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:
Loose, liberal, confident, it might have passed for a great gossiping, eloquent letter—the overflow into talk of an artist’s amorous plan. The subject I thought singularly rich, quite the strongest he had yet treated; and this familiar statement of it, full too of fine maturities, was really, in summarised splendour, a mine of gold, a precious independent work.
The striking phrase here is “amorous plan,” as if the proposal for a novel were a proposal of a different kind. To James the wooing of the muse, the almost erotically confidential parley with “mon bon” (both other self and tutelary spirit), appears at such moments as the supremely intimate and rewarding contact. What to the detached reader of these documents may seem to be an excessive fetishizing of the process of creative thought, when all James later needed for practical purposes was the results of that thought, is perhaps explained by the overriding intensity, for him, of this inner colloquy. Sometimes, too, its beauties are heightened by a mood of ecstatic recovery from the illnesses and deep-layered depressions which dogged him in later life. The earliest consideration of The Ivory Tower material comes at just such a moment, with just such emotion, in a long pencil-written note of December 1909 to January 1910—the time of the Harper’s inquiry about a possible new book. James celebrates the burgeoning sense of his material and the strength of the “dramatic” method of presentation he had evolved, of richly elaborated “scenes” in which everything is functional and focused on the gradual and complete revelation of his subject:
I come back, I come back, as I say, I all throbbingly and yearningly and passionately, oh, mon bon, come back to this way that is clearly the only one in which I can do anything now, and that will open out to me more and more and that has overwhelming reasons pleading all beautifully in its breast…. Causons, causons, mon bon—oh celestial, soothing, sanctifying process, with all the high sane forces of the sacred time fighting, through it, on my side! Let me fumble it gently and patiently out—with fever and fidget laid to rest—as in all the old enchanted months! It only looms, it only shines and shimmers, too beautiful and too interesting; it only hangs there too rich and too full and with too much to give and to pay; it only presents itself too admirably and too vividly, too straight and square and vivid, as a little organic and effective Action.
The later, dictated notes included here have their paragraphs of rapture, but are equally striking for passages of workmanlike simplicity and frank practicality. James speaks of the “enormous difficulty of pretending to show various things here as with a business vision, in my total absence of business initiation; so that of course my idea has been from the first not to show them with a business vision, but in some other way altogether.” Acknowledged limitations become, after a moment of anxiety, the grounds of a larger comprehension. “Thank the Lord I have only to give the effect of this, for which I can trust myself, without going into the ghost of a technicality, any specialising demonstration.”
The turning to advantage of such evasions was of course a well-established procedure for James: the vagueness, shading into pointed indifference, as to the sources of the wealth which cushions and corrupts his characters’ lives. The unspecified “rather ridiculous object of common domestic use” on which the Newsomes’ fortune in The Ambassadors is founded is a more playful notice of James’s refusal to adopt the “business vision.” His recent US visits had given him material in plenty, a revelation of “the intensest modernity of every American description; cars and telephones and facilities and machineries and resources of certain sorts not to be exaggerated” (or, even here, specified), but it was rarely, for James, a question of active research. Once an idea had taken hold, the great vigilant organic structure of a novel was spun spider-like from what he had.
The title of the novel, and the role of the miniature ivory tower within it, seem not to have been present to James at the time of dictating the Notes. The function of disclosing the origins of Graham’s new fortune was to have been carried out by Davey Bradham, who would give a “dark account” of old Betterman’s “ruthlessness”; the oddly more conventional and theatrical device of Abel Gaw’s letter, placed unopened in a drawer of the ivory tower, came in the course of writing. The figure of the ivory tower, now almost hackneyed, was then fairly fresh—it is first recorded in English in 1911, in a translation of Henri Bergson’s Laughter; and it is likely that James knew the phrase from French usage. The great critic Sainte-Beuve seems to have coined it, or perpetuated it, in writing of the “secretive” poet Alfred de Vigny, who “would go home before midday as if to his ivory tower.”
It is quite characteristic of the late James to instate a symbolic artifact in a work of fiction, where it exists in a strange accord between author, reader, and characters themselves alert to its symbolic meanings: “Doesn’t living in an ivory tower just mean the most distinguished retirement?” exclaims Graham Fielder. The oddity here, as compared with the golden bowl of the earlier novel, lies in turning a figure of speech into a piece of furniture. For all James’s minute description of the object, “a wonder of wasted ingenuity,” it remains not quite imaginable, as if still pertaining in part to the world of ideas. It seems to belong with other exotic metaphorical constructions in his late works, indeed with the “strange tall tower of ivory, or perhaps rather some wonderful beautiful but outlandish pagoda” in which Maggie in The Golden Bowl finds a figure for her own situation:
a structure plated with hard bright porcelain, coloured and figured and adorned at the overhanging eaves with silver bells that tinkled ever so charmingly when stirred by chance airs.
The almost heroic elaboration of the simile gives it a strange aesthetic self-sufficiency; it becomes a description of a complex objet d’art that gleams with latent meaning, in the manner of a Symbolist poem.
Perhaps the strongest note of the Notes is that of economy, of exact control of form and detail, of the search for a structure with just such autonomous beauty and worked perfection. James nerves himself to meet the demands of the ten-book form he has chosen, and to which, by a highly personal process of effort and intuition, he has accommodated his material.
But why not? Who’s afraid? and what has the very essence of my design been but the most magnificent packed and calculated closeness? Keep this closeness up to the notch while admirably animating it, and I do what I should simply be sickened to death not to! Of course it means the absolute exclusively economic existence and situation of every sentence and every letter; but again what is that but the most desirable of beauties in itself?
It is not always clear what is meant by form in the novel: something to do with beginning, middle, and end, with symmetry and relevance, with the relative weight of different aspects of the treatment and strands of the plot, with the determining nature of the prose medium itself. In later James awareness of all these elements is heightened. We are invited to admire the inseparable coexistence of form and content, to develop a consciousness of form as an integral part of the experience of reading: it is the summation of what he meant by the art of the novel.
It has the fascination, for him and for us, of what’s difficult, and difficulty is a necessary part of it. It couldn’t, for instance, have been attained in a more conventional prose: James’s style makes possible the elaboration of the novel into a realm of heightened aesthetic play. It is a medium of metamorphosis. In late James, there’s not exactly a blurring, but a resolution into complex lights and atmospheres, of what had once been a more naturalistically depicted world. The characters’ dialogue becomes ever more of a kind, giving their idiolect a tribal consistency akin to but not to be mistaken for that of real life. By The Golden Bowl the characters have assumed a symbolic aura, and as the analysis of motive and feeling proliferates the figures themselves seem subtly to dematerialize. Odd vivid details stand, with heightened piquancy, for a world of surfaces which interests James less and less as he moves in the realm of inner drama.
The style is also a very personal thing. The attainment of artistic autonomy is simultaneously the triumph of James’s voice. The late style, for all its sense of suspension and counterpoint, is not really a classical medium—with a presumed ideal of impersonality. It is a spoken medium, quite literally, since from the winter of 1897, when he developed a bad wrist while working on What Maisie Knew, James dictated almost everything he wrote directly to a typist. The mystery, the oddity, but also the readability of his late style all spring from its being in essence a form of talk. His talk was famously involved and periphrastic, but it was his, and unlike anyone else’s, and it is what gives the late books, for all their elaboration, an irresistible naturalness. The manner is sometimes feline and delaying, sometimes almost abruptly conversational—“She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in…”: the tiny, colloquial agitation of the word order turns a pedestrian statement into the unforgettable first sentence of The Wings of the Dove, giving a sense of impatience and premeditation all in one.
There’s a relish to the style that comes from its being performed, from its being an improvisation by a great virtuoso who holds all his material in his head and explores it with a simultaneous sense of discovery and formal control. Daring tonal transitions occur between slang and latinate abstraction. A dozen motifs are kept in play, ready to be touched and alluded to as occasion demands. When James describes Horton Vint reminiscing to Cissy about his youthful European life with Graham he gives a kind of account of his own procedure:
So Horton continued—so, as if incited and agreeably, irresistibly inspired, he played, in the soft stillness and the protected nook, before the small salt tide that idled as if to listen, with old things and new, with actualities and possibilities, on top of the ancientries, that seemed to want but a bit of talking of in order to flush and multiply.
It is a manner instinct with a special irony, a “throb,” as James would say, of alert humor and commanding wit. Here he is a few pages earlier, describing the excessively handsome Horton’s attempts to soften, for himself and others, the effect of his own good looks:
His hard mouth sported, to its visible relief and the admiration of most beholders, a beautiful mitigating moustache; his eyes wandered and adventured as for fear of their very own stare; his smile and his laugh went all lengths, you would almost have guessed, in order that nothing less pleasant should occupy the ground; his chin advanced upon you with a grace fairly tantamount to the plea, absurd as that might have seemed, that it was in the act of receding.
The baroque play of paradox, the gentle extravagance with which Horton is simultaneously praised and mocked, the amorous attentiveness and ironic circumspection, are typical of James’s seductive narrative persona. The catching of the tone, the learning of the rhythm and the music, are things that have made James seem a cultish writer, a pleasure for self-congratulating initiates. Anyone coming new to his late style and finding it hard going might be advised, as with the style of other great dictaters (Milton in Paradise Lost, Joyce in Finnegans Wake), to recreate it by reading it out loud.
Unfinished works by great writers form a category as haunting as it is unsatisfactory. In gratifying a curiosity about what might have been, they heighten the feeling of loss. It is a curious fact that both The Sense of the Past and The Ivory Tower break off in mid-sentence. The writer who uses a pen can be imagined setting it down at some interruption, but the dictating novelist, with the end of his sentence heaving into view, and the Remington clattering encouragingly away, might have been expected to reach a period. It adds to the poignancy of this fragment that we seem to hear Henry James stop speaking.
March 11, 2004