When he died in February 1916 Henry James left two unfinished novels—both, as it happens, about bequests. In The Sense of the Past a young American inherits an old London townhouse in which he finds himself taken back to the 1820s; it was a promising ghost-story donnée, and James worked at it on and off between 1900 and the time of his final illness, but without making anything very satisfactory out of it. In The Ivory Tower it is money that is left, by two old American business rivals: $20 million by Abel Gaw to his daughter Rosanna; a smaller but still enormous sum by Frank Betterman to his unworldly nephew, the book’s protagonist, Graham Fielder.
It is the first novel James had set in his native America since The Bostonians in 1886, and the third of it that he completed, set in Newport, Rhode Island, is shot through with the complex feelings of nostalgia and alienation arising from his return visits to the States in 1904–1905 and 1910–1911. When war broke out in August 1914, James, in full flow on the novel, found himself unable to continue with so contemporary a subject, and sought refuge instead in the historical fantasy of The Sense of the Past. The Ivory Tower was, in an unusual but significant sense, a casualty of the war. It was published, simultaneously with The Sense of the Past, in 1917. It is a vibrant fragment, if “fragment” does not suggest too much a placeless broken thing: these twelve chapters are the confident, solid, and vigorous beginnings of what would have been a major novel.
The loss of it seems the greater in the context of James’s last working decade. Between The Golden Bowl in 1904 and 1914 he published ten short stories, several of them also drawing on his late visits to the US, put together several volumes of essays, and undertook the immense labor of revising his works for the great New York Edition of 1907–1909. But the only new novel of the period was The Outcry (1911), the hasty “novelization” of a topical play (and a surprise best seller). An inquiry from Harper’s in 1909 about a possible serial fiction had triggered his first exploration of the Ivory Tower subject, but events, most traumatically the death of his brother William in August 1910, supervened; after that he engaged in the publication of William’s letters—a project which evolved into the magnificent two-volume memoir of his own childhood and youth, A Small Boy and Others (1913) and Notes of a Son and Brother (1914). He clearly doubted he had the health or mental energy to produce another big novel. In a letter to Edith Wharton of November 1911 he wrote:
You speak at your ease, chère Madame, of the interminable & formidable job of my producing à mon âge another Golden Bowl—the most arduous & thankless task I ever set myself…meanwhile, I blush to say, the Outcry …