Edith Wharton The Great American Novel Essay
The older I get, the more I’m convinced that a fiction writer’s oeuvre is a mirror of the writer’s character. It may well be a defect of my own character that my literary tastes are so deeply intertwined with my responses, as a person, to the person of the author—that I persist in disliking the posturing young Steinbeck who wrote “Tortilla Flat” while loving the later Steinbeck who fought back personal and career entropy and produced “East of Eden,” and that I draw what amounts to a moral distinction between the two—but I suspect that sympathy, or its absence, is involved in almost every reader’s literary judgments. Without sympathy, whether for the writer or for the fictional characters, a work of fiction has a very hard time mattering.
So what to make of Edith Wharton, on her hundred-and-fiftieth birthday? There are many good reasons to wish Wharton’s work read, or read afresh, at this late literary date. You may be dismayed by the ongoing underrepresentation of women in the American canon, or by the academy’s valorization of overt formal experimentation at the expense of more naturalistic fiction. You may lament that Wharton’s work is still commonly assumed to be as dated as the hats she wore, or that several generations of high-school graduates know her chiefly through her frosty minor novel “Ethan Frome.” You may feel that, alongside the more familiar genealogies of American fiction (Henry James and the modernists, Mark Twain and the vernacularists, Herman Melville and the postmoderns), there is a less noticed line connecting William Dean Howells to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis and thence to Jay McInerney and Jane Smiley, and that Wharton is the vital link in it. You may want, as I do, to recelebrate “The House of Mirth,” call much merited attention to “The Custom of the Country,” and reëvaluate “The Age of Innocence”—her three great like-titled novels. But to consider Wharton and her work is to confront the problem of sympathy.
No major American novelist has led a more privileged life than Wharton did. Although she was seldom entirely free of money worries, she always lived as if she were: pouring her inherited income into houses in rich-person precincts, indulging her passion for gardens and interior decoration, touring Europe endlessly in hired yachts or chauffeured cars, hobnobbing with the powerful and the famous, despising inferior hotels. To be rich like Wharton may be what all of us secretly or not so secretly want, but privilege like hers isn’t easy to like; it puts her at a moral disadvantage. And she wasn’t privileged like Tolstoy, with his social-reform schemes and his idealization of peasants. She was deeply conservative, opposed to socialism, unions, and woman suffrage, intellectually attracted to the relentless world view of Darwinism, hostile to the rawness and noise and vulgarity of America (by 1914, she had settled permanently in France, and she visited the United States only once after that, for twelve days), and unwilling to support her friend Teddy Roosevelt when his politics became more populist. She was the kind of lady who fired off a high-toned letter of complaint to the owner of a shop where a clerk had refused to lend her an umbrella. Her biographers, including the estimable R. W. B. Lewis, supply this signal image of the artist at work: writing in bed after breakfast and tossing the completed pages on the floor, to be sorted and typed up by her secretary.
Edith Newbold Jones did have one potentially redeeming disadvantage: she wasn’t pretty. The man she would have most liked to marry, her friend Walter Berry, a noted connoisseur of female beauty, wasn’t the marrying type. After two failed youthful courtships, she settled for an affable dud of modest means, Teddy Wharton. That their ensuing twenty-eight years of marriage were almost entirely sexless was perhaps less a function of her looks than of her sexual ignorance, the blame for which she laid squarely on her mother. As far as anyone knows, Wharton died having had only one other sexual relationship, an affair with an evasive bisexual journalist and serial two-timer, Morton Fullerton. She by then was in her late forties, and the beginner-like idealism and blatancy of her ardor—detailed in a secret diary and in letters preserved by Fullerton—are at once poignant and somewhat embarrassing, as they seem later to have been to Wharton herself.
Her father, a benign but recessive figure, died when she was twenty, after suffering from the financial stresses of providing a luxurious life style for his wife. Wharton, all her life, had only bad things to say about her mother; she also became estranged from both her brothers. She had relatively few friendships with women and none with female writers of her calibre—more strikes against her, in terms of sympathy—but she forged close and lasting friendships with an extraordinary number of successful men, including Henry James, Bernard Berenson, and André Gide. Many were gay or otherwise confirmed in bachelorhood. In the instances where her male friends were married, Wharton seems mostly to have treated the wives with indifference or outright jealousy.
The fine quip of one of Wharton’s contemporary reviewers—that she wrote like a masculine Henry James—could also be applied to her social pursuits: she wanted to be with the men and to talk about the things men talked about. The half-affectionate, half-terrified nicknames that James and his circle gave her—the Eagle, the Angel of Devastation—are of a piece with their reports on her. She wasn’t charming or easy to be with, but she was immensely energetic, always curious, always interesting, always formidable. She was a doer, an explorer, a bestower, a thinker. When, in her forties, she finally battled free of the deadness of her marriage and became a best-selling author, Teddy responded by spiralling into mental illness and embezzling a good part of her inheritance. She was distraught about this, as anyone would have been, but not so distraught that she didn’t force Teddy to pay up; three years later, with firm resolve, she divorced him. Lacking good looks and the feminine charms that might have accompanied them, she eventually became, in every sense but one, the man of her house.
An odd thing about beauty, however, is that its absence tends not to arouse our sympathy as much as other forms of privation do. To the contrary, Edith Wharton might well be more congenial to us now if, alongside her other advantages, she’d looked like Grace Kelly or Jacqueline Kennedy; and nobody was more conscious of this capacity of beauty to override our resentment of privilege than Wharton herself. At the center of each of her three finest novels is a female character of exceptional beauty, chosen deliberately to complicate the problem of sympathy.
The reader of “The House of Mirth” (1905) is introduced to its heroine, Lily Bart, through the gaze of an admiring man, Lawrence Selden, who runs into her by chance at Grand Central station. Selden immediately wonders what Lily is doing there, and he reflects that “it was characteristic of her that she always roused speculation, that her simplest acts seemed the result of far-reaching intentions.” To Selden, it’s inconceivable that a woman in possession of as much beauty as Lily would not be forever calculating how to use it. And Selden is right about this—Lily, strapped financially, is constantly forced to draw upon her one sure resource—but he is no less wrong. Lily’s predicament is that she is never quite able to square those far-reaching intentions with her momentary desires and her tentative moral sensibilities.
On the surface, there would seem to be no reason for a reader to sympathize with Lily. The social height that she’s bent on securing is one that she herself acknowledges is dull and sterile, she’s profoundly self-involved and incapable of true charity, she pridefully contrasts other women’s looks with her own, she has no intellectual life to speak of, she’s put off from pursuing her one kindred spirit (Selden) by the modesty of his income, and she’s in no danger of ever starving. She is, basically, the worst sort of party girl, and Wharton, in much the same way that she didn’t even try to be soft or charming in her personal life, eschews the standard novelistic tricks for warming or softening Lily’s image—the book is devoid of pet-the-dog moments. So why is it so hard to stop reading Lily’s story?
One big reason is that she doesn’t have “enough” money. The particulars of her shortfall may not be sympathetic—she needs to dress well and gamble at bridge tables in order to catch a man who can enable her to dress well and gamble for the rest of her life—but one of the mysterious strengths of the novel as an art form, from Balzac forward, is how readily readers connect with the financial anxieties of fictional characters. When Lily, by taking a long romantic walk with Selden, is ruining her chance to marry the extremely wealthy but comically boring and prudish Percy Gryce, with whom she would have had the bleakest of relationships, you may find yourself wanting to shout at her, “You idiot! Don’t do it! Get back to the house and seal the deal with Gryce!” Money, in novels, is such a potent reality principle that the need for it can override even our wish for a character to live happily ever after, and Wharton, throughout the book, applies the principle with characteristic relentlessness, tightening the financial screws on Lily as if the author were in league with nature at its most unforgiving.
What finally undoes Lily, though, isn’t the unforgiving world but her own bad decisions, her failures to foresee the seemingly obvious social consequences of her actions. Her propensity for error is a second engine of sympathy. We all know how it feels to be making a mistake, and the deliciousness of watching other people make one—particularly the mistake of marrying the wrong person—is a core appeal of narratives from “Oedipus” to “Middlemarch.” Wharton compounds the deliciousness in “The House of Mirth” by creating an eminently marriageable heroine whose mistake is to be too afraid of making the mistake of marrying wrong. Again and again, at the crucial moment, Lily blows up her opportunities to trade her beauty for financial security, or at least for a chance at happiness.
I don’t know of another novel more preoccupied with female beauty than “The House of Mirth.” That Wharton, who was fluent in German, chose to saddle her lily-like heroine with a beard—in German, Bart—points toward the gender inversions that the author engaged in to make her difficult life livable and her private life story writable, as well as toward other forms of inversion, such as giving Lily the looks that she didn’t have and denying her the money that she did have. The novel can be read as a sustained effort by Wharton to imagine beauty from the inside and achieve sympathy for it, or, conversely, as a sadistically slow and thorough punishment of the pretty girl she couldn’t be. Beauty in novels usually cuts two ways. On the one hand, we’re aware of how often it deforms the moral character of people who possess it; on the other hand, it represents a kind of natural capital, like a tree’s perfect fruit, that we’re instinctively averse to seeing wasted. Ticking along through the novel, as inexorable as the decline in Lily’s funds, is the clock on her youthful good looks. The clock starts running on page 1—“under her dark hat and veil she regained the girlish smoothness, the purity of tint, that she was beginning to lose after eleven years of late hours and indefatigable dancing”—and it continues to heighten the urgency of Lily’s plight, inviting us to share in it emotionally. But only at the book’s very end, when Lily finds herself holding another woman’s baby and experiencing a host of unfamiliar emotions, does a more powerful sort of urgency crash into view. The financial potential of her looks is revealed to have been an artificial value, in contrast to their authentic value in the natural scheme of human reproduction. What has been simply a series of private misfortunes for Lily suddenly becomes something larger: the tragedy of a New York City social world whose priorities are so divorced from nature that they kill the emblematically attractive female who ought, by natural right, to thrive. The reader is driven to search for an explanation of the tragedy in Lily’s appallingly deforming social upbringing—the kind of upbringing that Wharton herself felt deformed by—and to pity her for it, as, per Aristotle, a tragic protagonist must be pitied.
But sympathy in novels need not be simply a matter of the reader’s direct identification with a fictional character. It can also be driven by, say, my admiration of a character who is long on virtues I am short on (the moral courage of Atticus Finch, the limpid goodness of Alyosha Karamazov), or, most interestingly, by my wish to be a character who is unlike me in ways I don’t admire or even like. One of the great perplexities of fiction—and the quality that makes the novel the quintessentially liberal art form—is that we experience sympathy so readily for characters we wouldn’t like in real life. Becky Sharp may be a soulless social climber, Tom Ripley may be a sociopath, the Jackal may want to assassinate the French President, Mickey Sabbath may be a disgustingly self-involved old goat, and Raskolnikov may want to get away with murder, but I find myself rooting for each of them. This is sometimes, no doubt, a function of the lure of the forbidden, the guilty pleasure of imagining what it would be like to be unburdened by scruples. In every case, though, the alchemical agent by which fiction transmutes my secret envy or my ordinary dislike of “bad” people into sympathy is desire. Apparently, all a novelist has to do is give a character a powerful desire (to rise socially, to get away with murder) and I, as a reader, become helpless not to make that desire my own.
In Wharton’s “The Custom of the Country” (1913), as in “The House of Mirth,” an unfit member of old New York society fails to survive. But here the harshly Darwinian “nature” is the new, industrialized, nakedly capitalist America, and the victim is certainly not the protagonist, Undine Spragg. The novel reads like a perfect, deliberate inversion of “The House of Mirth.” It takes the same ingredients of sympathy and applies them to a heroine beside whom Lily Bart is an angel of grace and sensitivity and lovability. Undine Spragg is the spoiled, ignorant, shallow, amoral, and staggeringly selfish product of the economically booming American hinterland; she’s named for a hair curler mass-produced by her grandfather. Wharton was working on the novel in precisely the years when she was preparing to forsake the United States permanently, and its grotesquely negative cartoon of the country—the lecherously red face of the millionaire Van Degen, the fatuous pretensions of the celebrity portrait painter Popple, the culpably feeble traditions of old New York, the vacuous pleasure-seeking of the arrivistes, the corrupt connivance of business and politics—reads like a selective marshalling of evidence to support her case. The country that can produce and celebrate a creature like Undine Spragg is not, Wharton seems to be arguing to herself, a country she can live in.
But Undine’s story is one you absolutely have to read. “The Custom of the Country” is the earliest novel to portray an America I recognize as fully modern, the first fictional rendering of a culture to which the Kardashians, Twitter, and Fox News would come as no surprise. Lewis’s “Babbitt” and Fitzgerald’s “Gatsby” not only follow directly from it but seem, if anything, somewhat less modern. The nexus of money and media and celebrity, which dominates our world today, appears in the novel’s opening chapter in the form of the press clippings that Mrs. Heeny (Undine’s masseuse and early social adviser) carries with her everywhere, and the clippings become a leitmotif, a recurring measure of Undine’s progress. Ignorant though Undine is, she’s smart enough to know that she has exactly what reporters need, and she proves remarkably adept at manipulating the press. Along the way, she anticipates two other hallmarks of modern American society, the obliteration of all social distinctions by money and the hedonic treadmill of materialism. In Undine’s world, everything can be bought, and none of it will ever be enough.
The novel’s most strikingly modern element, however, is divorce. “The Custom of the Country” is by no means the earliest novel in which marriages are dissolved, but it’s the first novel in the Western canon to put serial divorce at its center, and in so doing it sounds the death knell of the “marriage plot” that had invigorated countless narratives in centuries past. The once high stakes of choosing a spouse are dramatically lowered when every mistake can be—and is, by Undine—undone by divorce. The costs now are mostly financial. And Wharton, who could see the inevitability of her own divorce when she was working on the book, again does nothing by halves. The story is saturated with divorce; it’s what the book is relentlessly about. Whereas “The House of Mirth,” a story of irrevocable mistakes, ends with the guttering of the feeble flame of Lily’s life, “The Custom of the Country,” which is a story of mistakes without lasting consequences for their maker, ends with the cartoonishly pure spectacle of Undine’s marrying the soon-to-be richest man in America and still not being satisfied. You don’t have to admire Undine Spragg to admire an author with the courage and the love of form to go for broke like this. Wharton embraces her new-fashioned divorce plot as zestfully as Nabokov embraces pedophilia in “Lolita.”
Undine is an extreme case of the unlikable person rendered perplexingly sympathetic by her desires. She’s almost comically indestructible, like Wile E. Coyote. The interest I take in her ascent, her Coyote-like survival of the seeming wipeout blows that her divorces deliver to her social standing, may be akin to the fascination of watching one spider in a jar prevail over other spiders, but I still can’t read the book without aligning myself with her struggle. This, in turn, has the odd effect of rendering secondary characters who might be sympathetic (her second and third husbands, her father) less so. I feel annoyed and frustrated with these men for thwarting a progress I’ve become engrossed in; their scruples, though admirable in theory, contrast unfavorably with Undine’s desires. In this regard, Undine may remind you of Wharton herself, whose success and vitality finally crushed her husband, and whose two great romantic love objects (Berry and Fullerton) it’s hard not to think less of, when you read her biography, for not being equal to her love. Undine’s sole motivating appetite, which is to have a certain kind of flashy good time, may bear little resemblance to Wharton’s sophisticated hunger for art and foreign travel and serious talk, but Undine is nevertheless very much like her creator in being a personally isolated woman doing her best to use what she was given to make her way in the world.
Here, indeed, is a portal to a deeper kind of sympathy for Wharton. Despite all her privileges, despite her strenuous socializing, she remained an isolate and a misfit, which is to say, a born writer. The middle-aged woman tossing her morning pages onto the floor was the same person who, beginning at the age of four, was prone to falling into trancelike states in which she would “make up” stories. She was raised to care about clothes and looks and maintaining proprieties in an élite social milieu, and she spent her twenties and thirties dutifully playing the role for which she’d been bred, but she never stopped being the girl who made up stories. And that girl, perverse, yearning, trapped, is inside all her best novels, straining against the conventions of her privileged world. As if aware of what an unlikable figure she herself cut, she placed unlikable women in the foreground of these novels and then deployed the storyteller’s most potent weapon, the contagiousness of fictional desire, to create sympathy for them.
In her most generously realized novel, “The Age of Innocence” (1920), written well after her affair with Fullerton, and after the Great War had made the decades preceding it seem suddenly historical, Wharton told her own story more directly than she ever had before, by splitting herself into a male and a female character, dividing beard from lily. The novel’s protagonist, Newland Archer, embodies Wharton’s origins: he’s an isolated misfit who is nevertheless inextricably enmeshed in the social conventions of old New York and inescapably adapted, despite his yearning not to be, to the comforts and norms of a steady, conservative world. The object of Newland’s grand passion, Ellen Olenska, is the person Wharton became: the self-sufficient exile, the survivor of a disastrous and disillusioning marriage, the New York-born European free spirit. They attract one another intensely because they belong together the way two sides of a unitary personality belong together. And so, for once, the problem of sympathy for Wharton’s characters isn’t a problem at all. There’s no making of mistakes here, and money is a minor issue. Ellen is simply pretty and in trouble, and Newland simply wants her but, being married, can’t have her.
The beauty of “The Age of Innocence” is that it takes the long view. By setting the main action in the eighteen-seventies, Wharton is able, at the end, to bring Newland and Ellen into a radically altered world in which their earlier plight can be seen as the product of a particular time and place. The novel becomes the story not only of what they couldn’t have—of what they were denied by the velvet-gloved conspiring of their old New York families—but of what they have been able to have. Its great heartbreaking late line, which takes the measure of Newland’s unfulfilled desire, is delivered not by Newland or Ellen but by the woman whom Newland has stayed married to. Wharton, in the novel, certainly shines what she once called “the full light of my critical attention” on the social conventions that deformed her own youth, but she also celebrates them. She renders them so clearly and completely that they emerge, in historical hindsight, as what they really are: a social arrangement with advantages as well as disadvantages. In so doing, she denies the modern reader the easy comfort of condemning an antiquated arrangement. What you get instead, at the novel’s end, is sympathy. ♦
February 16, 1997
By RENEE TURSI
EDITH WHARTON: The Uncollected Critical Writings
Edited by Frederick Wegener.
Princeton University, $29.95.
Friends recall that in Edith Wharton's hands a book often had a ''scared look.'' No wonder, given her zest for the ''bibliocidal impulse,'' Wharton's term for abandoning a bad read early on. But despite her astute critical mind, feelings of intellectual unworthiness made Wharton reluctant to publish her opinions. In a well-researched book that gathers these intermittent writings (including some previously uncollected), Frederick Wegener, who teaches English at Fordham University, suggests that Wharton ''found it difficult to take women seriously as writers of criticism.'' Her superb considerations of George Eliot and Henry James aside, Wharton's reviews consist mostly of uninspired analyses of lesser works, which no amount of Mr. Wegener's stoking can kindle. The rewards all dwell in her more searching essays. In ''The Great American Novel,'' written in 1927, Wharton implores American writers to recognize society's new complexity since the world had become ''a vast escalator'' bound together by ''Ford motors and Gillette razors.'' Wharton complains that American critics think ''genuineness is to be found only in the rudimentary,'' a tired idea keeping our literary portrayals ''tethered to the village pump.'' To this expatriate novelist, what America lacked was a more discriminating sensibility: ''It is not because we are middle-class but because we are middling that our story is so soon told.''
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