William James's sexuality revealed in his New York stories, writer claims
How he seemed to hate New York. A "terrible town," Henry James called it in "The American Scene." It was 1904 and James had been away from New York, the city of his birth, for 20 years. "A vast crude democracy of trade," he wrote, a "heaped industrial battlefield."
James's biographer, Leon Edel, explained his vituperativeness toward New York - so out of character for this master of evasion and indirection - as a reflection of James's dismay at the vast changes he found in the Edenic city of his childhood. But for Colm Toibin, author of "The Master," the acclaimed biographical novel about James published last year, James's anger at the city has another meaning. It reflects his sexual ambivalence, and perhaps offers a clue to the nature of "the obscure hurt" that James claimed he suffered in his youth, which kept him out of the Civil War, but may also have paralyzed him emotionally.
The New York of his boyhood was, James wrote, "an earlier, quieter world, a New York of better manners and better morals and homelier beliefs," a place where he and his brother William could wander free "to stretch our legs and fill our lungs without prejudice."
But then in 1855, when Henry was 12, his father uprooted the family, first to Switzerland, then to Paris, London, Newport, then back again to Europe. For Henry it was a time of dismal upheaval. In a telephone interview from Dublin, Mr. Toibin called it "a very serious psychological break."
Mr. Toibin suggested that the uprooting occurred in a crucial year when James was going through puberty. "Before the move, there was the uncomplicated business of being a child," he said.
Mr. Toibin does not define James as homosexual. His sexuality was complex. "We can say with certainty he was not heterosexual," he said. But the uprooting "caused an area of him to freeze."
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