“Angel of Devastation”

The Two Lives of Edith Wharton

by Grace Kellogg
Appleton-Century, 332 pp., $7.95

Edith Wharton and Henry James: The Story of Their Friendship

by Millicent Bell
Braziller, 384 pp., $6.50

Edith Wharton 1862-1937

by Olivia Coolidge
Scribner's, 224 pp., $3.95

The Edith Wharton Reader

selected with an Introduction by Louis Auchincloss
Scribner's, 736 pp., $7.50

The Reef

by Edith Wharton, Introduction by Louis Auchincloss
Scribner's, 384 pp., $4.95

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…

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