Tremendous Intimacy

The Gay Love Letters of Henry James to Hendrik Andersen

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.


The inner life of Henry James (1843–1916) is as difficult to penetrate as the secret history of the characters in his convoluted novels. To be certain about his homosexuality is to be certain about the existence of the ghost Peter Quint in The Turn of the Screw. The full truth probably matches the admission of the narrator of The Sacred Fount: "It would have been almost as embarrassing to have had to tell them how little experience I had had in fact as to have had to tell them how much I had had in fancy." James's letters to Hugh Walpole typically begin "dearest, dearest, darlingest Hugh," but when the young novelist offered the Master his body, James is said to have recoiled with "I can't, I can't, I can't." But later in life he probably became less hesitant, and biographers suggest that he may have had a sexual affair with the bisexual William Morton Fullerton, to whom he wrote in September 1900 "You are dazzling, my dear Fullerton; you are beautiful; you are more than tactful, you are tenderly, magically tactile." James tried to ensure that his biographers would have only an inscrutable mystery to deal with. In 1910 he was one of two people allowed, by the widow of Byron's grandson, to examine the Byron papers so as to corroborate the accusation of incest against the poet. Several days after finishing this task and learning its salutary lesson, James destroyed his own archive of forty years of letters, manuscripts and notebooks. He continued regularly with such bonfires until his death, and told his executor "My sole wish is to frustrate as utterly as possible the post-mortem exploiter . . . [and] to declare my utter and absolute abhorrence of any attempted biography or the giving to the world . . . of any part or parts of my private correspondence." But of course he could destroy only the letters he received, and many people kept the letters he sent them (some 7,000 letters so far!).

One of these recipients was the young sculptor Hendrik Christian Andersen (1872–1940), remotely related to Hans Christian Andersen (elsewhere represented in this collection), who emigrated with his family from Norway and grew up in Newport, Rhode Island. James met him in Rome in 1899, where he had established his studio, and purchased his bust of the young Conte Alberto Bevilacqua, which he placed upon his chimney-piece in the dining room of his home in Rye, Sussex. The selections that follow come from the beginning of their relationship, but its intensity continued unabated for many years. It was undoubtedly a tactile relationship: "Every word of you is as soothing as a caress of your hand, and the sense of the whole as sweet to me as being able to lay my own upon you" (August 10, 1904). James and "Carrissimo Enrico Mio" visited Newport together in 1905, and later they were briefly together both in Rye and Rome. In 1906 James had misgivings about a vast monument full of naked bodies on which Andersen was working, of which he sent James photographs, unable to see "where this colossal multiplication of divinely naked and intimately associated gentlemen and ladies, flaunting their bellies and bottoms and their other private affairs, in the face of day, is going, on any American possibility, to land you." Andersen's women looked like his men, lacking only the distinguishing particular, as James noted. In the 1910s James became embarrassed by his friend's pursuit of immensity and his megalomaniac plans for a World City peopled by his colossal nude statues and fountains. Andersen had succumbed aesthetically to the rise of Italian fascism, completely antithetical to James's love of human scale and individualism, and their correspondence ceased in 1913. Andersen's letters do not survive, and there is little hard evidence to support Leon Edel's view that Andersen was an opportunist interested solely in how James could advance his career. Andersen later wanted to publish James's letters to him as a testimonial of their friendship, but James's nephew refused permission during his lifetime. Hendrik was devastated by the early death of his older brother Andreas, who was probably his lover; Andreas has painted a languidly post-coital homoerotic self-portrait, with Hendrik lying naked in bed with a sheet pushed down below his waist and bulging above his genitals, one arm behind his head, the other stretched out to pet a cat, while Andreas sits naked on the edge of the bed, drawing on a pair of socks.


HENRY JAMES TO HENDRIK C. ANDERSEN

Lamb House, Rye
July 27th 1899

My dear Boy!
          I am very glad to hear from you of the safe arrival of my missive and of the good news of your escape from Rome being well in sight. I think of you with the liveliest sympathy and I have, even, when I do so, almost a bad conscience about my own happy exemptions (though it can roast a little here too); my little green garden where shade and breeze and grass keep their freshness and where a particular chair awaits you under a certain wide-spreading old mulberry-tree. I shall make you very welcome here when your right day comes. May nothing occur to delay or otherwise damage it. Only let me know as soon as you can before you do approach that I may advise you properly about your best train from London, etc. And don't expect to find me "lovely" or anything but very homely and humble. My little old house is in a small – a very small – country-town and is on a very limited scale indeed. But it serves my turn and will serve yours. I've struck up a tremendous intimacy with dear little Conte Alberto, and we literally can't live without each other. He is the first object my eyes greet in the morning, and the last at night. But I'm afraid I said some thing (accidentally) that misguided you in leading you to suppose I have written in a journal about him. I haven't. What I meant was that sooner or later a great many persons will see, and be struck with him, here. Pazienza – and for God's sake keep yourself well. Good-bye à bientôt. If you see the Elliotts [Maude and John Elliott, the sculptor at whose studio in Rome James met Andersen] please tell them I have a very affectionate memory of them and wrote to them in fact after the vile earth-shock. As you don't mention that I gather it didn't shatter you, nor anything that is yours. Bravo for all the big things you feel stirring within you.
          Yours very heartily
                    Henry James

Lamb House, Rye, Sussex
September 7th 1899

My dearest little Hans: without prejudice to your magnificent stature! Your note of this morning is exactly what I had been hoping for, and it gives me the liveliest pleasure. I hereby "ask" you, with all my heart. Do, unfailingly and delightfully, come back next summer and let me put you up for as long as you can possibly stay. There, mind you – it's an engagement. I was absurdly sorry to lose you when, that afternoon of last month, we walked sadly to the innocent and kindly little station together and our common fate growled out the harsh false note of whirling you, untimely away. Since then I have missed you out of all proportion to the three meagre little days (for it seems strange they were only that) that we had together. I have never (and I've done it three or four times) passed the little corner where we came up Udimore hill (from Winchelsea) in the eventide on our bicycles, without thinking ever so tenderly of our charming spin homeward in the twilight and feeling again the strange perversity it made of that sort of thing being so soon over. Never mind – we shall have more, lots more, of that sort of thing! If things go well with me I'm by no means without hope of having been able, meanwhile, to take the studio [a studio in Watchbell street] so in hand that I shall be ready to put you into it comfortably for a little artistic habitation. Rye, alas, is not sculpturesque, nor of a sculpturesque inspiration – but what's good for the man is, in the long run, good for the artist – and we shall be good for each other; and the studio good for both of us. May the terrific U.S.A. be meanwhile not a brute to you. I feel in you a confidence, dear Boy – which to show is a joy to me. My hopes and desires and sympathies right heartily and most firmly, go with you. So keep up your heart, and tell me, as it shapes itself, your (inevitably, I imagine, more or less weird) American story. May, at any rate, tutta quella gente be good to you.
          Yours, my dear Hans, right constantly
                    Henry James

Lamb House, Rye
4 May 1901

My dearest Boy Hendrik.
          What an arch-Brute you must, for a long time past, have thought me! But I am not really half the monster I appear. Let me at least attenuate my ugly failure to thank you for certain valued and most interesting photographs. I spent the whole blessed winter &I#150; December to April –l; in London (save a week at Christmas), and returned here to take up my abode again but three or four weeks ago. It was only then that I found, amid a pile of postal matter unforwarded (as my servants, when I am away, have instructions only to forward letters), your tight little roll of views of your Lincoln. It had lain on my hall-table ever since it arrived (though I don't quite know when that had been); and my first impulse was [to] sit down and "acknowledge" it without a day's delay. Unfortunately – with arrears here, of many sorts, to be attended to after a long absence, the day's delay perversely imposed itself – and on the morrow my brother and his wife, whom you saw in Rome, arrived for a long stay, with their daughter in addition. They are with me still, and their presence accounts for many neglects – as each day, after work and immediate letters etc. – I have to give them much of my time. But here, my dear boy, I am at last, and I hold out to you, in remorse, remedy, regret, a pair of tightly-grasping, closely-drawing hands. . . . [The photographs] show me how big a stride with it you have made in this short time and how stoutly you must have sweated over it; but I won't conceal from you that there are things about it that worry me a little. . . . A seated Lincoln in itself shocks me a little – he was for us all, then, standing up very tall: though I perfectly recognise that that was a condition you may have had, absolutely, to accept. . . . It's in general a softer, smaller giant than we used to see – to see represented and to hear described. I do think he wants facially more light-and-shade, and more breaking-up, under his accursed clothing, more bone, more mass. . . . But forgive this groping criticism; far from your thing itself, I worry and fidget for the love of your glory and your gain; and I send you my blessing on your stiff problem and your, I am sure, whatever mistake one may make about it, far from superficial solution. – I hope you have had a winter void of any such botherations as to poison (in any degree) your work or trouble your brave serenity or disturb your youthful personal bloom; a winter of health, in short, and confidence and comfort. It has been a joy to me to be with any one who had lately seen you – and I wish that, without more delay, I could do the sweet same! There is much I want to say to you – but it's half past midnight, and I wax long-winded. So I bid you good night with my affectionate blessing. I count on seeing you here this summer. Give me some fresh assurance of the prospect. I have had a charming letter from Mrs Elliott, very happy over her Jack's finally-placed Boston show. Meno male!
          Yours, my dear Hans, always and ever
                    Henry James

Lamb House, Rye
September 13th 1901

Dear, dear Hendrik!
          Yes, your letter has been a joy, as I wired you this noon; I had rather dolefully begun to give you up, and I am now only sorry so many days must elapse before I see you. Don't, dearest boy, for heaven's sake, make them any more numerous than you need. Subject to that caution, I bow to your necessities, and can easily see that, for a week in London, you must have much to do. But make it, oh, make it, your advent, not a day later than Saturday 21st, will you not? I count on you intensely and immensely for that afternoon, when the 4.28 from Charing Cross, thoroughly handy for you, will (changing at Ashford) bring you here by 6.40, and I shall, at the station take very personal possession of you. . . . I am alone now – have been so this fortnight, and hope pretty confidently to be so while you are with me. You shall therefore have the best berth – such as that is – in the house: trust me for it. Put through your London jobs and mind your London ways: write me once more before you come, and come the first moment you can; and above all think of me as impatiently and tenderly yours
          Henry James

105 Pall Mall S.W.
February 9th 1902

My dear, dear, dearest Hendrik.
          Your news [of the death of your brother Andreas] fills me with horror and pity, and how can I express the tenderness with which it makes me think of you and the aching wish to be near you and put my arms round you? My heart fairly bleeds and breaks at the vision of you alone, in your wicked and indifferent old far-off Rome, with the haunting, blighting, unbearable sorrow. The sense that I can't help you, see you, talk to you, touch you, hold you close and long, or do anything to make you rest on me, and feel my participation – this torments me, dearest boy, makes me ache for you, and for myself; makes me gnash my teeth and groan at the bitterness of things. I can only take refuge in hoping you are not utterly alone, that some human tenderness of some sort, some kindly voice and hand are near you that may make a little the difference. What a dismal winter you must have had, with this staggering blow at the climax! I don't of course know what fragment of friendship there may be to draw near to you, and in my uncertainty my image of you is of the darkest, and my pity, as I say, feels so helpless. I wish I could go to Rome and put my hands on you (oh, how lovingly I should lay them!) but that alas, is odiously impossible. (Not, moreover, that apart from you, I should so much as like to be there now.) I find myself thrown back on anxiously and doubtless vainly, wondering if there may not, after a while, [be] some possibility of your coming to England, of the current of your trouble inevitably carrying you here – so that I might take consoling, soothing, infinitely close and tender and affectionately-healing possession of you. This is the one thought that relieves me about you a little – and I wish you might fix your eyes on it for the idea, just of the possibility. I am in town for a few weeks but I return to Rye April 1st, and sooner or later to have you there and do for you, to put my arm round you and make you lean on me as on a brother and a lover, and keep you on and on, slowly comforted or at least relieved of the first bitterness of pain – this I try to imagine as thinkable, attainable, not wholly out of the question. There I am, at any rate, and there is my house and my garden and my table and my studio – such as it is! – and your room, and your welcome, and your place everywhere – and I press them upon you, oh so earnestly, dearest boy, if isolation and grief and the worries you are overdone with become intolerable to you. There they are, I say – to fall upon, to rest upon, to find whatever possible shade of oblivion in. I will nurse you through your dark passage. I wish I could do something more – something straighter and nearer and more immediate but such as it is please let it sink into you. Let all my tenderness, dearest boy, do that. . . .

Lamb House, Rye
February 28th 1902

Dearest, dearest Boy, more tenderly embraced than I can say! – How woefully you must have wondered at my apparently horrid and heartless silence since your last so beautiful, noble, exquisite letter! But, dearest Boy, I've been dismally ill – as I was even when I wrote to you from town; and it's only within a day or two that free utterance has – to this poor extent – become possible to me. Don't waste any pity, any words, on me now, for it's, at last, blissfully over, I'm convalescent, on firm grounds, safe, gaining daily . . . . So I've pulled through – and am out – and surprisingly soon – of a very deep dark hole. In my deep hole, how I thought yearningly, helplessly, dearest Boy, of you as your last letter gives you to me and as I take you, to my heart. . . . And now I am tired and spent. I only, for goodnight, for five minutes, take you to my heart. And I'm better, better, better, dearest Boy; don't think of my having been ill. Think only of my love and that I am yours always and ever
          Henry James


SOURCE: Reprinted by permission of the publishers from The Letters of Henry James edited by Leon Edel, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright 1974, 1975, 1980, 1984, 1987, Leon Edel, Editorial; Copyright 1974, 1975, 1980, 1984, 1987, Alexander R. James, James copyright material.


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