"He ought to do better."

Before publishing The Ambassadors serially in The North American Review, Henry James submitted a summary of the novel to Harper & Brothers. This typed outline of The Ambassadors is the only surviving outline of any of James's novels (James burned many of his papers). In 90 typed pages James discusses how he got the idea for the novel, describes his characters, and lays out the novel's plot and themes. The first page and the last page of the outline are shown below – both are signed by James, and the final page is dated Sept. 1, 1900.

The first page of Henry James's outline for The Ambassadors (MA 3140.1).

The final page of Henry James's outline for The Ambassadors (MA 3140.1).

Apparently The Ambassadors, now widely recognized as one of James's masterpieces, had a rocky start. In the following manuscript note, Henry Mills Alden, an editor at Harper & Brothers, comments on James's outline: 

"The scenario is interesting, but it does not promise a popular novel. The tissues of it are too subtly fine for general appreciation. It is subjective, fold within fold of a complex mental web, in which the reader is lost if his much-wearied attention falters."

After summarizing James's plot, Alden concludes by recommending that Harper & Brothers turn down the novel:

"I do not advise acceptance. He ought to do better."

A review of James's outline by "HMA," or Henry Mills Alden, an editor at Harper & Brothers.

For more information about James's outline, click here. For more information about Alden's review, click here.

The Leon Levy Foundation is generously underwriting a major project to upgrade catalog records for the Morgan's collection of literary and historical manuscripts. The project is the most substantive effort to date to improve primary research information on a portion of this large and highly important collection.

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