1962, which marked the centenary of Edith Wharton’s birth, was responsible for a modest flurry of publishing activity that brought a few more than the mere handful of the forty-four books she had published during her lifetime, back into print. This season Scribners have reissued three titles in a format that is virtually identical with that in which they are issuing again Henry James’s New York Edition. This might be interpreted as an act of implicit criticism or placing in itself, but one hopes rather that it is meant to carry the promise that the shelf of her books kept in print will be considerably extended.
The three books now reissued are Mrs. Wharton’s very reticent autobiography, A Backward Glance, first published in 1934, three years before her death; Summer, 1917, which is usually spoken of as a companion piece to Ethan Frome; and the four short novels first published in separate volumes in 1924 under the collective title Old New York. Among Mrs. Wharton’s titles waiting to get back into print, this is probably as good a selection as any that could have been made at present. Certainly her autobiography is indispensable for understanding the New York social structure of her girlhood, which forms the essential subject of some of her best work. But delightful as the autobiography is in all respects, and informative in others, it tells us astonishingly little about Mrs. Wharton herself. It is disconcerting to reflect that if we want to know something about her beyond the fact that she was a very grande dame, the only place we can go for a hint is to the brief biographical essay by Mr. Wayne Andrews introducing a collection of Edith Wharton’s short stories, published by Scribners in 1958.
Percy Lubbock’s overwritten Portrait of Edith Wharton, 1947, is primly tightlipped about everything any one seriously interested in her work might want, or need, to know. Reviewing the book when it first appeared, Edmund Wilson made a list of things it did not tell us about its subject. The questions Mr. Wilson asks only provide a frame for a portrait that is still missing, but they seem to me more illuminating than the “official” likenesses we have been given, and for this reason he is well worth quoting here:
Mrs. Wharton was always quite rich. Where did her money come from? Was it her own or was it her husband’s? And why did she marry Edward Wharton, with whom she obviously had little in common and was not very much in love? What, precisely, was the matter with him when he became deranged and Mrs. Wharton finally divorced him? Mr. Lubbock tries to put their relationship in as attractive a light as possible, but then he later speaks of Walter Berry, the American lawyer in Paris with whom Edith Wharton’s name has always been associated, as “the man she had loved for a lifetime, in youth and age.” To what kind of situation had this given rise? There is a legend that Edith Jones’s first love was broken up by her mother, who disapproved of it and sent her abroad; and that her first book of poems, which she had secretly had printed, was discovered and destroyed by her family. Is it true? And is it true that she began writing fiction, some years after her marriage, as a result of a nervous breakdown at the suggestion of S. Weir Mitchell, the novelist and neurologist? It has been asserted by persons who should be in a position to know that Edith Wharton had some reason for believing herself an illegitimate child and that her family rather let her down from the point of view of social backing….
The dearth of information that exists concerning Mrs. Wharton’s real personality has not been fortunate for her critical reputation. Art is not as autonomous as twentieth-century criticism often likes to think, and as one grows increasingly familiar with her fiction one recognizes that she belongs among those artists whose work, however obliquely, is an extension of their personal tensions and their intimate personalities, a knowledge of which may do more to illuminate their creative motives and the particular effects their art achieves, than anything else can. The quality that so many of her heroines and heroes have of being hopelessly trapped by the demands or the refusals of their society, or by the vacuity of their social aspirations, or by the various deprivations imposed on them by life, seems projected from some deep center in herself, from some concealed hopelessness, frustration, or private rage that we are never allowed to see except at several removes in the disguising medium of her art.
Mrs. Wharton herself is never seen except as a public figure. With her twenty-two servants, her splendid houses, her beautifully landscaped gardens in which nothing so common as a geranium was permitted, her retinue in attendance of ambassadors, French academicians, international hostesses, duchesses, and distinguished men of letters, her beloved Pekineses, and her luxurious motor cars in which Henry James so often found courage to face the long hot summers, she seems less a woman novelist than a princess royal; and there is little in the facade, so exquisite and perfect in taste, so carefully prepared and jealously preserved, that gives much inkling of the private personality that was responsible for her art. Even her photographs are “official.” A Backward Glance reproduces one taken about the time she wrote The House of Mirth in 1905 in which she might easily be mistaken for Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth reading the letter from her husband. It is this redoubtable “public” personality that, one fancies, has sometimes intruded itself between her work and even sympathetic critics.
In 1968 when the Wharton manuscripts and papers in the Yale University Library become available, a real biography may prove a possibility. Until that time the critic of her fiction must necessarily labor under difficulty. Before turning to Summer and Old New York, it might be useful to glance for a moment at the subtle kind of relation that exists between her art and her life. Surprisingly enough, it is exemplified nowhere better than in Ethan Frome, and not to admit the relation is to be impelled towards an adverse judgment on a work that deserves to rank with her two great masterpieces, The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country.
A few years ago in an essay on Ethan Frome Lionel Trilling said, a little severely, of Mrs. Wharton: “…she was a woman in whom we cannot fail to see a limitation of heart, and this limitation makes itself manifest as a literary and moral deficiency of her work, and of Ethan Frome especially.” He bases his judgment on what he takes to be her cruelty, even (one gathers) her sadism, in her attitude towards her characters, whom she submits to needless and gratuitous suffering—gratuitous because in the given situation they are incapable of acquiring moral knowledge from their pain. Speaking of that last horrifying scene in which we see the three principals trapped, as it were forever, in that impoverished New England kitchen, Mr. Trilling says: “…all that Edith Wharton has in mind is to achieve that grim tableau…of pain and imprisonment, of life-in-death. About the events that lead up to this tableau, there is nothing she finds to say, nothing whatever.” He calls his essay “The Morality of Inertia”; in his reading of the novel Ethan Frome falls short of the specifications of the Aristotelian tragic hero because he is one of those people “who do not make moral decisions, whose fate cannot have moral reverberations.”
Against this reading of Ethan Frome it is possible to oppose a quite different reading in which the movement and meaning of the whole narrative depend on two crucial moral decisions made by Ethan, the second of which cancels the first and entails tragic consequences because it is the wrong decision. The two moral decisions are painstakingly prepared for in the text, and given as sharp a focus as possible. The first decision is made when Ethan, tormented by his love for his wife’s young cousin Mattie, plans to run away with her, and for that purpose considers the possibility of securing money from the Hales on false pretenses:
He started down the road toward their house, but at the end of a few yards he pulled up sharply, the blood in his face. For the first time…he saw what he was about to do. He was planning to take advantage of the Hales’ sympathy to obtain money from them on false pretenses. That was a plain statement of the cloudy purpose which had driven him in headlong to Starkfield.
With the sudden perception of the point to which his madness had carried him, the madness fell and he saw his life before him as it was. He was a poor man, the husband of a sickly woman, whom his desertion would leave alone and destitute; and even if he had had the heart to desert her he could have done so only by deceiving two kindly people who had pitied him.
He turned and walked slowly back to the farm.
Ethan’s second choice, which reverses the one that has been quoted, is to die with Mattie rather than to face the intolerable pain of parting from her forever. It is not a rational choice in the sense that the first decision was. As Mrs. Wharton finely presents it in the last chapter but one, it is the result of an all but irresistible compulsion of love and despair—almost irresistible, but not quite, for in that first decision of Ethan’s that Mrs. Wharton rendered for us with such clarity, she showed us a will and a moral intelligence capable of overcoming even this last temptation.
In the sled crash that brings the main action of the story to a close, Ethan and Mattie are not killed but hopelessly crippled. As Ethan painfully regains consciousness under the great elm towards which he has steered the sled, Mrs. Wharton gives us an extraordinary paragraph:
The sky was still thick, but looking straight up he saw a single star, and tried vaguely to reckon whether it was Sirius, or—or—The effort tired him too much, and he closed his heavy lids and thought that he would sleep…The stillness was so profound that he heard a little animal twittering somewhere near by under the snow. It made a small frightened cheep like a field mouse, and he wondered languidly if it were hurt. Then he understood that it must be in pain: pain so excruciating that he seemed, mysteriously, to feel it shooting through his own body. He tried in vain to roll over in the direction of the sound, and stretched his left arm out across the snow. And now it was as though he felt rather than heard the twittering; it seemed to be under his palm, which rested on something soft and springy. The thought of the animal’s suffering was intolerable to him and he struggled to raise himself, and could not because a rock, or some huge mass, seemed to be lying on him. But he continued to finger about cautiously with his left hand, thinking he might get hold of the little creature and help it; and all at once he knew that the soft thing his hand had touched was Mattie’s hair and that his hand was on her face.
Ethan’s half-delirious desire to help the little animal he imagines he hears is not the reaction of a morally lethargic character; but apart from its immediate effectiveness in deepening still more our sense of his humanity, the passage rises to a bleak revelation when he becomes aware that the agonized cheep is not from an animal in pain but from the crushed body of the only person who has ever satisfied his instinct to love. The presence of the little field mouse does not act as a reductive agent on the dignity, the suffering, or the moral natures of Ethan and Mattie, nor does it suggest that they exist on a sub-tragic level; rather, it precipitates them into a non-human void beyond tragedy where the sufferings of mice and men are one, where moral decisions and love and decency are obliterated in a blank indifference.
But this was a resolution which, however strongly she may have felt impelled towards it, Mrs. Wharton would not accept any more than she accepted Ethan’s second moral decision to find an escape in self-imposed death with Mattie. The horrifying closing scene in the kitchen in which Ethan, Mattie, and Zeena seem to confront one another forever is not suffering wantonly imposed on her characters by an embittered female writer, but a punishment that grows ineluctably out of a moral action deliberately performed, and the punishment is meant to exist as an evaluation of that action. In the prologue to Ethan Frome the narrator of the story exclaims when he first sees Ethan’s face: “He looks as if he was dead and in hell now.” One might plausibly argue that Ethan Frome is a moral parable, and the sequel played out in the farmhouse kitchen is really meant to be an epilogue in hell.
Since the purpose of these comments is not to offer a critique of the novel but to suggest a relation between Mrs. Wharton’s biography and her art, it will be necessary to glance quickly at her situation during the several years that preceded the publication of Ethan Frome in 1913.
In 1908, according to Wayne Andrews, to whose biographical essay I have already referred, Mrs. Wharton’s husband, “who had already developed symptoms of neurasthenia, suffered a severe nervous breakdown.” Two years later he was placed under the care of a psychiatrist. Something of the blackness of the period comes through in a letter Henry James wrote to her at the time, and from which Mr. Andrews also quotes: “Only sit tight yourself and go through the movements of life. That keeps up your connection with life—I mean of the immediate and apparent life, behind which, all the while, the deeper and darker and unapparent, in which things really happen to us, learns under that hygiene, to stay in its place.”
Mr. Andrews gives us for these same years quotations from Mrs. Wharton’s unpublished diaries that reveal the passionate intensity of her love for Walter Berry, not more than hinted at in A Backward Glance or in Percy Lubbock’s Portrait. His excerpts are immensely more moving than passages of this kind commonly are, and they reveal a woman who has little apparent relation with the “official” Edith Wharton. They also reveal a human being with a hopeless sense of entrapment. Returning from Paris to her husband, mentally ill at their home in Lenox, Massachusetts, she entered in her journal, which seems to be addressed to Berry:
I heard the key turn in the prison lock. That is the answer to everything worth-while!
Oh, Gods of derision! And you’ve given me twenty years of it!
Je n’en peux plus.
And yet I must be just. I have stood it all these years, and hardly felt it, because I had created a world of my own, in which I had lived without heeding what went on outside. But since I have known what it was to have some one enter into that world and live there with me, the mortal solitude I come back to has become terrible…
It requires no very ardent effort of the imagination to conceive the possibility that Ethan Frome may well have grown out of the double ordeal that Mrs. Wharton went through between 1908 and 1913 when the novel was published. All the constricting circumstances in which Ethan finds himself entrapped, Mrs. Wharton may have carried over, suitably disguised, from her own situation, to scrutinize and question in the pages of her novel. But the ultimate resemblance between her situation and that depicted in Ethan Frome is a moral one. From neither situation does there appear to be a possible issue in terms of happiness. Even though Mrs. Wharton was divorced in 1913, she remained apart from Berry, and the moral decision she made in her own life would appear to correspond more or less to the first moral decision made by Ethan—the one which she punished him so severely for forsaking.
There is no intention of suggesting here that Mrs. Wharton was vulgarly capitalizing on her private experiences in Ethan Frome. Despite what may be a personal origin, her art is at last a highly impersonal one. But her own moral crisis appears to be reflected with remarkable fidelity in Ethan Frome, and one might even venture to suggest that it may have become for her, as she wrote it in the year of her divorce, a moral laboratory in which she tested creatively the alternatives that confronted her in her impossible situation. If she was cruel, the cruelty was in the severity with which she judged herself. So far from indicating a limitation of heart, Ethan Frome would seem to be, if the relation between Mrs. Wharton’s art and life that has been conjectured here is true, the expression of a remarkably sensitive moral nature.
Summer was published in 1917, having been written as a distraction from Mrs. Wharton’s strenuous war work with the French Red Cross. Because of a similarity in economic and regional backgrounds it is usually named in connection with Ethan Frome and the fine story, “Bunner Sisters,” to both of which it is markedly inferior. In recent years critics have shown a partiality to Summer that is difficult to understand, even placing it in importance and achievement above Ethan Frome. Summer is a novel about seduction, and like most novels on that subject it is both dated and a bore. Of all the sexual delinquencies, seduction, in fiction at least, is the only one that seems to have no relation to the relevant Commandments, but only to a somewhat ossified social code that places a premium on hypocrisy and profitable investments. It provides the worst conceivable frame in which to analyse the nature or the reverberations of moral action. Although Mrs. Wharton manages to whip Summer into sufficiently respectable shape to pass an indifferent inspection, a bare synopsis of the plot will reveal the unpromising material she is working with, from which even a greater genius than she could not expect to win a triumph, except by way of a tour de force outside the comprehensive range of Mrs. Wharton’s irony.
The heroine of Summer, Charity Royall, has been rescued in infancy from an outlaw community established on “the Mountain,” presumably somewhere in the vicinity of Lenox, Massachusetts, by a country lawyer living in the little village of North Dormer. Charity grows to young womanhood, morosely resenting the fact that her benefactor, having become a widower, has entertained on one evening for the space of half-an-hour illicit designs against her person. On other evenings Mr. Royall has been content to read the speeches of Daniel Webster. Meantime an appealing young architect named Lucius Harney appears in North Dormer, commissioned by a New York publishing house to make sketches of some of the old eighteenth-century houses in the neighborhood. Charity drives him about the countryside in Mr. Royall’s buggy, and Lucius, without (one gathers) fully intending to, seduces Charity. She discovers that she is going to have a child while Lucius is away in New York attempting to break (without success) a prior engagement to a girl of higher social status. Charity conceals her pregnancy from Lucius, and decides to go back to “her people” in the outlaw community on “the Mountain.” She arrives just in time to be at the burial of her sluttish mother, whom she has never met, and is carried back to civilization early next morning by Mr. Royall, who has come after her in his buggy. The only avenue of escape seems to be the one offered by Mr. Royall, who, although now an old man, proposes marriage. Charity, in a half-conscious state, accepts his offer, and learns to her relief after the wedding that he only envisages a platonic relationship.
None of the intensity, moral form, or personal conviction that so beautifully inheres in Ethan Frome is to be found in Summer, and it is irresponsible to compare the two works. Summer indeed has some passages of impressive but somewhat showy writing—notably the description of the corpse of Charity’s mother, which proves that Mrs. Wharton was “at home” to naturalism. But it is exactly on this score of naturalism that the novel seems most dated and inept. Frank Norris, who carried a certain vulgarity with rich assurance, was often an admirable enough writer, but Mrs. Wharton was an artist who could have learned from him only to her detriment—and one suspects that on this occasion she did. She borrows from him (it must surely be from Norris) a clumsy technique of static symbols that are intended to exteriorize moral problems and emotional processes. Thus, from time to time, we have flashed before us, with the subtlety of a red arrow indicating a fire exit, a black and gold sign on an office building in the neighboring city of Nettleton: “Dr. Merkle; Private Consultations at all hours. Lady Attendants.” We know from the first that Charity will end up in that office, and on that faith we settle back and wait for her to discover that she is pregnant. It is a relief, and perhaps something of an innovation in the genre, when Charity scornfully rejects Dr. Merkle’s recommendation of an abortion.
Summer should be kept in print because of its place in Mrs. Wharton’s career, and as a somewhat muffled contribution to the naturalistic novel from an unexpected source. But with Old New York we are back in a more breathable atmosphere. It is a collection of four short novels of uneven merit. The first, False Dawn, is about an American youth in the 1840s, commissioned by his wealthy father to travel in Europe and buy “Old Masters” for the family gallery. As the youth has the intelligence to prefer Piero della Francesca to Carlo Dolci, a sticky family crisis occurs. This is a highly promising subject, but Mrs. Wharton fails to do anything convincing with it.
The last three stories demand a detailed treatment that cannot be given to them here, and so it is perhaps better to leave them with one or two general remarks. They are obviously written by a grande dame who has gone underground, and enjoys nothing more than dynamiting the social structure she is commonly supposed to celebrate. But she does it with such finesse and subtlety that the destructive explosions often occur without noise. The Old Maid, The Spark, and New Year’s Day are minor masterpieces (not as minor as some critics suggest) in which a complex organization of wicked ironies quietly but hungrily munch away at the social fabric like so many subversive moths devouring purple plush.
September 24, 1964