Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton; drawing by David Levine

To say that there is something troubling about the current Edith Wharton revival, in so far as it is that, is not to say that the new flurry of interest in her is either inappropriate or unwelcome. Far from it. It is very refreshing indeed to be sent back to her best work and realize in a new perspective how good it really was, and in that sense all the recent contributions are something to be grateful for. To be sure, the whole business of literary resuscitations is skittish and often suspect—who is to get picked out of the ash can? when, and by whom? and why?—and it is complicated nowadays by the alarming numbers of graduate students in the population, all needing subjects for theses. But there is nothing phony about the subject in this case. Edith Wharton had done her time in the ash can, for reasons no more complex or unjust than usual, and in part for the valid reason that having been as good a writer as she was she ended up an astonishingly bad one, through quite a few years and volumes. She was due to be re-discovered, re-evaluated, re-read. What is disturbing is a certain strange vulgarity, of course in very genteel wrappings, that seems to lurk behind some of the treatment of the subject. The question it all raises is how far scholarship justifies, and literary understanding is furthered by, a kind of personal poking and prying that one would find indecent or even disgusting among one’s private acquaintance.

Back in 1947 Edmund Wilson in his masterly little piece on Edith Wharton, reviewing the Percy Lubbock memoir, showed the sort of eclipse she was in by the questions he put. It was a rather freakish obscurity in a way, since Ethan Frome held its own as a “little classic” right along and at least one or two of her other books apparently never stopped being available and quite widely read. Still, for bookish circles she was definitely out of fashion and out of mind. She had been dead then only ten years; very little was in print about her; Wilson had only the vaguest notions about her biography and was curious about it, as presumably offering light on certain aspects of her work. What, for instance, was the source of her considerable wealth? And what about her rather peculiar marriage, and the rumors of illegitimacy, and nervous breakdown? Coming from Wilson, with his range of inquiry beyond the personal and his tone of the old pro, the beautiful unfussy command of his thoughts and of the English language, the questions were pertinent, certainly not impertinent. One shouldn’t mind their being answered. That one does somehow mind, to the extent of feeling both a little embarrassed and a little bored on the biographical side, makes one wonder if something hasn’t happened since 1947, something related to the general stepping-up of exposures and publicities in everything around us, to put a whole new kind of hazard into the business of literary biography. And in this instance it seems the worst, possibly along with the best, is yet to come. We are told that there is a batch (packet? trunkful?) of private Wharton papers in the Yale library, not to be opened until 1968, and to judge from many references to the fact in the current crop of books, whatever the opening date is for these mysterious documents, it is going to be like the first day of fishing season in a southern Connecticut trout stream.

Whether such passionate avidity toward any speck or shred of personal revelation about a writer can be put down to true scholarship or a love of literature seems doubtful. Anyhow, for an appreciation of Edith Wharton it is hard to see how anything very essential can still be stashed away at this point. Barring a few minor details, and granted a considerable difference in tone and type of interest, the three biographical works now at hand all present the same quite fully documented life, portrait and background, made from conscientious and capable use of the same ample materials. In fact to the ordinary literate reader it might appear that what was needed for a fuller appreciation of the lady and the writer was not more data but less, on the principle of the woods and the trees. Millicent Bell does make some cryptic references to “previously unpublished letters” evidently available so far to her alone for this purpose, but it may have been only this reader’s flagging interest that made the references seem puzzling and extra letters superfluous. Fewer letters in a somewhat less confined interpretation would have made at least for better reading.

Of the three biographies under review, hers is the most professional in style and on certain points the most astute, but it is also the most tedious, since it deals at such exorbitant length with a single friendship, of interest certainly, but of which the tone was often catty and intramural and the dominant fact was a lack of drama. A perfectly good picture of the James-Wharton relation had already been presented in Olivia Coolidge’s short volume published last year—a good concise job in that as in other respects and pleasant in its brevity, in spite of an error or two. (She has Teddy Wharton, Edith’s mentally ailing husband, selling their fine house in Lenox, Massachusetts, The Mount, against his wife’s wishes; both other authors have it the other way around, on apparently better evidence. This is one of several kinds of fact that matter so little and loom so large in a lot of contemporary biography; not that it isn’t better, of course, to keep the record straight, but better still would be to have it both straight and in scale.) In general the Coolidge picture has been very little changed by the amplifications of either of the longer treatments, and the book avoids the pitfalls of the amateur biographer that tend to mar Mrs. Kellogg’s immensely dedicated and far more exhaustive effort: over-heated and long-winded speculation, inexcusably fictionalized scenes, etc.


The picture is of rich little Edith Newbold Jones, known as Pussy, of impeccable social origin, growing up in a dull, correct, and highly leisured segment of “old New York,” rather freakishly, for their set, given to books, and starting a first novel: “‘Oh, how do you do, Mrs. Brown?’ said Mrs. Tompkins. ‘If only I had known you were coming I should have tidied up the drawing room.”‘ On being shown this her mother, who was mainly clothes-crazy, said “Drawing rooms are always tidy,” and refused to read further. However it seems the family were reasonably kind about her early writing efforts, so far as their lights permitted, and even paid for the publication of a volume of her youthful poems. She summers in Newport and is traipsed around Europe for long periods, for a rather interesting reason of economy that will figure on one level of observation in the best of her novels. The family money, like most of the money the Joneses were familiar with, came from imposing chunks of New York real estate; of course it was never mentioned, and from The Age of Innocence and The Custom of the Country, as well as many of her shorter works, one gets the impression that it must have been administered, not even by an underling in an office but by a second butler out somewhere beyond the pantry, in the part of the house that one ignored. There were times in the Seventies and Eighties when it became inadequate, as against the very different kind of big money that was taking over the town and setting up new standards of lavishness, and the Joneses would find it more comfortable to lead a rather lonely, if well-cushioned and fairly cultured life in Europe. Although having little truck with books at home or with living artists anywhere, such people did acquaint themselves pretty well with foreign art and monuments, partly because they were too proud to force their acquaintance on people of their own class abroad and so had nothing else to do.

In her young twenties Edith married attractive Edward Wharton of Boston, an extreme non-intellectual, who either was a latent neurotic already or became one under the pressures of her gradually emerging talent and recognition. She must have been rather a horror to live with, though all the biographers stress her kindness to her servants; her own life was acutely double, writer versus grande dame, complicated by a more or less lifelong love for the lawyer Walter Berry, a non-marrying aesthete who figures largely in the record. The close circle of literary friends she eventually developed, and in which James was also intimate, were of the same type, all males and unmarried. No children; a succession of houses, each a matter of fervent interior decoration; a life in Paris a little too carefully plotted with an eye to the faubourgs, and concerning which Mrs. Bell accurately remarks on the absence of the really good French artists or writers of the time among her friends. She found Thomas Hardy a bore at dinner (as perhaps he was, or perhaps she on that occasion caused him to be) and was very thick with Paul Bourget, whom she was apparently sincere in overrating. Her whirling restless energy brought from James the by now famous phrases about her: “angel of devastation,” “prodigious devil’s dance,” “the rich, rushing, ravenous Whartons” (but it was the same after their divorce), “a nightmare of perpetually renewable choice and decision,” “a luxury of bloated alternatives.” On her side she as good as accused him behind his back of sponging on her, out of his love of being taken around in her grand chauffeur-driven “motor car,” though she clearly adored his company on their many trips and was piqued if he declined. “He talks, thank heaven, more lucidly than he writes,” was her view, later somewhat modified, of the books of his greatest period. However they were good to each other and evidently good for each other in various ways, not least in an exchange of critical tenets at a moment in literary history dismally lacking in that respect, and a true loyalty underlay the odd syndrome.


The old notion, still found in reference and text books, of Edith Wharton the writer as a mere product of James’s influence, a cut-rate version of the master, is sensibly broken up by all of these biographers, as it must be by anyone who has read the works of both with attention. The influence was real and profitable, and outgrown in good time; the best of Wharton is thoroughly un-Jamesian, not to speak of the worst. There is agreement too in ultimate judgment of Edith Wharton as a writer; she was awfully good, and nobody here is claiming more. Neither is anybody here, in spite of earnest perusal of the question, quite explaining her failure to be “great.” She lacked heart, we are told, she was cold. Surely that is not quite enough, but it is probably all we will get until her achievement has been more accurately defined. It is only a part-truth, and ultimately as mystifying as the James-disciple error, to sum her up as a “social realist” and the forerunner of Sinclair Lewis. Not to go into the elaborate question of her shorter fiction (some of it excellent), her three major novels, still remarkably compelling, are The Age of Innocence, The Houth of Mirth, and The Custom of the Country. All three, but the latter most obviously, have a strong component of deeply private satiric fantasy, far out the other side of any social realism. Even to many details and manners, what has passed for her “naturalism” is in fact grotesque exaggeration and as such is not a flaw but a brilliant and necessary working out of an interior scheme. And it is perhaps at least a thought to pursue, that the genre itself is too subjective to allow for greatness, and that in finding that quite marvelous channel for her gifts she was also definining her limitation.

One may also feel that the deterioration of her later years is left unexplained by all these books, but that is perhaps unjust. The progression from her best books to something as preposterous as Hudson River Bracketed is so abnormal, one tends to look for some single dramatic cause, when perhaps the odds and ends of reasons thrown out so far are sufficient. She had fallen for her own big popular reputation, was writing for the slick ladies’ magazines (but why, really?); she was of an era violently finished off and replaced, so was old hat and could only half admit it; and above all was finally damaged beyond repair, as a writer, by her expatriotism, as James had warned long before, in exactly the tone he had once taken in writing of Hawthorne’s years in Europe. Of the America then in existence she knew nothing whatever; she couldn’t, by then, write ten words of supposedly American conversation without making a fool of herself, not to mention more serious aspects of the scene. So why did she go on writing about it? Where was her self-criticism? Had some dreadful ego-envelope closed around her after Walter Berry’s death, or at some other time? No, it has really not been explained.

A more curious omission in all these books is of the word homosexual. Yet the androgynous element is what is being discussed, under no name, in many passages, and it plays through her work, most luridly in the story “The Eyes,” which goes on being described as a ghost story but is in fact a violent male homosexual fantasy. Put together with everything else, the fact that her narrators were almost always male would seem to call for comment; and the standard treatment of the character of Walter Berry in relation to the cultivated love-renouncing hero, the Archers and Seldens of her fiction world, begs the question too, which is not to say that the answer would have to be a crude one. Very likely it wouldn’t be, as regards either her biography or her work, and her own view of Lawrence Selden of The House of Mirth may be all that is required. Still there is something about his joy at the end, when he is ostensibly going to say the magic word and save Lily Bart at last with love (but with the reader knowing that she has just died of an overdose of sleeping pills) that is strangely tasteless and disconcerting. At least one is left with a faint suspicion, as one also is at the end of The Age of Innocence in spite of a somewhat more convincing context there, that the author rather enjoys cracking down on love.

Social criticism,” writes Mrs. Bell, “is also the goal of The House of Mirth.” The sentence is unfortunately typical of her book wherever the critical faculty has to operate, and considering the fairly large amount of superior criticism, as distinguished from biography, that has been written about Edith Wharton, by Blake Nevius most fully and in shorter articles by Morton Zabel, R.W.B. Lewis, and others, it serves to dramatize the peculiar and evidently growing gulf between literary research, whether popularized or not, and the critical mind. When Mrs. Bell speaks of the Newport of the Seventies “so tenderly described” in The Age of Innocence one wonders if she is not thinking of some other author, since the section in question is actually one of Edith Wharton’s most savage and desolate. On Ethan Frome she goes along with the blatantly wrong-headed piece published some years ago, out of the privilege of every fine critic to be wrong once in a while, by Lionel Trilling, who in his embarrassment toward rural life refused to find any “moral content,” and therefore any content at all, in the book. He managed this by ignoring, and Mrs. Bell follows him in ignoring, the key scene in the story, in which Ethan faces up to the moral fact that in order to run away with Mattie he will have to deceive a generous and trusting friend as well as leave his wife totally without any resources. The issue drawn so plainly is even the pervading one of Edith Wharton’s preoccupation, making Ethan Frome a queer companion piece to, especially, The Age of Innocence: that is, the question of personal happiness versus the general health and continuity of a social structure. This Mrs. Bell clearly defines, on other pages; she merely missed the point in the particular book.

As for any general frame of reference, either literary or social, it is probably because there is so little in any of these books that one ends up feeling suffocated by the mass of small private detail and the spectacle of such hot pursuit after it. One would never guess what the robber barons had been up to in Edith Wharton’s lifetime; Melville seems never to have existed, and Theodore Roosevelt rates a mention only because she wrote a poem about him; no Turgenev or Maupassant, no other writer at all enters the long raking-over of James and Wharton on the craft of fiction. It is all in a vacuum, and makes one wonder finally just what the public is or is intended to be for this type of biography. Mrs. Coolidge, for instance, will suddenly drop from reasonable prose into an address to the fifth grade (“To the modern visitor, Paris is a city of beautiful vistas”; “Little is known about mental diseases today, and less was known then”). But mainly one’s bafflement is from a more generic cause.

Louis Auchincloss, long a Wharton fan and commentator, has done a good job of making up and presenting a selection of her works, presumably to supersede the one gotten out fifteen years ago by Arthur Hobson Quinn. One whole novel would have been better than halves of two, and his Introductions tend to be more comradely than profound, but there is nothing serious to quarrel with in his judgments, except in the Introduction to the re-issue of The Reef, in which he amends an earlier and less flattering view of that novel. First published in 1912 and generally considered the most Jamesian of Edith Wharton’s books, with its elegant construction and atmospheric French chateau, it is an equally far cry from both her best writing and her worst, though it contains at least two of her worst scenes and a heroine exasperating enough to be autobiographical. We will be hearing more about that after 1968. In any case it is not in The Reef that one can experience the bitter bite of nostalgia that marked her best work, and made her so often nearly great.

This Issue

January 6, 1966