The exclusive aim of literary criticism can hardly be that of drawing the mental and spiritual portrait of a creative personality, as Mr. Brownell, reaffirming the faith derived from his master Sainte-Beuve, has recently asserted. That may be a fruitful enough ideal for the professional critic reading anew the ancient monuments; but for the less exacting task of reckoning the claims of contemporary creators to our attention, there are simpler methods than an elaborate portraiture of what may very possibly prove to be lacking in salient or permanent traits. At least before undertaking any such task, criticism might well attempt to answer the question that every thoughtful contemporary must put to an imaginative effort, especially to the novel which deals with the known appearances of life: what has this hand made of my world? For it is here that the novelist touches us all most closely.
What has Mrs. Wharton done for our world— for the American scene, to use Mr. Henry James’s somewhat precious phrase? The experts have told us again and again that Mrs. Wharton’s touch is the deftest, the surest, of all our American manipulators in the novel form. Quite recently Mr. James has reiterated in his reverberating periods his authoritative praise of Mrs. Wharton’s accomplishment. Hers is the only American name he has found occasion to mention in his latest appraisal of contemporary English fiction. The ground for according such distinction to Mrs. Wharton is plain to one acquainted with the craftsman’s side of the novelist’s business. Mrs. Wharton writes well—perhaps too consciously well. Technically she has formed her method on the approved tradition of French fiction, the tradition of refinements and exclusions, of subtleties and intentions, the tradition of Flaubert and Turgeneff, on which Mr. James admiringly formed himself a generation ago, rather than on the richer if less aesthetically satisfying tradition of English and Russian fiction, of Fielding and Thackeray, of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. In this approved school triumphs are more easily won, at least more enthusiastically recognized by the expert who has served his term there, than in the other looser tradition.
Technical proficiency of any sort, according to any intelligent ideal, is commendable surely, but only in measure as it achieves the purpose of all technique, which is effective creation. No true artist can be content with a triumph of manner alone. If Mrs. Wharton were forced to remain on a solitary pedestal of technical proficiency, hers would be a lonely position in this day of unacademic freedom in all creative effort, and her admirers by dwelling too insistently on her excellent manner would do her a dubious service, all the more as their praises seem to deny the validity of other and robuster ideals for the novel. It may well be, indeed, that the French tradition with all its reservations is already doomed in favor of that freer, more epic treatment of life so much deprecated by Mr. James in his comments on Tolstoy.
However all this may be judged by the few who are absorbed in the how rather than the what of the finished product, it is futile to deny that the what is always of first importance to that large mute audience of the uninitiated to which every creator must appeal in the last resort. And respecting Mrs. Wharton’s content, it has been her misfortune that her publishers should have advertised so persistently and complacently her peculiar advantage in possessing an accurate knowledge of her material, for observing, that is, that small portion of American humanity intensively occupied with purely social ambitions. Mrs. Wharton, we have been told, has actually been part of what she presents as fiction, the inference being that the fiction must inevitably be the better for this fact. It is a naive conviction that intimate experience is a condition of imaginative realization. The truth seems to be that the least influential factor is the observed fact, while the personality through which the fact must pass with its fundamental knowledge and power of realization is the controlling one. It scarcely needs the illustrious example of a Balzac, who constructed solidly an entire social system out of the meagerest of observed data, to suggest that Mrs. Wharton may actually have been hampered in her imaginative representations by a too exclusive and intimate acquaintance with her material. Certainly she has not done least—been least convincing—in those occasional excursions into the less familiar reaches of her field such as “Ethan Frome.”
Possibly it was an instinctive realization of this commonplace that led Mrs. Wharton in the three American novels of which I am especially thinking to choose that portion of the abundant material at her command which presumably appealed least to her own heart and soul—the shoddy part. For it is the shoddier part of rich and fashionable New York, indubitably authentic as “society” though it be, that preponderatingly occupies the scene in “The House of Mirth” and “The Custom of the Country”—the part Mrs. Wharton has least zealously embraced, however carefully she may have studied its manifestations. “The House of Mirth,” offering that most significant of Mrs. Wharton’s discoveries, the lamentable Lily Bart, contains less of obvious shoddy than “The Custom of the Country,” with its Undine Spragg and Elmer Moffatt. Indeed, so far to the extravagant verge of the social world has Mrs. Wharton moved in this latter novel that it remains fantastically unreal, with the generic unreality of the parable, betrayed even by the stage names of the heroine and of her origin, “Apex City.” Apex City! As expert a realist as Mrs. Wharton must have been aware to what unreality of the typical she was surrendering herself with those satiric names. One feels that extremely little of this variegated chronique of marriage and divorce, of “Wall street deals” and vulgarian millionaires, ever really entered into Mrs. Wharton’s delicate perceptions. They emerge from beneath her trained hand almost as raw as from the reportorial insignificance of the newspaper to which she so often refers the reader for corroboration. The singular characteristic of imaginative presentations is that they provide their own test of their validity, whether or not the reader has happened to have similar experiences. Crusoe’s island was never doubted by boy or man. But one doubts Undine Spragg, Apex City, Elmer Moffatt and their world, although the newspapers authenticate them daily with precise detail. That something human, essential for conviction, which the newspaper paragraph must perforce omit, the novelist should provide—at any rate a novelist such as Mrs. Wharton. Otherwise why piece together the shoddy chronicle of Undine Spragg’s career?
In “The Fruit of the Tree” Mrs. Wharton has largely ignored the loud, the shoddy, the superfashionable. Yet the world here displayed is scarcely more of her own hearth, I suspect, than that of the two others mentioned. The reforming, sociological hero is an emanation of the serious world that customarily revolves somewhere within hail of the more hectic orbit of “society.” But Amherst and his philanthropic yearnings over the Westmore mills has the fatal stamp of amateurishness—the unrealized—almost as plainly as the preposterous Spragg family. With all his earnest intention Amherst merely scratches the surface of the immense field of American social endeavor. His creator still thinks of these matters in the terms of “doing good” and “social settlements.” Fortunately “The Fruit of the Tree” holds much else that is better realized if not better worth realizing than social service; it contains the soft, shallow Bessie, the best done of Mrs. Wharton’s many rich women, as well as Justine, the most daring of her young women. And the conflict between the rich wife and the idealistic husband, the reactions of Amherst and his venturous second wife, are all much more in Mrs. Wharton’s real province—the analytic and psychological province where the subtleties of the subtly minded are neatly unravelled.
What has Mrs. Wharton done toward painting in our national canvas? Granting the utility and significance of all elements in the scene, granting at least for “The House of Mirth” and “The Fruit of the Tree,” the authenticity of portrayal, nevertheless, beyond the single figure of Lily Bart, which is doubtless the most authoritative version ever rendered of the shallowly rooted and socially obsessed American girl, there is little of importance that remains. For one reason, Mrs. Wharton’s stories are almost manless in any real conception of the sex, and in spite of the dominance of American women in our social world we have not yet reached the point where men are utterly negligible, where Selden or Marvell, Rosedale or Gus Trenor will answer for men. As for the woman side of the picture, Mrs. Wharton’s chosen contribution has been quite exclusively in the realm of social passion, which she has correctly portrayed as the pathological absorption of American women. Even her skill and her special knowledge have not saved her from exaggerations, unrealities, and repetitions. The prevailing tone, the final taste of this American society is that of a marvelous thinness—tinniness, rather. Are we as a people when we evolve into “society,” are our women, even, as mentally and spiritually anemic as Mrs. Wharton’s world betrays them? Without too easy a patriotism it may be doubted whether this clever observer has “been fair” even to our “most fashionable circles.” Certainly she has not cared to tone her pictures by vigorous contrasts or shaded examples. Instances of these she has offered, but with little enthusiasm; they are pallid ghosts, her “nice” people, who by right of soul as well as of blood belong to the world she has chosen to exploit. Why has Mrs. Wharton never cared to do more for them, for the Seldens, the Marvells?
The explanation may lie in the truth of which I have already hinted, that Mrs. Wharton is not primarily a social historian, that she does not use the novel for this epic purpose, although these longer American stories suggest quite naturally such a presumption. “Ethan Frome” betrays the secret of her true power. This shortened novel, this monochrome prose tragedy so exquisitely dealt with, reveals the spiritual interest with which Mrs.Wharton is innately sympathetic—this and the suppressed drama of Bessie and Amherst, the expressed drama of Amherst and Justine. These spiritual conflicts involve no necessity of picturing a civilization; they are universal. Just because, perhaps, they are not conditioned by special environment or caste, because they lie outside the hard actualities of her personal contacts, their creator’s imagination seems to have been happily released, to work more freely and convincingly in them. Ethan Frome conceivably sprang from no more intimate experience than Undine Spragg and her crew, yet his subdued and twilight tragedy of relaxed will spoke to his creator with all the fidelity of high art. This is the field of creative interest to which Mrs. Wharton has repaired more frequently in her short stories than in her novels. Her talent, a defining, analyzing, and subtlizing talent, has found little that was really congenial or suggestive in the common run of our coarsely accented national life. She has rarely caught its more significant notes or tried to peer beneath its obvious superficialities, nor has she been warmly charmed by its kaleidoscopic glitter. The larger canvas, therefore, I infer, is not her natural opportunity, competent artist that she is.