Henry James, already an expatriate in 1883, noted on his return to America in that year that the “most salient and peculiar point in our social life” was to be found in the situation of women. He perceived an “abyss of inequality” which he attributed to “the growing divorce between the American woman (with her comparative leisure, culture, grace, social instincts, artistic ambitions) and the male American immersed in the ferocity of business, with no time for any but the most sordid interests, purely commercial, professional, democratic and political.”
Judith Fryer offers us an illuminating exploration of how two American woman writers, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather, managed to escape the cramping limitations that men had imposed on their lives through the flight of their artistic imagination into what she calls “felicitous space.” Every human being, according to the mathematician Henri Poincaré, whom she quotes, takes his own body as an instrument of measurement to construct a space of instinctive geometry that his imagination can then amplify into a greater space where he can lodge his universe. Women, trapped in the home, excluded from the marketplace, had to use their vision to create a larger world in which to breathe.
Opinions have differed sharply in the last hundred years on how much consideration literary critics should give to an author’s life. From Sainte-Beuve’s exhaustive relation of biographical facts to events and characters in fiction we have swung to more austere academic methods of isolating the work itself, to the modern psychobiography where literature operates as evidence to the would-be analyst. Fryer’s method of using the author’s life as another of her works strikes me as the most fruitful.
Edith Wharton not only housed her characters with a richness of detail equaled only by Balzac (Edmund Wilson called her the poet as well as the pioneer of interior decoration); she built and bought sumptuously for herself. She erected a great country manor, The Mount, in the Berkshires; she furnished and adorned the Pavillon Colombe in St. Brice-sous-Forêt near Paris and Ste. Claire-le-Château at Hyères on the Riviera, and designed elaborate formal gardens for all three places. The prevailing rule in her creations, as expressed in The Decoration of Houses which she wrote with Ogden Codman, was order. As Fryer puts it: “The careful symmetry allows for no unexpected mingling of servants and masters, no penetration of guests into private quarters, no romantic hermitages in the gardens, but rather a kind of social interaction that is carefully planned, controlled, deliberate.”
The masculine world was disordered, untidy, and (as Wharton was to see for herself on a visit to the front in World War I) brutal. By putting sense and proportion into it, by creating rooms and gardens in which men and women could graciously intermingle, she was able to transform it into “a world of conversation and stimulation, of continuity and tradition.” She never believed in a separate world for women.
Interiors played a dynamic role in Wharton’s novels. In The House of Mirth the stages of Lily Bart’s social decline are traced from the rigid straightness of Mrs. Peniston’s Fifth Avenue brownstone to the more relaxed opulent grandeur of “Bellomont” on the Hudson, to the glittering vulgarity of the Brys’ and Gormers’ mansions, and from there to the gilded void of the Emporium Hotel and the suite of the demimondaine, Norma Hatch. “It is as if Wharton took the classical house plan, with its harmony and proportion, and turned it, skewing it, then turned it a bit more for each of the stops along Lily’s downhill path, so that the sense of fixedness becomes less sure and more off center as the novel progresses.”
Lily’s final space is a very small one indeed—a room in a boarding house. Yet all her spaces, regardless of size, have become prisons because she is too fastidious to pay the price exacted by her peers, which is simply to catch and marry a rich bore, and when she succumbs in the end, her death gives dramatic significance to a frivolous society by showing what its frivolity can destroy.
The stronger women of The Age of Innocence, May Welland and her mother and grandmother, are able, by the complete control they have seized from the abdicating sex (too absorbed in business) over the forms and spaces of New York’s brownstone society, to enchain the hero in a lifelong unhappy marriage and send his would-be mistress packing off to Europe. In this great novel the over-stuffed houses and furnishings, like their overdressed chatelaines, seem to close in like carnivorous plants on the male gold-bugs who had fancied they owned the garden. The female’s revenge in American society was castration.
Fryer’s fascinating analysis of The Age of Innocence leads one to speculate further on the nature of the evolution of brownstone society. First come the robber barons, caring for nothing but moneymaking, securing their goals at any cost, a Vanderbilt or a Gould, with subdued, obedient, plain spouses. But the latter are soon succeeded by glittering daughters-in-law and granddaughters who build vaster and vaster palaces and fabricate a society of elaborate etiquette in which the sons and grandsons, less vigorous than their sires, will be hopelessly enmeshed. These poor souls will be able to escape from their mighty mates only in offices where they passively cut coupons or in sport or in furtive adulteries. I know that my wife’s grandfather used to be summoned from the Knickerbocker Club, where he repaired to play cards after leaving his office, by a call from the butler to remind him to be home and dressed for dinner on nights when his wife entertained. And I can remember my youthful surprise, at parties in the late 1930s given by the auto tycoon Walter Chrysler, to observe that the atmosphere was not at all that of the strong matriarchy to which I had been inured. Perhaps I was witnessing the start of a new cycle.
Fryer does not make the point that the position of women in New York nineteenth-century society was no worse than that of male artists, but I think it is worth stating. Writers and painters, like women, had to create new spaces for themselves. Henry James himself, so much quoted by Fryer, has described how in New York he felt relegated to the “uptown” area of women and children, totally removed from the “real” world of moneymaking. He soon fled to Europe where he learned to use the spaces of the English country house, the French Château, and the Italian palazzo very much as Wharton did. Actually he made even better use of them, for he did not, like Wharton, spend any of his precious energy building and decorating for himself. Lamb House, after all, was small potatoes compared to The Mount or Pavillon Colombe.
And I can remember, in a New York that still saw many survivals from Wharton’s day, feeling that my lack of interest in business relegated me to the same “up-town” world, with the result that I combated my literary ambitions, fearing that they would effeminate me. Such pleasures were reserved, I believed, for women, the privileged sex that could enjoy the luxury of indulging its artistic tastes while supported by men condemned to the dreary “downtown” work that they valiantly but unconvincingly pretended to enjoy. I suppose Fryer would simply reply that my likening the plight of the male artist to that of women emphasizes how bad that plight really was.
We can agree, at any rate, that Edith Wharton, who eliminated from her memoirs all mention of her love affair with Morton Fullerton, her divorce, her spiritual isolation and self-doubt, wished to present herself as having reconciled the disturbing elements of her life and having achieved a life of harmony and proportion. Like James, she had created “her own great good place.”
In Willa Cather Fryer finds a very different use of space from Wharton’s as an affirmation of women in a male-dominated world. The wives of pioneers in our West did not, like their husbands, mythologize the landscape as they grimly passed through it; they noted in their diaries “not natural formations but numbers of graves.” They sought to bring order out of the disorder of frontier life through the careful crafting of objects of daily use and enjoyment and works of art: quilts and coverlets, songs and stories. Willa Cather, coming later to Nebraska but still on the heels of those early settlers, was able to turn this force back on those wide open spaces in which her predecessors had seen only menace and death and to evoke the regenerative power of the land itself which was to inform her fiction. Alexandra feels this force in O Pioneers!:
For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. Then the Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.
But when Fryer discusses Cather’s use of memory and nostalgia and how she makes a “language-landscape, rooting her stories in time,” inventing, remembering, imagining, from her own experience and from that of her neighbors, I begin to wonder if what Fryer is saying—and saying beautifully, I concede—is not true of a hundred other writers. And when she speaks of Cather’s use of “bodies” in her stories—“Bodies come together and move apart. Bodies sweat in the sun, they gleam in the bath”—she seems suddenly to be writing a parody of her own book. I feel like Molière’s bourgeois gentilhomme who is elated to discover that he has been talking prose all his life. Have I been creating “felicitous spaces” in mine?
I also have trouble with Fryer’s analysis of My Ántonia. She starts well enough:
When Jim Burden says in the frame story of My Ántonia that his manuscript “hasn’t any form,” he means that it does not have the usual form: plot, conflict, the development of character, the Aristotelian form of beginning, middle and end. The parts of My Ántonia have a semi-independent existence of their own, like separate stories, like the separate squares of hemmed fabric that are pieced together to make a quilt, like the separate rooms of a frame house on a western prairie; together, they do form a whole.
This seems to me to describe the novel exactly. But then she goes further. She wants to prove that the form of the novel is in the stories themselves, just as they occur to the narrator, Jim Burden, as he remembers them and tells them, “stories not isolated but interlocked, making contexts for each other, resonating with each other.” Yet closely as I have read Cather I cannot see that the stories in My Ántonia have—or need to have—any greater common denominator than their Nebraska rural background and the nostalgia of Jim Burden. I impenitently maintain that Cather could have reached into her own copious memory and pulled out a dozen other tales that would have served her purpose just as well. I see no literary necessity in attributing a genius of selection to a simple discontinuousness. Cather’s art is in the storytelling.
Take, for example, Ántonia’s hair-raising account of old Pavel and Peter who, as young men, have been driven out of their native village in the Ukraine because they saved their hides on a nocturnal sleigh ride by pushing a pair of newlyweds off the sled to delay a pack of pursuing wolves. This story presents the toughest case for Fryer’s theory of “interlocking” tales, since its only link to Nebraska is that the exiles happened to move there, and that Jim and Ántonia attend Pavel’s deathbed.
She argues that the story gains terror by the contrast that it offers to the ordinary daily life of the Shimerdas and to the coziness of Jim and Ántonia lying close together in the straw of the wagon going home as she tells him of Pavel’s fate. But almost anyone’s daily life would offer an equal contrast to the horror of the tale, and what more conventional setting can there be for a horror story than a group of cozy listeners, usually before a fire? And, in any case, the Ukrainian episode is so powerful that one utterly forgets who is telling it and where. Fryer goes on to claim that “the rhythms of the story of Pavel and Peter are the rhythms of the journey—their journey in the Ukraine, Ántonia and Jim’s journey home in a rattling wagon, Jim’s remembered journey from Virginia, and his remembered Nebraska as he journeys by rail across the country.” This to me is less literary criticism than one reader’s personal associations.
All this is not to say that Fryer, with her apt summations and choice quotations, does not give her reader a beautiful and unified sense of Cather’s work as a whole.
I conclude with one note of dissent. Fryer sees Cather preeminently as a woman’s writer; she likens her very landscapes to the female body and celebrates her triumphant assertion of a woman’s vision against a male-dominated society, an order against a disorder. But if Cather, like George Eliot, had chosen to publish My Ántonia under a male pseudonym, I doubt that anyone would have remarked on the author’s sex. I believe that Cather knew exactly what she was doing in using Jim Burden as her narrator. Some writers can be identified as female from their prose: Jane Austen, Sarah Orne Jewett, Jean Stafford; and some not: George Eliot, Emily Brontë, Marguerite Yourcenar, Katherine Anne Porter. But the visibility or invisibility of sex in neither category affects the merits of the work. I devoutly wish that the whole business of classifying authors by sex, race, creed, color, or even nationality or era could be dropped. Some twenty years ago I published a book with the subtitle “Nine American Women Novelists” and was scolded by some critics—I now think quite properly—for using the word “women.” Yet in the revised climate of today the book is being reissued. Had I had my way I would have retitled it simply: “Nine Novelists.”
July 17, 1986