Edith Wharton was born in New York City in 1862 as Edith Newbold Jones. Her mother was a Rhinelander, one of the poor ones, or more accurately not quite one of the rich ones. Her paternal grandmother was a Schermerhorn. Thus the “Knickerbocker element” survived in her pedigree. These were the remnants of the old Dutch patroons who were themselves early overwhelmed by immigrants from the British Isles and by British military force. It was early indeed since Peter Stuyvesant surrendered in 1664 and New Netherland or New Amsterdam became New York. From the beginning the old society was beleaguered; had it not been there would be no Manhattan, this world city as porous as cheesecloth. Traders from New England came down from Maine through Connecticut and were not at first as roundly welcomed as we might imagine today. And, needless to note, worse was to follow the little band of old New Yorkers, causing them vainly to whisk their tails against the flies and gnats like so many carriage horses.
Into this enclave, old New York society, Edith Wharton was born. She took her positioning seriously and the old stock with its thumb in the dike of Manhattan was one of her themes as a novelist. It might be said of her what Henry James wrote of Hawthorne: “It is only in a country where newness and change and brevity of tenure are the common substance of life, that the fact of one’s ancestors having lived for a hundred and seventy years in a single spot would become an element of one’s morality.”
Being from New York rather than from Salem, Massachusetts, she was not a Yankee and not a lingering puritan conscience inhabited by ghosts and provincial scruples. She grew up a cosmopolitan from the first, early traveling abroad with her parents; she married after the usual biographical unsteadiness in the matter of broken engagements and again traveled abroad, then settled on Park Avenue and in Newport and, much later, built herself a grand house in Lenox, Massachusetts, kept traveling, finally sold the house, divorced her husband, Edward Wharton, “cerebrally compromised Teddy,” as Henry James called him, summing up this wild manic depressive who gave her a lot of trouble. Along the way she had a three-year affair with the romantically overextended seducer Morton Fullerton. And then in 1913, after the divorce, she settled permanently in France. There was more to it than that.
Edith Wharton was twenty-nine when her first short story was published and thirty-seven when her first collection appeared in 1899. Two years before The Decoration of Houses, written with the architect Ogden Codman, had been published. Even though starting late, Edith Wharton quickly became a professional writer in the best and then again in the less than best sense of the phrase. She wrote steadily, novel after novel, made money, and spent money with a forthright and standard-bearing loyalty to those twins of domestic economy, taste and comfort.
She liked expensive motorcars and once told Henry James that the last of these had been purchased with the proceeds from The Valley of Decision, a two-volume mistake about eighteenth-century Italy with characters named Odo and the Duke of Monte Alloro, and showing that Italy can be as dangerous for certain English-language novelists as the vapors from the undrained Marshes. (To this point: Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, a weary and unsuitable surrender to the moist murk a gloomy eye might discover in the beautiful country. Hawthorne himself did not make the common surrender to Italy and complained of “discomforts and miseries,” found the Roman winter an unadvertised blast of chills, and could not countenance nudity in sculptures.)
Henry James, looking at the motorcar purchased by the assault on Italy, and referring to The Wings of the Dove, is reported to have said, “With the proceeds of my last novel, I purchased a small go-cart, or wheel-barrow, on which my guests’ luggage is wheeled from the station to my house. It needs a coat of paint. With the proceeds of my next novel I shall have it painted.”
There is a tradesman’s shrewdness in Edith Wharton’s work. She knows how to order the stock and dispose the goods in the window. She was a popular author, or, to be more just, her books were popular, not always the same thing. (Even in her day there were writers, many of them women susceptible to sentiment, who trafficked in novels in the present-day manner—more soy beans on the commodities market.) Edith Wharton is free of lush sentiments and moralizing tears. In The House of Mirth, her triumph, she is not always clear what the moral might be and thereby created a stunning tragedy in which the best and the richest society of New York revealed an inner coarseness that might remind one of pimps cruising in their Cadillacs.
Nevertheless she is often caught up in contrivance as a furtherance of product. And she likes the ruffled cuff and wonderful transcontinental glamour, interesting enough in itself, but speeding to pointlessness, something like the wonder about it all when a heavy rain falls on an elaborate garden party. The novel is viewed as a frank transaction between elements, elements to be laid out and pasted down like tiles in a frame. A “situation” is of course the necessity of fiction. Yet what of the cracks, the anxiety we sense in greater novelists about the very intention of the careful arabesques so purposefully designed and all of a sudden baked hard as rock?
In a story by Chekhov called “Terror,” a young man has been flirting with the wife of his good friend and she has been sighing in the Russian manner for him. Somehow he at last takes her to his room and the husband enters to get his cap left there earlier, set up, we would say, by the dramatist’s art. At the end the young man wonders: “Why has it turned out like this and not differently? To whom and for what was it necessary that she should love me in earnest and that he should come to my room to fetch his cap? What had the cap to do with it?” A Question about the domination of structure imposed upon a violence of feeling that would in any case have led the two to mount the stairs, open the door?
Neatness of plotting; balancing of the elements by a handy coincidence beyond necessity: that is the way it often goes with this prodigious worker, busy at the morning’s pages. She tends to lay hold with some of the gregarious insistence she displayed as the sort of hostess who organizes trips after lunch. Too many caps to be retrieved at the bedside of indiscretion, too much of a gloss. It’s the last slap of the polishing cloth and then forge ahead in a majorful fashion.
The Reef for instance: the young man is hoping to marry the recently widowed woman he has long loved. She puts him off with family affairs in her mother-in-law’s château in France and with problems relating to her young child and to her stepson. All are Americans, but the château somehow appears as naturally as if it were a deed to a wood lot. In a fit of chagrin the young man has an affair in a cheap Paris railroad hotel with a penniless, adrift American girl trying her hand at this and that abroad. This manifestation of impatience over and done with, the widow and the young man recombine, so to speak; and soon the girl from the railroad hotel turns up and will become engaged to the stepson, heir to the château and all the rest. The plot is suspenseful and executed with considerable gallantry and many Jamesian pauses in articulation—questions that do not quite ask, answers that hang in the air, the cues in the matter of a dialogue to a moral dilemma. The convenience of the young girl’s turning up to be promptly fallen in love with by the heir is too brilliant, too much like a train throwing off passengers at the most useful station.
The Mother’s Recompense: a mother has abandoned her husband and daughter and New York society has erased the blot of herself as if she were a bit of smudge to be washed off a window. She lives abroad rather shabbily unanchored, but has for a time the pleasant anguish of an affair with a younger man, the great love of her life as he will be. When the old members of the New York family die, the daughter brings her mother back. It’s a lottery ticket for the bolter; everything forgiven, luxury, and social reestablishment. Soon the young man drops down on the scene; the daughter falls in love and means to marry him. You turn a corner, or rather a page, and there he is, or there she is. A practical hand, the novels of a busy person; moments of social comedy set out as deftly as the knives and forks; dramatic encounters in the splendid old arks in the Hudson Valley or in the mansions moving upward on Fifth Avenue.
Edith Wharton is a challenging figure just now. The finesse, the talent, the turn of the clock of the city to a sort of landmark affection support her glamour and worldliness, along with the thick construction and ornamentation of the threatened record of the architectural past. With Edith Wharton, it was “approach up a red carpet,” as the English man of letters Percy Lubbock says in his courteous, but sly, memoir of their friendship. She herself was, in most of her writing life, not one to loiter with curiosity about the crude crunch of New York and she cannot even be claimed as an old-stock patriot since she fled the frontier and the American presence with its “vainglory, crassness and total ignorance.”
In line with the contemporary appetite for shock and revelation, certainly the grande dame received a boost in her literary ratings by the excellence of the whole of R.W.B. Lewis’s biography and by his discovery and publication of a very knowing fragment of pornography found among her papers. She composed, yes, a father-daughter scene, a frankly hot exercise in appreciative specification not unlike Auden’s “The Platonic Blow”:
Letting herself downward along the divan till her head was in a line with his middle she flung herself upon the swelling member, and began to caress it insinuatingly with her tongue. It was the first time she had ever seen it actually exposed to her eyes, and her heart swelled excitedly: to have her touch confirmed by sight enriched the sensation that was communicating itself through her ardent twisting tongue. With panting breath she wound her caress deeper and deeper into the thick firm folds, till at length the member, thrusting her lips open, held her gasping, as if at its mercy.
The House of Mirth was written while Edith Wharton was still living in New York in 1905—or partly living in New York on Park Avenue when not at the new house in Lenox or in Newport or abroad. The tragic force of this ambitious early novel—early in her career at least—has to do with the broadness of conception, the immediacy of the strokes and scenes, rather than, as was so often later the case, a concentration upon details of manners, such as divorce for a woman. (It is interesting that in this novel one woman who seems to be invited everywhere has been divorced twice.)
It is a society novel of city mansions and great country houses, expensive bridge games, Paris clothes and lavish weddings. Into this the author has placed a perfect center, Lily Bart, a spectacularly resonant creation, trying to keep afloat after a very realistic collapse of the foundation of the “part” she was designed to play. Lily is spoiled, pleasure-loving, and has one of those society mothers as improvident as a tornado. The father comes home one day from “downtown” and while Lily is chattering about the need every day for fresh flowers in the house at twelve dollars a dozen, the weary man replies: “Oh, certainly my dear—give him an order for twelve hundred.” There is a sardonic stress to his reply and the father is asked if he is ill. “Ill—No, I’m ruined,” he says.
Quite soon both parents are dead and Lily is sent to live with an aunt, an old goose in good society and well-heeled, but dull and stingy in everything except an allowance for clothes. At the opening Lily is twenty-nine, beautiful, clever, an adornment for dinners and weekends that demand expenditures, at the bridge table for one, which she cannot afford and for which she is secretly in debt. It is clearly time for her to marry, after having foolishly turned down respectable offers. Marriage to a rich man is her aim, and early in the book she has her chance with a plodding, timid young heir, but certain acts of impetuosity and the news of her gambling debts frighten him away.
That is the way it goes. Every move Lily makes, whether innocent or calculating, leads to disaster and compromise. Her efforts go on very much in the manner of a continental farce. Although she is chaste, she tends again and again to be discovered in a sort of rumpled state. Men, married and otherwise, pursue her and, when rejected, blackmail her. Each scene is interesting and if observers are always on hand to find her walking in the park when she’d rather not be seen or coming out of a house at the wrong hour no unfortunate arrangement of circumstances is altogether without credibility.
The brilliance of the characterization lies in Lily’s self-knowledge. She is never unaware of her own motives and when her manipulations fail she does not impugn the self-interest of others working against her own. As one who has been on the town too long and who is poorer than anyone knows, Lily quite understands self-interest. She loses every gamble and each opportunity snaps back like a trap. Her acquaintance with luxury is a fatal habituation, an opiate. “Of luxury, the fruit is luxury,” as Thoreau phrased it. At last, disinherited by her aunt because of “gossip,” she sinks into irreversible poverty, an urban slide something like that of a luckless courtesan, although Lily Bart is only a New York society girl without means and without connections except of the kind that issue invitations to her as a still charming member of the “best set.” In the end she takes an overdose of sleeping medicine.
Surrounding this personal debacle is a large society, not a representation of the city so much as a society that twists and turns within itself, within the list, the mostly rich and sometimes dull and overfed—but no matter. The predatory sexuality, the heartlessness and coarseness are quite startling when viewed against the more mildly rebuked, nostalgic renderings of the old guard in the later works.
For instance, Gus Trenor, whose credentials we cannot doubt since “with all his faults, Trenor had the safeguard of his traditions, and was less likely to overstep them because they were so purely instinctive.” Of course, the “instinctive” graces are often out to lunch when life, here and elsewhere, scratches with its small and large irritations and the fishwife screech falls on the air. Still, the rather glum and fumbling needs of poor Gus bring to mind instincts of the old urgency.
His wife is Lily’s best friend, with all the relevant modifications of both words, and gives parties and weekends on Long Island, or is it up the Hudson? Mr. Trenor has appeared harmless enough, but is insufficiently attended to—that seems to be the case. On one of the occasions, social, at Bellomont, his estate, he hears of Lily’s desperate situation and offers to invest her last thousand dollars. Not long after he presents her with ten thousand dollars, supposedly profit from a tip. Having gone to this trouble, Trenor turns ornery as a ward boss. He gossips about the money and insinuates that there was no market tip; there was only his generosity, for which he wants womanly attentions of the usual concreteness. He sends her a telegram in his wife’s name, summoning her late in the evening to his mansion on Fifth Avenue. Of course, the telegram is a trick of the most benighted asininity and Trenor is alone. He makes a clumsy effort to seduce Lily, but clumsy or not the intention is altogether realistic. Edith Wharton is bold about sex, even something of a nudging procuress when the plot allows. “Hang it, the man who pays for the dinner is generally allowed a seat at the table,” the overheated man growls when he is rebuffed. (Lily’s last act before committing suicide is to return, in the manner of Socrates before the hemlock, the profit from Mr. Trenor’s “investment” on her behalf.) But where are the gentle manners, the agreeable repressions attendant upon civility learned at the tables set with the “du Lac Sevres” and the “van der Luyden Lowestoft” and the “Dagonet Crown Derby”?
The House of Mirth in its flashlighting around New York casts its beam upon a Mr. Sim Rosedale. In the practice of the period, Rosedale is referred to as a “little Jew,” and weighed down, as if by an overcoat in summer, with a thickness of objectionable moral and physical attributes—each readily at hand for the confident satirist. The fellow has made a lot of money downtown and thus his path crosses that of the more or less well-bred Wall Street New Yorkers, who find him useful since their own capacities, with the help of spendthrift wives, are thinning like the hair on their heads.
Rosedale is ferociously set upon entering the society described in the novel; he has the money and is determined to have the dance. It must be said he comes upon the scene as free of family, traditions, religious or otherwise, as bereft of community as a scout on the plains. Rosedale is no slithering continental sybarite like August Belmont, but instead a shrewd, if uncouth, trader, and from history it might be doubted he would be so quick to wish this particular dilution of himself and his fortune. The author understands it is fate and probity that lead the dull, rich Mr. Gryce to pass over Lily Bart and to unite his pile with that of the dull, rich Evie Van Osburgh. She would not have known of Rosedale’s possible familiar life and so his muscular push into smart society must be taken as, well, natural.
In any case the advancing Sim Rosedale is an important figure in this plot of threatening circumstance. Since Lily is beautiful, unmarried, and as fashionable as satin, Rosedale has settled upon her as the mate to show his accumulations to advantage. She refuses him, with “repugnance.” But as her opportunities wither and her desperation augments, she decides to take the florid Rosedale and his millions after all. In a powerfully executed scene, Lily faces up and says, “I am ready to marry you whenever you wish.” The crafty usurper turns her down. Her rotten luck, those scandalmongering observers of her trek here and there on the stairs of a bachelor apartment house, on a yacht in the Mediterranean, and the compromising reportage they have engendered, are a fund of disadvantage. She is no longer a good investment.
Lily Bart is a flawed, self-absorbed, and oh, yet, decent beauty of the kind that tests the novelist’s art. Sympathy is aroused by the honesty of her impulses, and she has an emotional clarity that makes even an occasional charity believable. Emotional clarity, honesty in fact, is less efficient in society than garrulous self-justification, called fighting back. With Lily this clarity is like a pinch of arthritis in her manipulating hand.
Her helplessness in poverty may be laid to society’s withholding from the clothes-horse beauty the proper training for independence as a woman, independence being knowing how to work and letting go of the dressmaker. There is a suggestion of the sadness of laboring incapacity in the exposition Edith Wharton has supplied. Certainly Lily Bart is not a pioneering candidate for Radcliffe College and indeed cannot trim a hat, one of the occupations girls fallen from prosperity attempt in this as in other novels. The author knows the lamentable inadequacy of “the modelling of her little ear, the crisp upward wave of her hair” as a preparation for a paycheck. And above all what she stresses is the blight of a conditioning for luxury without the means.
But Lily Bart knows what she knows, coquetry for the most part, and to have been prepared otherwise would have been another novel. At one point Lily explains that people think one can live on the rich when the fact is that it takes money to live with the rich. To be without sufficient money is like diving into the concrete of a drained swimming pool. This novel is Edith Wharton’s finest achievement because money is the subject, a greater signification than the crippling, if amusing and charming, details of convention in a small, historically perhaps attractive, but insignificant stockade. At least that would seem to be true of Manhattan even when it was “old.”
No novelist in his volumes has set out to be the social historian of the actual city, this restless monster of possibility and liability. It is not easy to imagine a voraciousness to consume the remarkable, shapeless scope or, even in a practical condensation, to imagine a Zola tramping through the warehouses of meat at dawn or trailing the garment workers home to some godforsaken borough in the evening. The city itself has never been a whole as the other great cities were until recently, when New York’s peculiar instability and visionary tribalism became a worldwide condition: Turks in Berlin, Arabs in Paris, colonials in London. New York literature is the literature of the precinct, whether it be the Mafia, Hell’s Kitchen in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, or the Glass family on Central Park West. A great claim is usually made for Edith Wharton as a social historian, although how that can be confirmed by so intensely hermetic an imagination is a puzzle.
The gorgeous innuendo of Henry James’s New York pages in The American Scene; the lilting metaphors of distress and dispossession. It was 1904 when the chagrined pedestrian made his way through the fatally designed “streets intersecting with a pettifogging consistency.” He spent some hours on Ellis Island, the utopian gateway, and cautioned the unwary against doing the same. To witness the “inconceivable alien” in their herded numbers was to have “eaten of the tree of knowledge and the taste will be forever in his mouth.” But the effulgent language of James’s wounded curiosity can be said to redeem the space of his withdrawal, to honor the gross elaboration and “untempered monotony” of the Waldorf-Astoria and to fix in a glance the very topography of the city lying in its rivers and “looking at the sky in the manner of some gigantic hair-comb turned upward.”
New York, with its statistical sensationalism, is a shallow vessel for memory since it lives in a continuous present, making it difficult to recall the shape of the loss deplored, whether it be the gray tin of the newsstand or the narrow closet for the neighborhood’s dry cleaning, there and gone over the vacation. For people, the rapid obsolescence of deities makes its point each season; or if surviving the gleeful erasure of fame, the penalties pursuing society’s accommodation can be severe, or so it is often asserted by the fatigued famous.
In my time, the preservationists say, men got up when a woman entered the room. When poor Blanche Dubois, passing the louts at the poker table, says, “Don’t get up, I’m only passing through,” how is that to be understood without “tradition”? There’s a bit of that in Edith Wharton.
The Custom of the Country, 1913, was for the most part written in France. It is a curiosity of a hybrid kind. Here we have a fierce scold, not to the alien from Odessa or Sicily, but to the natives undertaking an interior migration from Apex City to The City. Their landing, ready for absorption, is a two-fold pain: their pockets are lined with cash and they don’t know when to get up and when to sit down. The mode of the composition is split in the middle: the one half a depiction of the invaders in a satiric accent and the other a whirlwind of folly and destruction on an international scale.
So we open to the Spragg family from Apex. Spragg, wanting to transpose itself to Sprague or something, but efficient, perhaps in suggesting many back-country impediments and wonders of maladaptation not unlike those of Ring Lardner’s hicks in The Big Town; or his Mrs. Gullible finally achieving her wish to meet Mrs. Potter Palmer, doing so in a hotel corridor, and being asked to bring more towels.
Mr. and Mrs. Spragg are woebegone pilgrims, and the old father with his “lymphatic patience” brightened only by the Masonic emblem on his waistcoat is as unlikely a trader on Wall Street as the man behind the pickle barrel in the corner grocery. But he has made money in some way and the hadj to Mecca is, you might say, made on the roller skates of his daughter, Undine, who for a good while has been dreaming about Fifth Avenue in her Apex backyard. The choice of this family to bear the history of new money in the metropolis carries more of the stress of a quick blowout of parody than of serious imaginative decision.
William Dean Howells has created similar migratory birds in The Hazard of New Fortunes. His Dryfoos tribe hits town with a fortune made from natural gas in Northern Ohio and Indiana. Natural gas would seem to be a very happy source for American finance, but the boomtown alteration of fortune does not decorate the newly rich man’s psyche. In New York, old Dryfoos wails, “I ain’t got any horses, I ain’t got any cows. I ain’t got any chickens, I ain’t got anything to do from sun-up to sun-down.” Mr. Dryfoos and his strike have, like the Spraggs, been transported by ravening daughters who want to bust into New York society.
It is no doubt prudent to have daughters if one would display in fiction the barbarities of social climbing and portray in all its anxious athleticism a passion for shopping. Of course, consumption and insatiability are the overhanging atmosphere of the city itself, gathering all classes, top to bottom, in its dreamy, poetic smother.
Undine Spragg arrives on the scene with youth, natural, and beauty, extraordinary, and every moral and practical liability a golden girl from the heart of the country can fold in her trunk. She is an infection, a glassy, little, germ-filled protagonist. We meet her set up with her family in the Hotel Stentorian, in rooms that go by the name of the Looey Suite to be furnished with a good deal of over-sized mahogany and gilt and laughable hangings on wall and window. Undine gets “round” right off and meets, without giving him notice, a young man, Ralph Marvell. Soon she receives from his sister an invitation which she throws in a basket, to be rescued by a Mrs. Heeney, masseur and manicurist, who cries out, Marvell! His mother is a Dagonet and they live with old Urban Dagonet down in Washington Square!
Mrs. Spragg chews on this: “Why do they live with somebody else? Haven’t they got means to have a home of their own?” Undine, perplexed and suspicious, questions why a sister should have written and why the invitation should ask the mother’s permission when it is Undine who is asked to dine and why dine instead of have dinner, and why write the note on plain white paper when pigeon-blood red is all the rage?—that kind of thing. Go steady, Undine, Mrs. Heeney advises.
Not long after, Undine is married to Ralph Marvell and the plot advances to the lamentable results of this—for Ralph Marvell. The Marvells are old New York, impeccable in birth and manners, not rich, living in their comfortably shabby house on Washington Square, three generations within. Ralph is bookish and perhaps will himself write books; he is quiet, charming, has been to Harvard and Oxford, tried law but didn’t have a flair for it, and now does nothing apart from reading and living according to his nature.
The European wedding journey is the first foreign experience for Undine and it proves to be an experience foreign to Ralph Marvell’s previous life. Undine despises Siena, altogether too slow and too hot. When asked if the summer wasn’t hot in Apex, she replies that she didn’t marry to go back to Apex. In Paris the Comédie is “stuffy” and the husband attends alone while she is busy and, surreptitiously, having the family rings reset and buying a lot of clothes without the money. In fact the couple doesn’t have money for the passage home and there are turns of plot attendant upon that. Undine is piling up the wreckage, flooding the banks of the river, and leaving the Marvell heritage and finances tumbled down in the mud.
Ralph Marvell is a creation of the novelist’s art and his attractiveness is evident on the page. His marriage to Undine is, however, a sort of haystack of implausibility stuck in the midst of urban life. She is given only one quality and that is great beauty. Beauty will always be an assertion the reader is compelled to accept but cannot keep his mind fixed upon. The hair—was it red?—and the “glow” when some diversion pleases the beauty are not exactly traits to be probed so much as color floating and drifting without a trace.
Undine, the character, is a witch of ignorance, insensitivity, vanity, and manipulation. She is mean to her parents, indifferent to the child she finally bears, and impossible to imagine as anything other than tedious. Whatever negotiable assets she has are practical only to certain vulgar sensualists, of which there are quite a few on the scene. She divorces Ralph Marvell without asking his permission and imagines after making herself fully available that she will cause Van Degen, a rich and decadent member of the Marvell set, also to get a divorce and to marry her. But the canny Van Degen thinks better of it and does not come forth.
Along the way a most fantastical marriage for Undine does come about. She unites with the Comte Raymond de Chelles, a handsome young nobleman with ancient credentials, a house in the Faubourg, a château in Burgundy, little money to combine with Undine’s less, since old Spragg has not prospered on Wall Street for all the reasons sufficient from the beginning.
Why must Edith Wharton and, in a different manner, Henry James decorate their pages with ancient titles to confound the romantic history of their Americans? Undine inflicts appalling indignities upon the poor Comte but she is strangely imagined to be fidgeting about in the cold halls of a turreted castle. What is so interesting about Gilbert Osmond, the fortune hunter, in The Portrait of a Lady, is that he acts like a prince of the realm but is indeed quite recognizable as an insufferable American expatriate, long resident in Florence. Prince Amerigo, in The Golden Bowl, fortunately does not flourish the papal title and he is mostly seen maneuvering about London offering his fate to Americans, too many of them as it turns out.
But how peculiar it is to have the delightful, candid Christopher Newman in The American set off in pursuit of the daughter of the noble Bellegarde family. The ancient Europeans will be cut from the cloth, stamped out one after another without distinguishing shapes, a bit like weird American manufactures from which Newman made his finally unsuitable millions. The titled Europeans will be mystery, inflexible pride, hidden motive, inscrutable manners, melodrama, and unreality; trappings, fuss and feathers, that must stand in the place of the author’s having no real knowledge, or observed experience of the character and intimate life of Europeans so high.
Howells in The Hazard of New Fortunes has one of the odious Dryfoos shopping, primping daughters make a similar leap into the European bog. Christine Dryfoos meets her fate in the person of a French nobleman “full of present debts and of duels in the past.” It is added that the father and his natural gas dollars can manage the debts, but the duellist had better watch out for Christine, “unless he’s practised with a panther.”
The international novels are in fact novels of traveling Americans meeting each other abroad with a few natives thrown in. The Ververs cast their immense fortune at the foot of a prince, but the prince is a passenger and the motors of the action are in the hands of the Ververs and the American, Charlotte Stant. Mme. Merle, so mysterious, is finally just another American, like the radical chic Princess Casamassima, another visitor like the Touchetts, whose gifts will buy for Isabel Archer a fantasy of native blood, Gilbert Osmond, decorated with impecunious winters abroad, a little collection of things, and the hauteur of his meaningless displacement.
Undine at last finds a perch on Fifth Avenue as the wife of Elmer Moffat of Apex, an old pal to whom she had been briefly married as a girl. The discovery of this concealment is a contingent reason for Ralph Marvell’s suicide, one of many reasons for his sighing, “What’s the use?” like Dreiser’s Hurstwood. So she will travel from the picket fence to Fifth Avenue on the back of Apex Elmer, loud and red-faced as a fire truck. Elmer is now a railroad magnate, like—can it be?—the Commodore, putative, Vanderbilt. The much-used bride is to be largely rewarded and when the dispenser is Edith Wharton the loot will be lavish, and banal. Undine is to have “a necklace and tiara of pigeon-blood rubies belonging to Queen Marie Antoinette, a million dollar cheque…a new home, 5009 Fifth Avenue, which is an exact copy of the Pitti Palace, Florence.”
As a social historian, Edith Wharton does not pause to get it just right, on the dot. She proceeds from a very generalized memory and an often commonplace fund of attitudes. The Custom of the Country has placed its points at extremities that undermine the evolutionary rush of the actual city. The invading Visigoths with their rude instruments of fortune, like Mr. Spragg’s marketing of a hair-waver from which comes Undine’s name and his later having a worthless parcel of land upon which Apex would build its water system, are not the usual transfers to Manhattan. The middle-sized towns of the Middle West would be more likely to claim the powers of Mr. Spragg and to contain the gossip-column ambitions of dressing-up Undine. The old Spraggs’ rustic souls are fashioned out of impermeable materials and the city casts its stones of enlightenment their way without making a dent.
New York City is a frame in these novels, not a landscape: 5009 Fifth Avenue? More un-foretelling is the failure to understand the magical progression of taste, so hasty, in the newly rich of the city. For what is easier than the acquisition of acceptable responses? Culture, as society finds it, is no saturation but an acquaintance with the labels of things valued, be it the Parthenon or white walls. The culture of consumption is infinitely accommodating and the terms of cultural dissemblance are an available cosmetic, another pot of rouge. Very few Undines would scorn Siena or the Comédie Francaise, scorn out loud. Quickly the proper patience appears and no matter how deep the stab of boredom in an actual confrontation.
The Marvell house in Washington Square, the seat of the genteel opposition, is one thing, but in New York “divided space” is preeminent and the hotel and apartment living the hick Spraggs embrace cannot be thought of as retrograde. Was there in old New York an aristocratic style, an intimate weave of obscure inherited practice and value? Perhaps, but the style as it has come down to us was always drowning in the city’s hyperbolic congestion of effects, the glare of the futuristic, the fantastical democratizing compulsion of Manhattan’s eternal newness.
When Henry James set up his house in Washington Square he did not force the historical inappropriateness of the terms in the novels of Edith Wharton. He placed in his house, a memory dear to him from his youth, a member of the professional upper classes, with no worrisome tics about who might be a Dagonet, who a Van der Luyden. Dr. Sloper is an intelligent, hard-nosed, serious practitioner in a useful arena of knowledge, a possible New Yorker. True, the doctor is said to have married into one of the “best” families, but this has no dizzying command over the rather surgical common sense with which he approaches family affairs. What has its woeful effect upon him is that his wife has died and left him an improbable daughter, Catherine. His disappointment in his daughter is not unreasonable, or unthinkable perhaps, for a metropolitan gentleman. Catherine is dear, awkward, unfashionable, and indeed would seem to have many qualities of a Boston girl transplanted carelessly to New York. In Boston, among the Yankees, Catherine’s modesty and plainness and wish to please would not be impediments in a girl of good family.
In New York, Catherine is a perturbation. When the selfish, false idler, Morris Townsend, begins to court her, the doctor’s intervention is cruel and practical. He is shrewd about Townsend and with his oily, ironic efficiency is not mindful of the fruits of his shrewdness in the broken heart of his daughter. The novel is a perfectly faceted diamond, clear in its icy progression. The drama sits on its corner downtown as confidently as the house Dr. Sloper built for himself. Social habits, conventions, prohibitions of the group have no part in the dilemma. Dr. Sloper knows his objections to Townsend as frankly as if the young man had come begging with a tin cup. Townsend does not care for Catherine, wishes only to marry her money, and while the sophisticated doctor can no doubt understand both, he sees that the conditions promise to be baneful down the road.
Mrs. Wharton’s Age of Innocence has great appeal because of the charm of the two figures, Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer. If it has a definition, an engine, it is divorce as a social stigma, a disability not to be incurred by a woman. She must, no matter what provocation hang on legally, even if at a distance. She must not for a mere wish to be free of it all act on her own behalf. Ellen Olenska, a Mingott connection, has married a titled swine of a Pole. She has left him and returned to New York; he will take her back, but there is no thought of his swaying from whatever disgusts have been his pleasure. If she divorces, there will be scandal and she will lose her money brought to the marriage and what is spoken of as “everything else.”
The scandal of the intriguing Countess, with her irregular escape from her husband, combined with the powerful Mingott clan’s displaying her in the family opera box bring forth the beginning gasps of curiosity and social dismay. It is not a very weighty casualty and yet Edith Wharton must find something to give reality to the deputed social standards. Good manners and the family plate are not sufficient for drama. Hindrance and exclusion are needed to give the old dominion coherence, to act as a sort of velvet rope in a museum protecting the plunder. Of course, there is great provincialism afoot here since we know from Proust that a great French aristocrat can drop his croix de guerre on the floor of a male brothel without diminishing his prestige.
A good deal of the plot is concerned with who will come to a dinner in honor of the Countess, who will visit her, and so on. The loyalties of the old families are to be tested, and the best, the oldest, the most valued come forth bravely to smile over the canvasback ducks and to shame the timid, the complacent, and the insecure.
Ellen Olenska is glamorous and in tribute to her cosmopolitan life a bit exotic, a bit of a bohemian in her “little house” on an unfashionable New York street. She reads Paul Bourget, Huysmans, and the Goncourt Brothers. Newland Archer, conventionally reared by doting, placid women, a cousin to everyone who is anyone, has just married an unimaginative, nice young woman of his own set. Archer and Ellen Olenska fall in love and it is a flaming passion that almost sends the lovers to a hotel room. The consummation is withheld, the Countess Olenska, divorced, returns to Europe, and Archer grows into a husband and father with bittersweet memories, recorded in one of those codas that span the years and might well have been foregone.
Edith Wharton herself suffered throughout her marriage to the Boston bon vivant, Teddy, as he was called. Teddy was worldly, liked the pleasures of dog and stream and wine cellar. He had no interest in scholarship, high or low, but took over a good deal of the management of houses and practical affairs and that went well, until it didn’t. The two seem to have been a poor sexual match. Edith had her three-year affair with Fullerton, her strong affections for Henry James and others, especially for Walter Berry, a New York Van Rensselaer, an expert in international law and widely considered a snob, in her own vein. She was buried by his side, in Versailles.
Morton Fullerton, Harvard, son of a minister in Waltham, Massachusetts, became a political and cultural journalist, at one time the correspondent from France for The London Times. Fullerton seems to have been an attractive, perhaps we could say a lovable young man. In his love life he is something like a telephone, always engaged, and even then with several on hold. Whether he wished so many rings on his line is hard to tell; perhaps he was one of those who would always, always answer. In any case, among his callers were, in youth, Ronald Gower, a homosexual and friend of Oscar Wilde; Margaret Brooke, the Ranee (colonial title) of Sarawak; his cousin, Katherine Fullerton Gerould; Victoria Chambert, whom he married and with whom he had a child, while living with a Mme. Mirecourt—and Edith Wharton.
When you have decided that Fuller likes older women, the Ranee and Mme. Mirecourt, he takes up with those younger, his cousin and Victoria Chambert. At the time of his affair with Mrs. Wharton there was a balance with no special signification: she was forty-five and he was forty-two. The Fullerton women tracked down thus far by academic prurience seem to have been of a forgiving nature and remained friendly to him throughout the years. Mme. Mirecourt clung like a burr and, as an expression of her enduring affection, was quite troublesome.
Teddy Wharton fell into the care of psychiatrists and into mood-swing follies, even going so far as to set himself up with girls in a Boston apartment. He ran through his wife’s money and his increasing instability led to divorce. Twenty-eight years they had together and insofar as one can know, most of them were useful if not “satisfying” in the current sense. But then how satisfying could the dear love of the ambivalent Walter Berry have been? Edith Wharton appears to have been a type found in abundance on the contemporary scene—surprisingly sexy when the availabilities allowed, but owing to a dominant attraction to stylish amusements happily surrounded by homosexuals, always of course of the right sort.
Once the deed was done, the divorce signed, she seemed to settle with forward-looking fortitude. Even in her day, divorce was common in the best society and it might be thought she held on to the prohibition mostly as a literary device to serve as a dramatic expression of the old manners—a necessary addition to the appointments of the house and the seating at the table. She used divorce again and again in her fiction, even sometimes seeming to entertain a certain moral nostalgia for its rigors. There is no doubt it was a handy circumstance for exile and for “cutting.” The bald fact was that there were not many other stands to be taken in her created world, where the virtues were birth, the grand style if suitable, as with the rich Van der Luydens; good taste and modesty of pretension, the old bourgeous style, with the Marvells.
Edith Wharton had never been “modern” as a writer and had few theoretical questionings about the shape of the novel. “I certainly don’t think Edith often read,” Percy Lubbock wrote. Visiting her, he sometimes felt “a book had a scared look as she carried it off, as though it knew what it was in for.” Yet she was a celebrated novelist, bore many honors, and experienced the threat of displacement in the clamorous, avant-garde elation of the 1920s. The Waste Land did not receive her favor and Ulysses was to be named “school-boy drivel.” Living in upholstered exile, in the manner of Mrs. Wharton and Bernard Berenson, may have the gloomy effect of attaching one to intransigence in the arts as if they were fine old fruit trees in the antique villages.
Mrs. Wharton had her turf, that almost forgotten sepia New York, to be turned over and over again, like setting the plow to the family farm every spring. A group of four short novels, under the title Old New York and boxed together, appeared in 1924. At the time of writing she was living in her final grand house, Pavillon Colombe, in St. Brie, France, not far from Paris.
False Dawn, subtitled The ‘Forties, proposes the adventures of a young man sent out on the civilizing Grand Tour and deputed to bring back works of art for his father’s collection: Guido Reni, Carlo Dolce, and the like. Instead, spurred on by the development of a friendship with a young Englishman, who, we are asked to believe, is John Ruskin, he purchases Carpaccio, Fra Angelico, Giotto, and Piero. The choice leads to his being disinherited by his father and scorned by old New York. Complacency and backward taste appear to be the indictment. “Carpatcher, you say this fellow’s called?… Something to do with those new European steam-cars, I suppose, eh?” the outraged father cries out. Satiric dialogue, engaging enough in conversation, is a crash of dissonance on the Wharton page. And she likes to preen a little, to glide up on Ruskin and sneak up on the unlikely Piero purchase as if they were two cups of tea at Doney’s.
In The Spark, a crusty old New Yorker claims to have learned human wisdom from a talkative fellow while being nursed in a Washington hospital after Bull Run. It is the dear bard himself. The Old Maid, another of the volumes, is a skillful melodrama set in the 1850s and telling of the sadness of an unwed mother’s having to pretend to be a devoted aunt as she watches the child growing up, a condition as common in the village as in the city.
The Old New York volumes are anecdotal fictions. There is not much air in them. Throughout Edith Wharton’s work the society is small and its themes repetitive. The reader himself will become a sort of cousin of the blood as the defining names appear again and again. Memory has been emptied out by the long years abroad, and a certain perfunctoriness and staleness hangs over the scene. Christine Nilsson will be singing Faust at the Academy of Music; the carriage will give way to the coupé. Characters go to balls and dinners and stop by to drink tea. They scarcely set foot on more than a few predictable blocks and on the way do not pass restaurants or saloons or thieves or workmen going home. Manhattan is a “set” but with no sense of crowds.
An early story, “Bunner Sisters,” was rejected by the editor and put aside for many years before being offered in a collection. It is one of the author’s most interesting works and an extraordinary wandering from the enclave. The sisters make trimmings and sew on ribbons in their dismal tenement; they meet a dreary opium addict, a wreck of a German who fixes clocks and who devastates their miserable struggle. The details of existence are vivid; the author knew at one time that people took streetcars, bought a few pennies worth of food with fierce concentration upon the cost, made pitiful journeys to the wastes of New Jersey. Gradually the feel and the spell of the city were lost and only interiors remained, the stuffs of definition.
(Ethan Frome is a village tragedy and the tale is cut to the measure of rural New England as a strong popular image. The village is named Starkfield; Ethan is a melancholy, silent, and longing country man, ruined by the slow agony of life with his complaining, “sickly” wife, the kind whose neurosis is colored by a run on patent medicines. His hope for redemptive love by way of the young servant girl, Mattie, is thwarted and their attempt to commit suicide by sledding down a dangerous hill on a splendid snowy night produces not death but a crippled, altered Mattie to be taken in by the now triumphant wife, and the three to be left to their eternal rural isolation and misery. There is less experience of life in this story than in “Bunner Sisters.” Short as Ethan Frome is, it is heavily designed and shows the difficulties encountered in the telling, the structure. It is operatic, opera verismo, with the power to retain its grip on the memory, as the long popularity of the work indicates.)
Sister Carrie was published in 1900, five years before The House of Mirth and twenty years before The Age of Innocence. Dreiser, from the Middle West, went over the city on foot, as it were, striking out from the first ring of the city’s chimes, the trainman’s call of “Grand Central Station!” The first flat is on Seventy-eighth and Amsterdam and soon Nassau Street is mentioned. The horns of the ferryboat sound in the fog; there is Broadway to give its lessons, and the glaring celebrity of Delmonico’s, and Sherry’s too; serge skirts at Lord & Taylor, lights on Plaza Square, Staten Island, Seventh Avenue, Union Square, and dinner for $1.50, rooms set apart for poker, casinos, barber shops, advertisement billboards, Wooster Street, a half pound of liver and bacon for fifteen cents, chorus girls, soldiers on the street, a strike, significant for the plot. And, of course, the Bowery and Potters Field for Hurstwood. Carrie at the end will rock in her chair in the Waldorf, the golden monument of the period, and try to read Père Goriot, urged upon her by an ever-upward Ralph Marvell sort.
The plebeian “tinsel and shine” of Carrie’s destiny, the bankrupt disaster of Hurstwood are not Edith Wharton’s world, nor must it have been so. Still, she works with her own “tinsel” and is a recorder of dreams much less true to the city, as history, than those of Sister Carrie. Density of experience is lacking and not, we gather, lamented. In her novels Manhattan is nameless, bare as a field, stripped of its byways, its fanciful, fabricated, overwhelming reality, its hugely imposing and unalterable alienation from the rest of the country—the glitter of its beginning and enduring modernity as a world city.
January 21, 1988