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The Ivory Tower by Henry James
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The Ivory Tower

by Henry James

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The Ivory Tower – Published in 1917, the year following the great author’s death, this unfinished Henry James novel breaks off in the middle of Chapter Two of Book Four after about two hundred pages. James left extensive notes citing how he intended his novel to continue for another four or five hundred pages.

So the question becomes: Is this unfinished novel worth the time? By my reading, the answer is a rousing “yes.” Alan Hollinghurst, who wrote the Introduction for this New York Review Books edition, would wholeheartedly concur. In point of fact, Hollinghurst, himself one of England’s top living literary novelists, urges us to read The Ivory Tower out loud to better catch the tone and rhythm of James’ language.

In addition to taking Alan Hollinghurst up on his suggestion to read the novel aloud, I’m alternately listening to the book on audio cassette narrated by Flo Gibson. Magnificent literary experience. And this NYRB edition also contains a Preface by Percy Lubbock, Henry James’ extensive Notes for The Ivory Tower (Henry would routinely compile such notes in preparation for writing a novel and destroy them after completion) and Ezra Pound's informative and entertaining essay - On “Notes for The Ivory Tower." Most definitely this is the publication for either scholar, Henry James lover or general reader.

Rather than addressing the giants of American industry in the context of a comedy as he did with The Outcry, a three-act play subsequently converted into a novel, with The Ivory Tower Henry James launches a direct full frontal assault on a society denigrated by titanic masses of money stockpiled by ruthless robber barons. On the first few pages we meet one such captain of industry, old Abel Gaw, now retired, a man as cruel, brutal, cold-blooded, hard-hearted, callous, merciless and pitiless as one human being could possibly ever be.

James presents Abel Gaw with remarkable and eerie force, describing him as a man who turned every minute of his waking life so completely to business calculations that his mind in retirement has become an intensification of those calculations, the old man forever perched in his low basket-chair “like a ruffled hawk, motionless but for his single tremor, with his beak, which had pecked so many hearts out, visibly sharper than ever, yet only his talons, nervous; not that he at last cared a straw, really, but that he was incapable of thought save in sublimities of arithmetic.”

James goes on to say how the ruffled hawk (Gaw! Gaw! Gaw! Gaw!) would brood for hours over the swindle his former business partner, Frank Betterman, pulled on him, a brooding “after the fashion of a philosopher tangled in some maze of metaphysics.” What I've noted here is but a tiny sample, since, when it comes to Abel Gaw, the author’s every single word is another knife slice into his repugnant lack of character.

Such slicing includes Gaw’s relationship with his one and only child, daughter Rosanna. Perhaps Henry extracted a degree of revenge on behalf of beauty and refinement by making Rosanna massive to the point of ridiculousness, a great disappointment for this lord of finance to have such a huge, unattractive, ton-of-fun daughter who couldn’t move around in a room without knocking over an expensive light or some rare table-ornament.

Although Abel Gaw and Frank Betterman are both soon dead and the story’s focus shifts to the next generation, the great wealth amassed by these two business titans permeates the very air like a penetrating, noxious poison. The younger men and women breath it in. Henry James finely portrays four major players in the unfolding drama. Here they are, along with photos that, to my eye, accurately depict each:



An American raised in Europe, thirty-two-year-old Graham ("Gray") Fielder returns to the resort of Newport, Rhode Island to visit Frank Betterman, his rich dying uncle. The old business tycoon is delighted beyond measure to see his nephew is a thoroughly decent, multilingual, cultured gentleman. When he questions Graham on his business and financial experience, his nephew replies: “But I allow there’s nothing I understand so little and like so little as the mystery of the ‘market’ and the hustle of any sort.” To which, the dying man says: “You utterly loathe and abhor the hustle! That’s what I blissfully want of you.” Such a wonderfully refined youth, just the opposite of what he might have become had he been raised in American – another one of those all too many money hungry swindlers. Thus Frank Betterman wills his fortune to Graham Fielder. But will such an honest European-bred soul be able to fend off swarming American sharks?



Rosanna Gaw reflects: "She knew how of old her inexplicable, her almost ridiculous type had disconcerted and disappointed him (her father, Abel Gaw); but with this, at a given moment, it had come to him that she represented quantity and mass, that there was a great deal of her, so that she would have pressed down even a balance appointed to weigh bullion; and as there was nothing he was fonder of than such attestations of value he had really ended by drawing closer to her, as who should say, and by finding countenance in the breadth of personal and social shadow that she projected." Abel Gaw leaves all of his fabulous fortune to thirty-four-year-old Rosanna. Not question she'll attract the men - but will they love her for what she is?



Mustachioed Horton (‘Haughty’) Vint was a friend of Graham Fielder years ago when he visited Europe; he actually rescued Graham when they were together in the Alps. He shows up in Newport following the deaths of the old men. Horton Vint is something of a city slicker who just so happens to be in desperate need of money.



Cissy Foy is one of the wealthy crowd but she would dearly love her very own pile of gold. Of course, now there's Graham Fielder. But Horton Vint with his great mustache - ah, there's a man who would be a real catch. If only Haughty was rich.

During an interview, asked about his favorite novelist, Colm Tóibín replied: "Henry James, for the range of his sympathy and the quality of his prose. For the way in which he dramatizes moral issues while all the time attending to sensuous and stylish questions. For his seriousness about form in his fiction and the way in which he refuses to allow the reader to make easy judgments, for his insisting on nuance, half-light and suggestion, and for his deep understanding of the strangeness and the wavering nature of motive and feeling in human relationships."

Every single point Colm Tóibín makes is manifest in The Ivory Tower. Even unfinished, an extraordinary novel and I feel privileged to have written the first detailed review on Goodreads.

My reviews are now also on my new blog: https://glenncolerussell.blogspot.com/ ( )
  Glenn_Russell | Nov 13, 2018 |
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» Add other authors (4 possible)

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Henry Jamesprimary authorall editionscalculated
Lubbock, PercyEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0678028257, Hardcover)

Originally published in 1917. This volume from the Cornell University Library's print collections was scanned on an APT BookScan and converted to JPG 2000 format by Kirtas Technologies. All titles scanned cover to cover and pages may include marks notations and other marginalia present in the original volume.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:33 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

"In 1914, Henry James began work on a major novel about the immense new fortunes of America's Gilded Age. After an absence of more than twenty years, James had returned for a visit to his native country; what he found there filled him with profound dismay. In The Ivory Tower, his last book, the characteristic pattern underlying so much of his fiction - in which American "innocence" is transformed by its encounter with European "experience" - receives a new twist: raised abroad, the hero comes home to America to confront, as James puts it, "the black and merciless things that are behind the great possessions."" "James died in 1916 with the first three books of The Ivory Tower completed. He also left behind a "treatment," in which he charted the further progress of his story. This fascinating scenario, one of only two to survive among James's papers, is also published here together with a striking critical essay by Ezra Pound."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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