As if

I read Daisy Miller last week. It's solid, though it doesn't deserve to be exponentially more famous than other short fiction by Henry James. It didn't seem to me artistically superior to "Diary of a Man of Fifty," for example, which handles more or less the same material: a man fussier than he is kind, who errs on the side of fussiness when challenged by the moral ambiguity of sexuality as it is really lived. The modern reader is tempted to wonder, with these and many other James stories, whether the fussy hero is gay, because the baffling sexuality happens to be a woman's, and the hero becomes dodgy about it in a way that reads to a modern eye as closeted (but see The Spoils of Poynton, where the same shoe is on the other gender's foot). Trying to address this issue in his introduction to the Penguin paperback, the novelist David Lodge writes,

By the mid-1870s, not long before he wrote 'Daisy Miller,' he had decided that he would not marry. How far this decision was due to his determination to dedicate himself fully to his art, and how far to a growing awareness of his own ambiguous sexual nature, is hard to say. Edel, and the majority of his other biographers, believe that he never had a physical relationship with anyone of either sex, but in the last analysis they must admit that it is impossible to be certain on such matters and leave further speculation to novelists. What is clear is that he was not a closet gay writer, like, say, E. M. Forster, who had no real interest in heterosexual love and was obliged to fake the representation of it in his fiction. The man who wrote, 'he had never yet enjoyed the sensation of guiding through the summer starlight a skiff freighted with a fresh and beautiful young girl' was not a stranger to 'straight' romantic attraction. Henry James wrote some of the greatest novels in modern literature about love, and the betrayal of love, between men and women, and no one has written better about marriage this side of the bedroom door.

I haven't looked into the question of James's personal sexual history, but it seems worth pointing out that among Lodge's assumptions there is a certain amount of poisonous nonsense. Straight writers rarely write about gays in love, and are therefore by and large free of having to worry about any accusation that they have "no real interest in [homosexual] love and [are] obliged to fake the representation of it." But if they did write about gay love, and they succeeded, would critics accordingly decide that they must be gay? That would be, um, a little crude, wouldn't it? (That said, I have a friend who was so smitten with Denise of The Corrections that she declared herself in love with the lesbian trapped inside Jonathan Franzen. But she knew she was joking. I think.) Straight writers do, however, often write about characters in love who are not of their gender. When they succeed, do critics declare that they must really be transgender? Imagination, when fully indulged, takes the imaginer beyond the confines of his social identity. Faking representation is what novelists do. If a critic determines that E. M. Forster's portraits of heterosexual love are stiff, and Henry James's are rich, then he has discovered something about their relative skill as novelists. He hasn't learned anything about their sexual orientations.

Moreover, the sentence quoted by Lodge hardly convinces me that James was a he-man woman-lover. Try the simple experiment of substitution: "He had never yet enjoyed the sensation of guiding through the summer starlight a skiff freighted with a fresh and beautiful young man." I for one am reminded of certain passages in my distinctly non-heterosexual youth.

Finally, the warfare here is asymmetrical. Generally speaking, a straight man can grow up happy and safe while in complete ignorance of what gays feel when they fall in love. For as much of his development as he is obliged to remain closeted, however, a gay man has no parallel luxury. He makes a close study of what his straight peers are doing and saying about love, so as to be able to pull off a reasonable impersonation. After coming out, a gay man may no longer have to masquerade, but he nonetheless belongs to a minority, and members of a minority are always obliged, as a matter of survival, to know the shibboleths and customs of the majority, and to have a decent working model of the majoritarian psychology so as to manage interactions with them.