American Dreams

01.30.14

Henry James’s 1904 Sordid Little Sex Farce

Almost without plot and with convoluted writing, Henry James’s final novels often leave people scratching their heads, but The Golden Bowl is a surprisingly saucy, wicked, and original exploration of American mores writes Nathaniel Rich.

If you are able to withstand the near complete absence of plot, the involuted (and convoluted) sentences, and the preposterous metaphors (“she sat there in the solid chamber of her helplessness as in a bath of benevolence artfully prepared for her”)—if you’re able, in other words, to withstand Henry James, you’ll find that The Golden Bowl is a sordid little sex farce.

James demands more than the usual suspension of disbelief, but his premise is original and wicked. It takes the form of a love quadrangle, with one of its sides adulterous, another vaguely incestuous. The latter describes the relationship between Adam Verver, a retired, prodigiously wealthy American widower living in London, and his adult daughter Maggie, upon whom he dotes heavily. Maggie is kind, but not particularly sophisticated, ambitious, or intelligent. She is, to put it mildly, a daddy’s girl. She returns her father’s love with a devotion that, even she recognizes, is unnatural. She would happily cocoon herself with her father in his gorgeous estate, but she worries that he might be disappointed should she fail to marry and produce children. Enter Amerigo, an Italian prince. Though Amerigo has a title, his family fortune has been squandered, and he is desperate to hitch himself to a rich bride: “He had to have money—it was a question of life and death.” Maggie’s millions are more than suitable, and the match is made.

Maggie leaves her father, but worries he might become lonely. He needs to remarry, she decides. She suggests that he buy himself his own spouse. Her preferred candidate is a poor, but much savvier friend of hers named Charlotte. Maggie, conveniently, doesn’t know that her own husband, the prince, and Charlotte were once lovers, and only parted because Amerigo required a wealthier bride. Charlotte marries Mr. Verver, and renews her affair with Amerigo (now her stepson-in-law).

As affairs go, this one is as virtuous as they come. While the adulterers go off for long weekends in the country, father and daughter, apparently ignorant of the affair, are free to dote on each other. They are grateful to be reunited. Verver even has Maggie move back into his house, thereby relieving Prince Amerigo “of all anxiety about his married life in the same manner in which he relieved him on the score of his bank-account.” Everyone is happy, and financially compensated. For a long time the guileless Ververs fail to suspect the affair, much to the adulterers’ amusement. “They’re very, very simple,” notes Charlotte of the American pair. It is only when Maggie discovers irrefutable proof of the affair that the whole beautiful arrangement cracks like the chintzy, gold-plated crystal bowl that is the novel’s dreary central metaphor.

James composed The Golden Bowl during a deluge of composition that followed a five-year hiatus from novel writing, when he pursued a career as a playwright. The Golden Bowl, together with The Wings of the Dove (1902) and The Ambassadors (1903) form a loose trilogy, longer than 1700 pages cumulatively, that constitutes the third and final period of his career. Having abandoned the conventional storytelling and precise realism of his earlier novels, James employed a conversational style that is as oblique as it is discursive. “It is a magnificent but painful hippopotamus,” wrote H.G. Wells of James’s late style, “resolved at any cost, even at the cost of its dignity, upon picking up a pea which has got into a corner of its den.” Martin Amis, more directly, has noted that James in these later novels “didn’t give a shit about the reader.” Over the course of these novels, the style becomes increasingly parsimonious, reaching its apotheosis in The Golden Bowl. James parcels out his action, plot, and drama with deep reluctance, leaving the reader for dozens of pages at a time to contemplate the most gradual refinements of his characters’ thoughts. But James’s style, however difficult, is at least faithful to his subject. The grotesquely idle lives of his aristocratic characters advance at a tectonic rate; months, even years pass undisturbed by any significant developments. “The little crisis was of shorter duration than our account of it,” writes James at one point early in the novel, an observation that could stand for his entire novel. Mr. Verver’s millions stultify the lonely quartet, allowing them ample time for idle contemplation. When Charlotte and Amerigo resume their affair, their behavior seems motivated less by passion than boredom.

The novel’s capaciousness has allowed critics to search it for political and religious allegory. Critics like A.N. Wilson have seen in the Ververs’ revenge on their adulterous spouses a parable about the triumph of innocent, decent, wealthy America over devious, cynical, degenerating Europe. But this interpretation misses something about the novel’s treatment of the Ververs. For all their decentness, they never win the reader’s admiration, for they are naïve to the point of idiocy. “You Americans are almost incredibly romantic,” observes the Prince, in the novel’s earliest pages. “Of course we are,” Maggie replies. “That’s just what makes everything so nice for us.” Even after Maggie and her father expose the affair and take their revenge, they seem more pitiful than triumphant. “They were good children,” writes James, “bless their hearts, and the children of good children…”

It’s the Europeans, instead, who have been corrupted by the American way—and by the American dollar. The Ververs come to regard the adulterous affair of their spouses not as an emotional betrayal, but as a business partnership gone sour, a crooked backroom deal. Amerigo and Charlotte have failed to honor their contracts.

Though set in Europe, James’s novel evokes an America that, at the end of Theodore Roosevelt’s first term in office, was coming into its own as an imperial global power. For once, the nation was at peace. The greatest domestic battle was Roosevelt’s suit against the Northern Securities railroad trust, a fight he would win in March of 1904. “The success of the Northern Securities case definitely established the power of the government to deal with all great corporations,” declared a triumphant Roosevelt, a statement that is impossible to imagine Barack Obama or any future American president uttering. “He has subjugated Wall Street,” said Joseph Pulitzer.

The nation, like the Ververs, had been becalmed by prosperity. A magazine poet best evoked the jaunty spirit of the age in an end-of-year address:

Good old year of nineteen-four!

Every one had goods in store—

Wheat galore, a dollar up,

Lots to eat and lots to sup.

None abroad is mad at us;

Naught at home to cause a fuss—

May the year ahead give more

Of the brand of nineteen-four!

The Golden Bowl recalls that comfortable, innocent time, a rare blank spot on the bloodsoaked canvas of the twentieth century, when it seemed financial might, paired with enlightened thought, could solve the world’s problems: hunger, poverty, war, and even, perhaps, sex. James knew that this American fantasy of the world was all too good to be true. He could see that it was cracked.

Other novels published in 1904:

Rulers of Kings by Gertrude Atherton

The Heart of Rome by F. Marion Crawford

The Sea Wolf by Jack London

The Cost by David Graham Phillips

Cherry by Booth Tarkington

Bestselling novel of the year: 

The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come by John Fox, Jr.

About this series: 

This monthly series will chronicle the history of the American century as seen through the eyes of its novelists. The goal is to create a literary anatomy of the last century—or, to be precise, from 1900 to 2013. In each column I’ll write about a single novel and the year it was published. The novel may not be the bestselling book of the year, the most praised, or the most highly awarded—though awards do have a way of fixing an age’s conventional wisdom in aspic. The idea is to choose a novel that, looking back from a safe distance, seems most accurately, and eloquently, to speak for the time in which it was written. Other than that there are few rules. I won’t pick any stinkers.

Previous Selections

1902—Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon

1912—The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson

1922—Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

1932—Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell

1942—A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell

1952—Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

1962—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

1972—The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin

1982—The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux

1992—Clockers by Richard Price

2002—Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

2012—Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

1903—The Call of the Wild by Jack London

1913—O Pioneers! By Willa Cather

1923—Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton

1933—Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

1943—Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

1953—Junky by William S. Burroughs

1963—The Group by Mary McCarthy

1973—The Princess Bride by William Goldman

1983—Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright

1993—The Road to Wellville by T.C. Boyle

2003—The Known World by Edward P. Jones

2013—Equilateral by Ken Kalfus