. Or maybe he was a gay man who
only experimented sexually with women.
Or maybe he was impotent but was still coupled with men (and women),
giving oral pleasure, and/or taking it.
This last conjecture is as far as I know, completely original to the
canon of criticism on Henry James.
Here's another theory I've been working on: the earliest dated
reference I've seen of the impotence theory comes from Fitzgerald's letter to
Van Wyck Brooks. What if the whole
story was cooked up by Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway? It wouldn't have had to have been an
intentionally deceitful thing. Maybe
they were in bed together and Scott couldn't perform. This would have been caused by his
internal turmoil about acting on his homosexual desires.
Ernest would say, "you really are like Henry James."
"I didn't know
James was a fairy?"
"He wasn't. But didn't you ever hear about that
accident he had? I think was a bicycle or something. . ."
As you know, libraries
are hotbeds of sexual tension. I would
sit with my books and look at the cuties and sometimes I thought they were
smiling back at me. One time this old
geezer sat down across from me. I
looked his way and he smiled. Then he
put on his shades. Then he tilted his
head down so I could see his eyes and he smiled again. I don't know if he was making a pass but
it made me realize that maybe the girls I was looking at thought I was
got up, in part to escape his penetrating gaze, and headed to the
letters/biographies section. I was
going to look up some of Hemingway's and Fitzgerald's letters - by a lovely
coincidence these books are ordered back to back - but when I got there, the
books were gone! In all the time I'd
been working, none of the books I'd wanted had been missing!
It occurred to me that
perhaps not all of the library's other patrons were researching the genitals
of famous authors. But if that was
the case then what on earth were they doing?
Why else would you need these books? I pondered this, but no answers
were forthcoming and a thought hit me:
A day or two earlier I had emailed Ames with information on the
Hemingway connection; what if Ames was in the library, checking my handiwork?
was buzzed and I did a quick 360, checking out the immediate area. I pictured Ames keeping an eye on the
shelf where the precious volumes were housed, so that if I came along, he'd
know. I didn't know if he'd bolt when
he saw me, or if he'd say hello. I
walked briskly around the third floor, then raced up the stairs to the fifth
floor, though I knew that if Ames had removed the books from the third floor,
he would be in flagrant violation of library regulations. My plan was to make a pass on each floor
and then go to the one below. Unless
Ames was in the toilet I would spot him; if it wasn't him with the books I
would get a look at whoever it was, and through that undoubtedly work out
fifth floor proved fruitless, though twice I thought I spotted him - but in
both instances it turned out to be Asian men. (Ames is white.) I recognized a mustachioed Russian library
worker who had been eager to assist me at an earlier visit, but I didn't
think this was a case where he could help.
I walked around the fourth and then the third floor again, I wondered if I
would even recognize Ames if I saw him.
All I had to go on were the pictures on the back of his books. What if he looked different in real life? It occurred to me that that a metaphor for
second floor was a bust too; this time the red herring was a black man
reading the newspaper. I knew the
first floor would be fruitless as there are no desks and few places to sit;
Ames would have only used this area for his study if he was going out of his
way to avoid being detected by me!
whole hunt had me high; the library didn't close for another few hours and I
considered sticking around and waiting for Ames (or whoever it was) to return
the books, but I knew that would mean crossing some line of weirdness I
wasn't ready for. Ames didn't take
out the dumb books. What would he
waste his time with that for? He had
me to provide him with all the stupid testicle news he could possibly hope
I left the library
without seeing Ames and pretty sure he hadn't been there. But heading home it occurred to me that I
should have left some note in the spot where the books go, just in case. That would have been the thing to do, what
they would have done in a movie. In
the movie version I would have left a note and it would have said,
"Enjoy the books, MR. J.AMES?"
Baker, Carlos ed. Ernest Hemingway: Selected
Letters,1917-1961. New York,
Charles Scribner's Sons: 1981.
Broccoli, Matthew J., and Margret M. Duggan eds.,
with the assistance of Susan Walker. Correspondence of F. Scott
Fitzgerald. New York, Random
Broccoli, Mathew J. Fitzgerald and Hemingway: A Dangerous Friendship. New
York, Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc.: 1974.
Brooks, Van Wyck. The Pilgrimage of Henry
James. New York, Dutton: 1925.
Donaldson, Scott. Fool For Love. New York, Congdon & Weed: Distributed
by St. Martin's Press: 1983.
Edel, Leon. Henry James: The Untried Years:
1843-1870. Philadelphia, New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1953.
Edel, Leon ed. Henry James: Letters, Vol.
IV. 1895-1916. Cambridge, Mass.,
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: 1984.
Edel, Leon and Gordon Ray ed. and intro. Henry
James and H.G. Wells: A Record of Their Friendship, and Their Debate on the
Art of Fiction and Their Quarrel. Urbana, University of Illinois Press:
1958. [I never looked at this, but I suspect that if you are interested in
the Wells/James relationship, it would be a good place to start.]
Edel, Leon – 'Oh Henry!What Henry James
didn't do with Oliver Wendell Holmes (or anyone else).'
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby.
New York, Charles Scribner's Sons: 1925.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. Trimalchio: An Early Version of The Great Gatsby. Ed. James L. W. West III. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2000. [This book provided the information that Fitzgerald sent a draft of Gatsby
to Perkins in 1924.]
Habegger, Alfred. Henry James and the
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 1989.
Notes Of A Son and Brother.
New York, Charles Scribner's Sons: 1914.
Henry James: The Young
Master. New York, Random House:
Novick, Sheldon – 'Henry James' Love Life'
MacKenzie, Norman and Jean MacKenzie. H.G.
Wells: A Biography. New York,
Simon & Schuster: 1973.
Zelda: A Biography. New
York, Harper & Row: 1970.
Ray, Gordon N.
H.G. Wells & Rebecca West. New Haven, Yale University
Scott, Bonnie K. ed., an. and intro. Selected
Letters of Rebecca West. New
Haven and London, University Press: 2000. [This excellent book provided many
of the West related dates used. It
has several fascinating letters from West to Wells and I recommend it.]
Spender, Stephen. The Destructive Element: A
Study of Modern Writers and Beliefs. 1935. Folcroft Library Editions:
Turnbull, Andrew ed. and into. The Letters of
F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York,
Charles Scribner's Sons: 1963.
Wasserstrom, William. The Legacy of Van Wyck
Brooks; A Study of Maladies and Motives.
Carbondal and Edwardsville, Southern Illionois University Press: 1971.
Boon, The Mind of the Race, The Wild Asses of the Devil, and The Last
Trump. New York, George H.
Doran Company: Copyright 1915, Reginald Bliss.
Henry James. London,
Nisbet & Co. LTD.: 1916.
Jonathan Ames is the author of I Pass Like Night,
The Extra Man, What's Not To Love?, and My Less Than Secret Life. His new
novel, Wake Up, Sir!, will be published by Scribner in 2004. This piece originally appeared on his website.
Michael Wood was born in New York City, where he lives
now. He writes, "Alfred Habegger
and Sheldon Novick were both kind enough to reply to my letters, for which I
am grateful. If you've heard any
strange rumors about writers but don't know what the whole story is, you can
write me at Woodyswoody@hotmail.com
and I will try to find out what happened.
Also, I'm sorry for all the stupid mistakes I no-doubt
made." This Michael Wood should
not be confused with the Michael Wood who is the chair of the English
Department at Princeton University.