restricted access The Two Unfinished Novels. An unsigned review of The Sense of the Past and The Ivory Tower, by Henry James
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[ 653 The Two Unfinished Novels An unsigned review of The Sense of the Past and The Ivory Tower, by Henry James (London: Collins, 1917). Pp. 351, 348.1 The Egoist, 5 (Jan 1918) 3-4 The two unfinished novels of James may easily be called the grave of his genius; it should be added, an impressive tomb; and they are as important as documents as the otherwise far more valuable reminiscences. They will atleastenableeveryonetojudgeforhimselfhowfarhecangointheattempt to come to terms with James’s later novels. Probably the most instructive point about them is the progressive devouring of the novel by the rapacious “scenario.” This is not, one feels, the way in which the earlier books were constructed; it is the last stage of a method that grew visibly upon the novelist ; yet accepting these books gratefully, as one accepts the last work of such a writer as James, we can hardly deplore the malady to which his writing succumbed. For in the case of these two volumes the novels are, with the exceptional flashes, very dull; the scenarios, the word of mouth by which James revealed his plans and his solicitudes, are intensely interesting. Not so much with The Ivory Tower; here the scenario is much concerned with names, with dates, with the spotting about of the scenes–Newport, or Boston, or Lenox? But in The Sense of the Past talk one sees how by touch after touch the novelist would probably have gone on obliterating the outline which had in conception such unusual sharpness and distinction. The Sense of the Past, however, is even in its present state infinitely more important than The Ivory Tower. In the latter James is probably attempting no more than the social study to which an earlier manner is better adapted; in the former he is reaching out, audaciously and unconquerably reaching out toward something Jamesian beyond James, something so difficult that one holds one’s breath still at the terrifying risk of the experiment. In both books, however, the scenario is not only more interesting than the novel, but the novels themselves tend toward the scenario as their lawful form. The disappearance of conversation, noticeable in James’s later novels, is more noticeable here; I do not mean disappearance of inverted 1918: Journalism 654 ] commas, for the personages are often observed to be in vocal communication , but I mean that these personages are flooded by some awareness of the whole point as it is displayed to the author’s mind before being realized by their actions. There is not, indeed, enough thickness of skin and skull between them; they are all playing up to their prevision of what the writer means. Their obedience to the author is represented rather by “influence ” exerted upon them than by a common pulling of puppet-strings. As for the two “wonderful” young men, Ralph in The Sense of the Past and Graham in The Ivory Tower, the perception of Ralph’s impecunious English relatives, and the perception of Graham’s predatory American friends of the respective wonderfulness of these adolescents of thirty, seems an echo of the paternal fondness of the author, and only renders the two characters insipid. The Sense of the Past is one whole side of James–the side which connects him with Hawthorne, contrasted with the Turgenev side. The Sense of the Past might be compared with The Seven Gables or even the inferior Faun;2 and it might have been a finer novel. The trick–an influence emanating from, or started off by, a portrait–is an old one, but it was to have been used for a new purpose, and it might have been the pattern for a story which would have given James’s final word on the civilized American. That curious “sense” so peculiarly American (none the less so because so rare even in America), so different from the political sense of the Faubourg SaintGermain or the simpler land-tenure sense of the English, the sense apparent in touches of Hawthorne’s Pyncheon family, is something which ought certainly to have been done by James. And here we should have had it in its most complex form, involved with an equally acute and imperative sense of the Present, a sense of the present becoming more articulate and pressing just as the past dominates, for it becomes thus a sense of the Future. The ghostly element here gives a substance to The Sense of the Past which is absentfromTheIvoryTower;itprovidestheadmirablescenebetweenRalph and the...