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Sheldon M. Novick;

11:00 PM, Jan 12, 1997 • By DONALD LYONS
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Henry James spent his life avoiding sex and contriving in his fictions strategies of reluctance and shyness in its regard. But the age of Daisy Miller has yielded to that of Diana Spencer, and the Jamesian repressed has returned with a vengeance. A recent biography of James, Henry James: The Young Master by Sheldon M. Novick, presents itself as a chronicle of the writer's erotic life, and a new film of his great 1881 novel, The Portrait of a Lady, by filmmaker Jane Campion thrusts into visibility the story's sexual subtext.

Novick, the author of a biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes, is clear enough in his preface about what he is up to: He is going to imagine James's emotional life. "I have taken it for granted that Henry James underwent the ordinary experiences of life: that he separated himself from his enveloping family, that he fell in love with wrong people, that his first sexual encounters were intense but not entirely happy." And these sexual encounters were with "young men. . . . James's sexual orientation, as we now say, has been an open secret for a hundred years." Novick also frankly announces his intention to strip-mine the novels for sexual/emotional autobiography: "When James described some experience with apparent firsthand knowledge, when he evoked with stunning sensuality the experience of being kissed by a man or the memory of a successful seduction, his raw materials -- as he always insisted [did he?] -- most likely were his own memories." Fair warning.

Biography reflects the biographer's culture as much as that of its subject, and there is a feeling abroad that the time may be right for a new consideration of James's life. Leon Edel's five-volume life, which appeared from 1953 to 1972, was an attempt -- noble, solemn, stiff, ponderous -- to understand James according to the lights of a dogmatic Freudianism. If too eager to read this or that in the fiction as a function of James's unconscious (visible to Edel), the work was a great accomplishment and deserves more than Novick's sneers about homophobia and "giggling" (if anything, it was Edel's book that made clear the depth of James's later attachments to younger men). The 1990s being what they are, it was inevitable that we should see a biography fixated on James the gay. But the bulldozing crudeness and clumsiness of Novick's enterprise are staggering nevertheless. He recently told the New York Times, "Henry James writes primarily about, and for, women and gay men, which means he wrote about the majority." If Edel spoke from the Eisenhower-Stevenson age, this vision of novel-writing as canny, Dick Morris-like coalition building marks out Novick as the Clinton of James biographers.

James's early life was wonderfully interesting. He was born in New York in 1843 to an eccentric and nomadic rich family that roamed about Europe before it settled in Newport. His odd father scribbled articles and gave public lectures about a home-brewed religion that combined the crackpot utopianisms of Fourier and Swedenborg. Henry spent the Civil War years in Cambridge, Mass. , at first as a student at Harvard Law School and then as a budding writer for journals in Boston and New York. He spent the rest of his twenties and his thirties learning to know and love three of Europe's sweetest cities: Rome, Paris, and London. He got to know everyone there, everyone in the creative line anyway, and not just Americans. And he read everything. With rigorous industry, he began to produce what is still arguably the richest oeuvre achieved by any American writer

Novick tells this story -- and much more of his own flamboyant invention -- in the excited key of a Harlequin romance or an old twilight-love-that-dare- not-speak-its-name paperback. At 18, James was reading Balzac; in Novickese, this becomes: "Alone in his room, Harry wandered in Balzac's landscape. He observed the pure strong force of which marital love and the most dissolute and abandoned sexual passion were only different aspects. . . Most fascinating of the men and women of Balzac's Paris was the squat, powerful, perversely attractive Vautrin: lover of boys, seducer, . . ."

Dissolve to three years later, to 1865: "In that epochal spring in a rooming house in Cambridge and in his own shuttered bedroom in Ashburton Place, Harry performed his first acts of love." Sex was just what the doctor ordered to juice up Harry's writing: "The element that had been missing from his work was the strong force that binds people together, that confers on the imagination the power to give meaning to experience." So much for the old notion of sublimation; the new People-style bio insists that the pen must be lubricated by sex. And Harry wrote a lot. QED.