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The Unknown Edith Wharton


The Library of America’s collection is a splendid and satisfying publication, and a landmark in the history of Edith Wharton’s ever-shifting reputation; but it is not the whole story. In Maureen Howard’s two-volume edition there are sixty-seven stories, which span forty-six years (1891 to 1937). These include three of Wharton’s less well known novellas (“The Touchstone,” “Sanctuary,” and “The Marne”), originally published as individual titles, and some, but not all, of the mostly early stories which she didn’t choose to republish in her lifetime after their magazine appearance. Twenty-two stories are omitted.

The collection reminds us, both in its lavish display of little-known work and in what it chooses to leave out, of what a small proportion of this great and popular writer’s work gets read. And this is even though she now attracts as much attention as she did when The House of Mirth was a big best seller in 1905, eagerly sought after by readers who wanted the lid lifted on New York society, or when The Age of Innocence won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921—awarded, much to her dismay, to the book which “best presented the wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.”

The long desert stretches of neglect which followed, from the late 1930s into the 1970s, when Wharton was downgraded as a reactionary, an antimodernist, a rich old-school genteel snob, and a minor female version of Henry James, have passed—though you will still find critics of Wharton who can’t get beyond the class barriers. Now biographies and movies, TV adaptations and attractive paperback reprints, a secure place on reading lists and a fascination with all the details of her well-guarded private life have brought her back into the mainstream. It’s ironic that her affectionate, combative relationship with James underlay such a seesaw in their reputations. While they knew each other, she was a best seller and he was in the doldrums. In the mid-twentieth century, he was the revered, hugely written-about and much-edited master of American fiction and she was a belittled sideshow and imitator. And now he is mainly known, except among specialists, devotees, or academics, for the films of his novels, and she no longer has to be judged by his standards.

Even so, Wharton is still only popular for a very few of her forty-three books. (Forty-six, if you count manuscripts unpublished in her lifetime and her wartime anthology for charity, The Book of the Homeless.) Everyone with an interest in her reads The House of Mirth, The Reef, Ethan Frome, The Custom of the Country, Summer, and The Age of Innocence. But her somewhat baffling and formal autobiography, her choosy essays on fiction, her impassioned books on France, the pioneering work on domestic interiors, on Italian architecture, landscaping, and culture, and on traveling in Morocco reach a much smaller, special-interest readership. The House of Mirth has stolen the limelight from the other novels of her forties, the grandly ambitious, heavily researched eighteenth-century Italian historical novel The Valley of Decision and The Fruit of the Tree, which deals with social issues such as conditions for millworkers, euthanasia, and women’s education, and is extremely impressive in patches, in a George Eliot manner. And the post-1920 novels, such big sellers in their time, are relatively neglected now. Who reads that heartbreaking, troubling precursor to Lolita, The Children, or the evocative, ruthless, long stories of Old New York (I wish they were reprinted here), or the angry, emotional satire of Americans in wartime Paris, A Son at the Front?

As for the stories, the same outstanding examples have been anthologized over and over again: “Souls Belated,” “The Other Two,” “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” “The Last Asset,” “Afterward,” “Xingu,” “Autres Temps…,” “Atrophy,” “After Holbein,” “Pomegranate Seed,” “Roman Fever.” These are stories which, even if Wharton had written nothing else, would make us recognize and remember her. But the separate volumes of her stories have not been republished under their first, grave, knowing titles—Crucial Instances, Human Nature. And even now the Library of America has missed the opportunity to have a complete stories of Edith Wharton. In fact such a thing has never existed, since the only other “collected stories,” R.W.B. Lewis’s handsome 1968 two-volume edition for Scribner’s, long out of print, contained all the hitherto uncollected stories, and the stories she published in collections, arranged by volume title, but unhappily omitted the novella “Bunner Sisters” (reprinted here) on grounds of length.

Bunner Sisters” has had an odd publishing history which suggests a good deal about the slow evolution of Wharton’s professional career and reputation. She wrote it in 1892, at thirty, before she had published anything except a small locally printed collection of verses when she was sixteen, some poems in the Atlantic Monthly and in Scribner’s Magazine, and the first of a group of stories she was tentatively sending to Edward Burlinghame, the editor at Scribner’s. She’d been writing stories and poems since she could hold a pen or a book, but marriage and illness and social pressures and travel, compounded with uncertainty, had held her back in her twenties. And what she started her published career with were not, as might retrospectively be assumed, stories of New York high society, but quiet, implacable tales of urban poverty and confinement.

The first, “Mrs. Manstey’s View,” entered the life of an impoverished widow whose view from her boarding-house window—her only pleasure—is to be obstructed by new building. “Bunner Sisters” expanded on that line of bleak, tender realism. The story of the two sisters making ends meet with their shabby-genteel shop (rather like Hepzibah’s shop in Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables) in a run-down corner of New York, fretful and fussy in their interdependence, one self-abnegating and anxious, the other spoiled and dissatisfied, whose lives are changed and destroyed by a German clock-mender (he courts them both, marries the younger, turns out to be a drug addict, and abandons her) is shaped by a painstaking, Balzacian exactness, eloquent detail (there’s a particularly good ferry-crossing to semi-rural Hoboken), and a somber interest in these compressed lives.

Bunner Sisters” is the beginning of a powerful line in harshly compassionate social realism in Wharton that leads on to the factory and hospital scenes in The Fruit of the Tree, to Lily Bart’s stint in the milliner’s workroom in The House of Mirth, and to the deprived rural lives of Ethan Frome and Summer. When Ann Eliza Bunner, who has always pandered to her younger sister’s discontent, starts to fall in love with Mr. Ramy, the narrator tells us: “She had at last recognized her right to set up some lost opportunities of her own.” That narrative voice of Wharton’s—severe, realistic, and full of feeling—is already strong in this remarkable first long story.

But “Bunner Sisters” was, for a long time, one of her own “lost opportunities.” Burlinghame turned it down (twice) because it was too long (and perhaps too harsh) for his magazine. Twenty-four years later, when Scribner’s would accept anything they could get from Wharton, they didn’t want to publish it as a novella because it was “just a little small for the best results in separate form.” So it came out, finally, in 1916, in Wharton’s wartime volume of stories, Xingu.

This volume was a striking mixture: a brilliantly finessed comic satire on a New England women’s reading club, a savagely anti-German war story, a violent ghost story set in Brittany and featuring some alarming spectral dogs, and several painfully clearheaded investigations of the penalties for sexual passion and social aberration. These include the great story “Autres Temps…,” in which the divorced and disgraced Mrs. Lidcote, returning to New York after many years of exile because her daughter too has divorced and remarried, is amazed at a world completely changed, in which divorce is the norm and “every woman had a right to happiness.” But she rapidly finds that nothing has changed for her, forever “shut up in a little tight round of habit and association.”

Nearly all the stories in Xingu deal out harsh punishments to women: they are sexually exploited, socially humiliated, murdered, abandoned, or forced into intolerable choices. “The Long Run,” one of the best stories Wharton ever wrote, and into which she poured all her strongest emotions, is about a man who refuses his lover’s offer of her whole life, chooses to “abstain and refrain” for safety’s sake, and spends the rest of his time incarcerated inside his compromise and regret, and watching hers. “Bunner Sisters,” the last of the Xingu stories, is also a story of incarceration and thwarting. And the story’s publishing history seems to echo its subject matter. It has never had the status it would have had if published as a separate novella, as the dazzling, chilly Madame de Treymes was, or the great small book of obscure, paralyzed lives it deserved to be compared with, Ethan Frome.

The other three novellas reprinted here, all originally published individually, and none of them, now, very well known, also deserve a new lease on life. By far the best of these is “The Touchstone,” of 1900, which, like much of Wharton’s work, especially the earlier stories, deals with rights of intellectual property and a conflict between privacy and publicity. It’s also a very characteristic kind of ghost story, in which the feelings of the dead have a posthumous force. For the sake of his marriage, Glennard makes money from the sale of letters written to him by a famous woman novelist, now dead, who had loved him unrequitedly. He is full of self-disgust at what he has done, seeing the private letters in print like “wounded animals in the open”; for, as someone remarks, “How can any letters belong to the public that weren’t written to the public?” But he is “saved” by the love and forgiveness of his wife, who understands that, through his suffering and regret, he has at last become the person worthy of the love of the dead novelist.

The Touchstone” was her first short novel to be published, building on the modest success of her first short story collection, The Greater Inclination, the year before. “Sanctuary,” another New York story, the second novella included here, came a couple of years after “The Touchstone,” by which time she had published another collection of stories and The Valley of Decision. (Once Wharton had started, there was no stopping her: after The Greater Inclination in 1899 she published pretty much a book a year, sometimes more, for the next thirty-seven years.)

Sanctuary” is an odd, troubled, creaky piece of work, about a possessive mother whose marriage had been a self-sacrificing compromise, and who is battling to save her son from falling into the same kind of corruption and weakness as his father (he is tempted to cheat in an architecture competition by stealing a dead friend’s work). Though it’s ostensibly about the mother’s battle to maintain integrity once she’s realized that “the fair surface of life was honeycombed by a vast system of moral sewage,” it seems much more to be about her inability to let go of her son’s life: “Her soul rejected the thought that his future could ever escape from her.”

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