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On ‘The Ivory Tower’

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 is on its way to a fifth Edition (in these few weeks) whereas it has taken the poor old G.B. 8 or 9 years to get even into a third. And I shld. have to go back & live for 2 continuous years at Lamb House to write it (living on dried herbs & cold water—for “staying power”—meanwhile); & that would be very bad for me, wd. probably indeed put an end to me altogether.

Wharton, very rich and hugely more successful as a novelist, was concerned to help James financially, while avoiding his natural touchiness at the idea of being helped. She had recently joined with other writers to propose him for the 1911 Nobel Prize (awarded in the event to the Belgian Symbolist playwright Maurice Maeterlinck). Then, in the autumn of 1912, she asked Scribner’s to divert a sum of $8,000 from her own royalties as an advance to James for the “important American novel” she knew him to be contemplating—her own role in this to be kept secret from him. It was the largest advance James had ever been offered, and its acceptance led in due course to his starting The Ivory Tower. He contracted with Scribner’s for a book of about 150,000 words, and not less than 100,000. On the basis of the scale of the completed books, and allowing for James’s almost invariable habit of spreading and deepening beyond his planned limits as he worked, it would have ended up at about 200,000 words.

Wharton’s munificent $8,000 shrinks to invisibility beside Abel Gaw’s $20 million, which is intended by James, not normally one for mentioning figures, as an almost inconceivable sum, a grim “sublimity of arithmetic.” The Ivory Tower was to be in part a treatment of the theme of the American heiress, explored in a European setting in two of his greatest masterpieces, The Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of the Dove, but now brought home and brought up to date. It was to reflect the shock of “the swarming new and more or less aggressive, in fact quite assaulting phenomena” of the New York money world, and James’s conviction, no less powerful for being vaguely expressed, of “the black and merciless things that are behind the great possessions.” Dickensian hints at the inhuman mysteries of business and fairy-tale hints of gift and curse would combine in the crisis of Rosanna, who would be brought to wonder what splendid “Rockefeller” munificence of her own could be possible with resources “so dishonoured and stained and blackened at their very roots, that it seems to her that they carry their curse with them.”

That crisis is different in kind from the one that faces another heiress, Catherine Sloper in Washington Square, but that big gauche girl in James’s earlier American novel seems to stand behind the “truly massive,” “plain dull shy,” “almost ridiculous” Rosanna Gaw, who finds herself “in the dreadful position—and more than ever of course now—of not being able to believe she can be loved for herself.” She has already rejected a friendly but calculating proposal from Horton Vint, the “dazzling” but impoverished charmer, whom we see in the finished chapters exploring the new opportunity of swindling the lesser inheritor, his trusting friend Graham Fielder, out of the fortune left him by Frank Betterman. Vint’s lover, Cissy Foy, rather like Charlotte Stant in The Golden Bowl, is to be his collaborator in a plan whose exact workings we will never know. It seems clear, though, that for both Rosanna and Graham some typically Jamesian renunciation lies in store. Washington Square, set in the New York of James’s boyhood, is remembered in the mordant comedy of this last novel, set in the Newport of his old age.

We take away, inevitably, an imperfect sense of the planned whole from its early Newport section: the novel was to have moved to New York City and then probably to Lenox, Massachusetts, another place of fashionable villeggiatura, where Edith Wharton had built her palatial “cottage,” The Mount, in 1902. Late stories such as “The Jolly Corner,” and the chapters on New York in The American Scene of 1907, give hints of how James might have treated the city. His view of it is that of an old man returning to a place associated with the excitements and poetry of youth, and finding it horribly changed. His mental habits are those natural to old age: a tender intensity of regard for the past, and a coolness, both apprehensive and satirical, about the present.

In The Awkward Age (1899) he had created the touching figure of Mr. Longdon, a kind of revenant from an earlier time, who had loved Nanda Brookenham’s grandmother and comes back to rescue Nanda from the corrupt, slangy, and shockingly “intimate” society of her mother. In The Ivory Tower society has taken a further turn to the bad, signaled in part by its complacent celebration of its own iniquity. Davey Bradham, a rich and vulgar Newport resident, speaks unprotestingly of “our greedy wants, our timid ideas and our fishy passions.” At the tea party at the Bradhams’ the “pitch of intimacy” is now “unmodulated.” “What they all took for granted!” marvels Rosanna. Here Graham, who has spent his life in Europe, is the revenant, of whom Horton says, “He shan’t become if I can help it as beastly vulgar as the rest of us.” The “flagrant worldlings” move in a medium of busy impunity and knowing moral passivity.

In The American Scene the chapter called “The Sense of Newport” gives a moving account of what the place had meant to James in youth, “the formative, tentative, imaginative Newport time,” “the pure Newport time, the most perfectly guarded by a sense of margin and of mystery”; and of how he had returned to find its “shy and subtle beauties” obliterated, “bedizened and bedevilled” by “monuments of pecuniary power”—“the villas and palaces into which the cottages have all turned.” The palaces, “on the sites but the other day beyond price, stare silently seaward, monuments to the blasé stare of their absent proprietors”; they are white elephants, “queer and conscious and lumpish—some of them, as with the air of the brandished proboscis, really grotesque—while their averted owners, roused from a witless dream, wonder what in the world is to be done with them.”

Old Newport had been “a touchstone of taste,” and in winter the resort of people like the Jameses, who had lived much in Europe, had the “critical habit,” and sacrificed openly to “the ivory idol whose name is leisure” rather than to “the great black ebony god of business.” Taste, in its largest sense of discernment, judgment, and decency, has itself been sacrificed by a society that has become, as Graham says, “so hideously rich.” In the novel the sea light, the glimpses of rocks and beaches and marine horizon, seem private notes for James of the old Newport time, and give a strangely luminous ambience to his tale of “depredation and misrepresentation.”

Part of the effect of freshness of The Ivory Tower lies in its being so little commented on by James himself—there is naturally no preface for it, such as he wrote for the novels and stories collected in the New York Edition, and it was not his habit to discuss work in progress in his letters. His own thoughts about the novel are in his Notes, and show us the book in a preparatory rather than a ripely retrospective light. The principal text is the extended “treatment” which he dictated in the summer of 1914 and which is retained in the new edition both for its own interest and as the solidest available clue to what might have happened in the rest of the novel. It became James’s practice to produce detailed preliminary thinkings-through of his material, self-communings never intended for publication, and always destroyed when a work was completed. The two that survive (for the unfinished novels) are curious and revealing documents, in part practical schemes, in part dramatic monologues of discovery, almost streams of consciousness, with every hesitation, bafflement, and excited clarification tremulously captured. As Percy Lubbock noted when presenting the fragment and its notes in 1917, James himself had given an idealized account of his procedure in his story “The Death of the Lion,” where a great novelist reads just such a treatment to the admiring narrator:

  1. *

    The Ivory Tower is being published in a new edition by New York Review Books, with this essay, in somewhat different form, as an introduction.

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