A Close Reading of Henry James's
“The Coxun Fund"

by Jaimie Crawford

In the New York edition of Henry James's “The Coxon Fund,” the intended recipient of the fund is no longer a “man suffering from want of means,” but a “flower that blushes unseen,” a flower which lacks the “pecuniary independence” to shine its light “upon the human race”(332). By describing his protagonist as an ephemeral bloom, James paints a caricature of Frank Saltram as a helpless yet alluring catalyst--a man whose brilliance is defined by the compulsions of those around him. The result is a thin veil of comedy which masks James's rather bleak commentary on the nature of charity. The metaphors of Frank as a flower in need of fiscal fertilizer and his entourage as parasitic weeds reappear throughout “The Coxon Fund”; these images shape the story's central theme of humanity's innate urge to possess and thus ultimately diminish beauty. [1]

In the first line of James's ironic comedy, the narrator exclaims, “They've got him for life!” Saltram's “life” does indeed provide the backdrop for James's art, but his style is impressionistic and his subject, not human but vegetable. [2] Like a fresh plucked rose, Saltram will live “all winter” at the Mulvilles' residence, but his “summer” bloom is “more than they can venture” to expect (281). Frank's hosts' charitable but possessive desire to preserve him seems contagious; in fact, each character in the story exists primarily as a function of how he or she responds to Saltram. In essence, Saltram exists as a surrealistic flower whose mirrored petals allow his supporters to see only their own reflections. The fawning Mulvilles best exemplify this reflective quality, and he effortlessly soaks up their personalities, attention, and finances.

As the story unravels we learn that the Mulvilles, impressed with something Saltram had published, “pick[ed]”(288) this “absorbent”(283) “specimen” (282) from his natural habitat, one clearly more conducive to productivity than their own garden. Saltram's “droop[ing]”(282) nature begins to manifest itself in chapter three as the narrator reveals a great discrepancy between “the freshest”(292) of his memories of Saltram and his current discomfort at not being able to “so much as put a finger on him” (293). Beginning to adopt the same proprietary tone he earlier mocks in the Mulvilles, the storyteller divulges that “[his] philosopher's tail (stem) [is] deplorably limp”(293). [3] Wondering how to reveal to the audience that the bloom has gone out of their flower--that Frank has literally disappeared, he admits that “`showing' Saltram is often a poor business” (299). And one by one, the characters fall prey to their own desire to harvest Saltram's “magnificent vitality.”

Even Saltram's wife, calling Frank “lovely”(297) and attempting to reap any benefits she can from his popularity, objectifies him. The single contrast to the self-serving motivations of Mrs. Saltram and the gullible doting of Mrs. Mulville is George Gravener's fiance, Ruth Anvoy. Although she is as naively engrossed by the hypnotic “swinging crystal” of Saltram's mind (300) as the others, Ruth eschews domesticating him, and, as a result, differentiates herself from the other characters as a paradigm of “the responsible critic” (Martin and Ober 64).

As the description of the Coxon fund heralds an anticipated climax, James's characters grow more parasitic; their dependence on Saltram increases as they “cling” like weeds to the idea of bringing his brilliance to public attention for their own personal benefit (304). Mrs. Saltram, like the haughty owner of “best of show” insists that all Frank's advances--“they trickled, at best, in a slender stream”(306)--be paid to her. Saltram's editors, however, desire to “cut him” but have “difficulty finding a crevice for their shears” (306). The Mulvilles remain intent on gleaning Saltram's genius in order to rise above the mediocrity of their feeble existence. George Gravener schemes to “grab hold of” Saltram's stem” but fails (309). “Overflowing”(327) with Christian charity, only Ruth Anvoy sacrifices her marriage and her money simply to allow Saltram the chance to flourish.

As Saltram “grows bigger every day”(349), an invidious presence in the other characters' lives, even the narrator discards his last remaining slice of objectivity in the last two chapters. While initially comparing Saltram to an overgrown shrub, “a jelly minus its mold”(350), the narrator relates in the final pages of his story an emotional revelation of the “majesty in Saltram's unconsciousness”(356). Ruth Anvoy, “the purest” of Saltram's praisers (352), also recognizes this majesty and bestows upon this “earnest loyal seeker” (332) the treasured fund. Although Saltram sprouts “up” (368), he seeks in vain to conjure light enough to shine “upon the human race” (332)-- a task whose impossibility James premeditates from the start of his tale.

The “dear far-away Ruth's intentions were doubtless good” (368)--so good, that James grants her immunity “away” from the other “clinging” weeds of his garden. And James's ironic twist? Saltram is not plucked from his stem as we may have earlier predicted but instead is overwatered, “blighted to become like everybody else”(368), his bloom forever gone.

 

Work Cited

 

Chapman, Sara S. “The `Summarized Exhibition' of `The Coxon Fund.” Henry James's Portrait of the Writer as Hero. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989: 69-76.

James, Henry. “The Coxon Fund.” The Alter of the Dead, The Beast in the Jungle, The Birthplace, and Other Tales. New York Edition. Vol. 17. New York: Scribner's, 1909. 24 vols. 1907-09.

Martin, W.R., and Warren Ober. “Critical Responsibility in Henry James's `The Coxon Fund' and `The Birthplace'.” English Studies in Canada 8, no.1 (March): 62-75.

Matthiessen, F.O. and Kenneth B. Murdock, ed. The Notebooks of Henry James. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961: 152-154.

Nettles, Elsa. “Satire.” James and Conrad. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1977: 140-141.


Endnotes

[1] James makes this textual change in the New York edition. In the 1894 Yellow Book edition, Gravener calls the fund's recipient “a man suffering from want of means” (331).

[2] Sarah Chapman asserts that “Fund” is one of James's most sophisticated technical achievement because of its break from straightforward narrative rhetoric. Saltram's ability (like a mirror) to elicit characters' personalities in conjunction to the narrator's biased reports of these personalities create an “impressionistic” work.

[3] In the New York edition, James adds the sentence “Saltram's tail was deplorably limp.” The double entendre of “tail” emphasizes Saltram's captivity as well as casting a shadow on the plausibility of his “tale”.


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