On Her Birthday, In Praise of Edith Wharton's Acerbic Pen

by Edmund Wilson | January 24, 2014

Justice to Edith Wharton

June 29, 1938

photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Before Edith Wharton died, the more commonplace work of her later years had had the effect of dulling the reputation of her earlier and more serious work. It seemed to me that the notices elicited by her death did her, in general, something less than justice; and I want  to try to throw into relief the achievements which did make her important during a period—say, 1905-1917—when there were few American writers worth reading. This article is therefore no very complete study, but rather in the nature of an impression by a reader who was growing up at that time.


Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Edith Wharton, 1919

Mrs. Wharton's earliest fiction I never found particularly interesting. The influences of Paul Bourget and Henry James seem to have presided at the birth of her talent; and I remember these stories as dealing with the artificial moral problems of Bourget and developing them with the tenuity of analysis which is what is least satisfactory in James. The stories tended to take place either in a social void or against a background of Italy or France which had somewhat the character of expensive  upholstery. It was only with The House of Mirth, published in 1905, that Edith Wharton emerged as a historian of the American society of her time. For a period of 15 years or more, she produced work of considerable interest both for its realism and its intensity.

One has heard various accounts of her literary beginnings. She tells us in her autobiography that a novel which she had composed at 11 and which began, ''Oh, how do you do, Mrs. Brown?...If only I had known you were going to call, I should have tidied up the drawing room”—had been returned by her mother with the chilling comment, "Drawing-rooms are always tidy." And it is said that a book of verse which she had written and had had secretly printed was discovered and destroyed by her parents, well-to-do New Yorkers of merchant stock, who thought it unladylike for a young woman to write. It seems to be an authentic fact, though Mrs. Wharton does not mention it in her memoirs, that she first seriously began to write fiction after her marriage during the period of a nervous breakdown. It had been the suggestion of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, who himself combined the practice of literature with pioneer work in the field of female neuroses. Thereafter she seems to have leaned on her writing for support in a situation which became more and more painful with the years. Her husband, as she tells us, had some mental disease which became worse from the first years of their marriage, and he inhabited a social world of the rich which was sealed tight  to intellectual interests. Through her writing, she came gradually into relation with the international literary world and made herself a partially independent career.

Her work was then the desperate product of a pressure of maladjustments; and it very soon took a direction totally different from that of Henry James, as a lesser disciple of whom she is sometimes pointlessly listed. James's interests were predominantly esthetic: He is never a passionate social prophet; and only rarely—as in The Ivory Tower, which seems in turn to have derived from Mrs. Wharton—does he satirize plutocratic America. But a passionate social prophet is precisely what Edith Wharton became. At her strongest and most characteristic, she is a brilliant example of the writer who relieves an emotional strain by denouncing his generation.

It is true that she combines with indignation against a specific phase of American society a general sense of inexorable doom for humanity. She was much haunted by the  myth of the Eumenides; and  she had developed her own deadly version of the working of the Aeschylean necessity—a version as automatic and rapid, as decisive and as undimmed by sentiment, as the mechanical and financial processes which, during her lifetime, were transforming her New York. In these books, she was as pessimistic as Hardy or Maupassant. You find the  pure expression of her hopelessness in her volume of poems, Artemis to Actaeon, published in 1909, which, for all its hard accent and its ponderous tone, its "impenetrables" and "incommunicables" and "incommensurables," its "immemorial  altitudes august," was not entirely without interest or merit. "Death, can it be the  years shall naught avail?" she asks in one of the sonnets called "Experience": "'Not so,' Death answered. 'They shall purchase sleep.” And in the poem called "Moonrise over Tyringham,” apostrophizing the first hour of night, she seems to mark the emergence from a crisis:

Be thou the image of a thought  that  fare

Forth  from itself, and flings its ray ahead,

Leaping the barriers of ephemeral cares,

To where our lives are but the ages' tread,

And let this year be, not the last of youth,

But first—like thee!—of some new train of hours,

If more remote from hope, yet nearer truth,

And kin to the unpetitionable powers.

But the catastrophe in Edith Wharton's novels is almost invariably the upshot of a conflict between the individual and the social group. Her tragic heroines and heroes are the victims of the group pressure of convention; they are passionate or imaginative spirits, hungry for emotional and intellectual experience, locked into a small closed system and destroying themselves by beating their heads against their prison or suffering a living death in resigning themselves to it. Out of these themes she got a sharp pathos all her own. The language and some of the machinery of The House of Mirth seem old-fashioned and rather melodramatic today; but the book had some originality and power, with its chronicle of a social parasite on the fringes of the very rich dragging out a stupefying routine of weekends, yachting trips and dinners, and finding a window open only twice, at the beginning and at the end of the book, on a world where all the values were not money values.

The Fruit of the Tree, which followed it in 1907, although its characters are concerned with larger problems, is less successful than The House of Mirth, because it is confused between two different kinds of themes. There is a more or less trumped-up moral problem à la Bourget about a "mercy killing" by a high-minded trained nurse, who happened to have an "affinity" with the husband of the patient. But there is also the story of an industrial reformer, which is on the whole quite ably handled—especially in the opening scenes, in which the hero, assistant manager of a textile mill, is aroused by an industrial accident to try to remove the conditions which have caused it and finds himself up against one of those tight family combinations which often dominate factory towns, enthroned in their red-satin drawing-rooms amid heavy bronze chandeliers hanging from high ceilings, massively upholstered sofas, high carved mantelpieces surmounted by bronze obelisk-shaped clocks, framed canvases of the Hudson in Autumn, and bronze Indians on velvet pedestals, and velvet-covered writing tables with empty inkstands of Venetian ormolu; and in its picture of his marriage with the mill-owning widow and the gradual drugging of his purpose under the influence of a house on Long Island of a quality more gracious and engaging but on an equally overpowering scale.

Edith Wharton had come to have a great hand with all kinds of American furnishings and with their concomitant landscape-gardening. Her first book had been a work on interior decorating; and now in her novels she adopts the practice of inventorying the contents of American houses. Only Clyde Fitch in those early nineteen-hundreds made play to the same degree with the miscellaneous material objects with which Americans were surrounding themselves, the things which had just been manufactured and which people had just bought. I suppose that no other writer of comedies of any other place or time had depended so much for his effects on stage sets and, especially, on stage properties: the radiators that bang in "Girls," the artificial orange in "The Truth," the things that are dropped under the table by the ladies in the second act of "The Climbers." But in the case of Edith Wharton, the décors become the agents of tragedy. The characters of Clyde Fitch are embarrassed or tripped up by these articles; but the characters of Edith Wharton are pursued by them as by spirits of doom and ultimately crushed by their accumulation. These pieces have not been always made newly: Sometimes they are objects d'art, which have been expensively imported from Europe. But the effect is very much the same: They are something extraneous to the people and, no matter how old they may be, they seem to glitter and clank with the coin that has gone to buy them. A great many of Mrs. Wharton's descriptions are, of course, satiric or caustic; but when she wants to produce an impression of real magnificence, and even when she is writing about Europe, the thing still seems rather synthetic. She was not only one of the great pioneers, but also the poet, of interior decoration.

In The Custom of the Country (1913), Mrs. Wharton's next novel about the rich—"The Reef” is a relapse into "psychological problems"—she piles up the new luxury of the era to an altitude of ironic grandeur, like the glass mountain in the Arabian Nights, which the current of her imagination manages to make incandescent. The first scene sets the key for the whole book:

Mrs. Spragg and her visitor were enthroned in two heavy gilt armchairs in one of the private drawing-rooms of the Hotel Stentorian. The Spragg rooms were known as one of the Looey suites, and the drawing-room walls, above their wainscoting of highly varnished mahogany, were hung with salmon-pink damask and adorned with oval portraits of Marie Antoinette and the Princess de Lamballe. In the center of the florid carpet a gilt table with a top of Mexican onyx sustained a palm in a gilt basket tied with a pink bow. But for this ornament, and a copy of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" which lay beside it, the room showed no traces of human use, and Mrs. Spragg herself wore as complete an air of detachment as if she had been a wax figure in a show-window.

In the last pages—the scene is one of the best things of its kind that Edith Wharton did—Undine Spragg's little boy is seen wandering alone amid the splendors of the Paris hôtel which has crowned his mother's progress from the Stentorian: "the white fur rugs and brocade chairs" which "seemed maliciously on the watch for smears and ink-spots," "his mother's wonderful lacy bedroom, all pale silks and velvets, artful mirrors and veiled lamps, and the boudoir as big as a drawing­room, with  pictures he  would  have  liked  to  know about, and tables and cabinets holding  things  he was afraid to touch," the library, with its "rows and rows of books, bound in dim  browns and  golds, and  old faded reds as rich as velvet: they all looked as if they might have had stories in them as  splendid as their bindings. But the bookcases were closed with gilt trellising, and when Paul reached up to open one, a servant told him that Mr. Moffatt's secretary kept them locked because the books were too valuable to be taken down."

It is a vein which Sinclair Lewis has worked since—as in the opening pages of Babbitt, where Babbitt is shown entangled with his gadgets; and in other respects The Custom of the Country opens up the way for Lewis. Mrs. Wharton has already arrived at a method of doing crude and harsh people with a draughtsmanship crude and harsh. Undine Spragg, the social-climbing  divorcée to whom none of her personal relationships means anything human, is a monster, but quite a successful caricature of a type who has gone even farther since. She is the prototype in fiction of the "gold-digger," of the international cocktail bitch. Here the pathos has been largely subordinated to an implacable animosity toward her heroine; but there is one episode not only bitter but poignant, in which a discarded husband of Undine's, who has been driven by her demands to work in Wall Street and left by her up to his neck in debt, goes home to Washington Square through "the  heat, the noise, the smells of disheveled midsummer" New York, mounts to the room at the top of the house where he has kept his books and other things from college and shoots himself there.

The other side of this world of wealth, which annihilates every impulse toward excellence, is a poverty which also annihilates. The writer of one of the recent notices on Mrs. Wharton's death was mistaken in assuming that Ethan Frome was her only excursion outside the top social strata. It is true that she knew the top strata better than she knew anything else; but both in The House of Mirth and The Fruit of the Tree, she is always aware of the pit of misery which is implied by the wastefulness of the plutocracy, and the horror or the fear of this pit is one of the forces that determine the action. There is a Puritan in Edith Wharton, and this Puritan is always insisting that we must face the unpleasant and the ugly. Not to do so is one of the worst sins in her morality; sybarites like Mr. Langhope in The Fruit of the Tree, amusing himself with a dilettante archeology on his income from a badly managed factory, like the fatuous mother of Twilight  Sleep, who feels so safe with her facial massage and her Yogi, while her family goes to hell under her nose, are among the characters whom she treats with most scorn. And the three novels I have touched on above were paralleled by another series—Ethan  Frome, Bunner Sisters, and Summer—which dealt with milieux of a different kind.

Ethan Frome is still much read and well-known; but Bunner Sisters has been undeservedly neglected. It is the last piece in the volume called Xingu (1916), a short novel about the length of Ethan Frome. This story of two small shopkeepers on Stuyvesant Square and a drug-addict clockmaker from Hoboken, involved in a relationship like a triple noose which will gradually choke them all is one of the most terrible things that Edith Wharton ever wrote; and the last page, on which the surviving sister, her lifelong companion gone and her poor little business lost, sets out to look for a job, seems to mark the grimmest moment of Edith Wharton's darkest years. Here is not even the grandeur of the heroic New England hills: “’Ain’t you going to leave the ad-dress?’ the young woman called out after her. Ann Eliza went out into the thronged street. The  great city, under the fair spring sky, seemed to throb with the stir of innumerable beginnings. She walked on, looking for another shop window with a sign in it.”

Summer (1917), however, returns to the Massachusetts of Ethan Frome, and, though neither so harrowing nor quite so vivid, is not so very far inferior to it. Making hats in a millinery shop was the abyss from which Lily Bart recoiled; the heroine of Summer recoils from the nethermost American stratum, the degenerate "mountain people." Let down by the refined young man who  works in the public library and wants to become an architect, very much in the manner of the heroine of Dreiser's American Tragedy, she finds that she cannot go back to her own people and allows herself to be made an honest woman of by the rather admirable old failure of a lawyer who had brought her down from the mountain in her childhood. It is the first sign on Mrs. Wharton's part of a relenting in the cruelty of her endings. "Come to my  age," says Charity Royall's protector, "a man knows the things that matter and the things that don't; that's about the only good turn life does us." Her blinding bitterness is already subsiding.

But in the meantime, before Summer was written, she had escaped from the hopeless situation created by the mental disease of her husband. He had been steadily growing worse; but she had had difficulty in inducing his family to allow her to leave him with an attendant. The situation in Bunner Sisters is obviously a transposition of this; and the relief of the tension in Summer is evidently the result of her new freedom. She was at last finally detached from her marriage; and she took up her permanent residence in France. The War came, and she threw herself into its activities.

And now the intensity dies from her work as the American background fades. One can see this already in Summer, and The Age of Innocence is really Edith Wharton's valedictory. The theme is closely related to those of The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome: the frustration of a potential pair of lovers by social or domestic obstructions. But setting it back in the generation of her parents, she is able to contemplate it without quite the same rancor, to soften its sharpness  with a poetic mist of distance. Yet even here the old impulse of protest still makes itself felt as the main motive. If we compare The Age of Innocence to Henry James's The Europeans, whose central situation it reproduces, the pupil's divergence from the  master is seen in the most striking way. In both cases, a Europeanized American woman—Baroness Münster, Countess Olenska—returns to the United States to intrude upon and to disturb the existence of a conservative provincial society; in both cases, she attracts and almost captivates a genuinely superior man of the community who turns out to be unable, in the long run, to muster enough courage to take her, and finally allows her to return to Europe. Henry James makes of all this a balanced comedy of the cosmopolitan and the Boston point of view (as he reproached her with not having developed the theme of Undine  Spragg's marriage with a French nobleman in terms of French and American manners, as he had done with a similar one in The  Reverberator); but in Edith Wharton's version one still feels an active resentment against the pusillanimity of the provincial group and also, as in other of her books, a special complaint against the timid American male who has let the lady down.

Up through The Age of Innocence, and recurring at all points of her range from The House of Mirth to Ethan Frome, the typical masculine figure in Edith Wharton's fiction is a man set apart from his neighbors by education, sensibility, and intelligence, but lacking the force or the courage either to impose himself or to get away. She generalizes about this type in the form in which she knew it best in her autobiographi­cal volume: "They combined a cultivated taste with marked social gifts," but "their weakness was that, save in a few cases, they made so little use of their ability," but were content to "live in dilettantish leisure," rendering none of "the public services that a more enlightened social system would have exacted of them." But she had described a very common phenomenon of the America of after the Civil War. Lawrence Selden, the city lawyer, who sits comfortably in his bachelor apartment with his flowerbox of mignonette and his beautifully bound La Bruyère and allows Lily Bart to drown, is the same person as Lawyer Royall of Summer with his lofty orations and his drunken lapses. One could have found him during the big-business era in almost any American city or town: The superior man, with natural instincts toward self-improvement and independence, more or less rendered helpless by the surf of headlong money-making and spending which carried him along with its breakers or left him stranded on the abandoned New England hills, in either case thwarted and stunted by the level of a middle-class community. In Edith Wharton's novels these men tend to be dominated by determined women of conventional morals and middle-class ideals; when an exceptional woman comes along who is thirsting for something different and better, the man is unable to give it to her. This special situation Edith Wharton, with some conscious historical criticism but chiefly impelled by a feminine  animus, has dramatized with much vividness and intelligence. But there are no first-rate men in her novels.

The Age of Innocence is already rather faded. But now a surprising lapse occurs. (It is true that she was now nearly sixty.) When we look back on Mrs. Wharton's career, it seems that everything that is valuable in her work lies within a quite sharply delimited area—between The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence. It is sometimes true of women writers—less often, I believe, of men—that a manifestation of something like genius may be stimulated by some exceptional emotional strain, but will disappear when the stimulus has passed. With a man, his professional, his artisan's life, is likely to persist as a force in itself through the vicissitudes of his emotional  experience. Henry James in a virtual vacuum continued to possess and develop his mètier up to his very last years. But Mrs. Wharton had no mètier in this sense. With her emergence from her life in the United States, her settling down in the congenial society of Paris, she seems at last to become comfortably adjusted; and with her adjustment, the real intellectual force which she has exerted through a decade and a half evaporates suddenly and completely. She no longer maims or massacres her characters. Her grimness melts rapidly into benignity. She takes an interest in young people's problems, in the solicitude of parents for children; she smooths over the misunderstandings of lovers; she sees how things may work out well enough. She even loses the style she has mastered. Beginning with a language rather ponderous and stiff, the worst features of the style of Henry James and a stream of clichés from old plays and novels, she finally—about the time of Ethan Frome—worked out a prose of flexible steel, bright as electric light and striking out sparks of color and with, which has the quality and pace of New York and is one of its distinctive artistic products. But now not merely does she cease to be brilliant, she becomes almost commonplace.

The Glimpses of the Moon which followed The Age of Innocence is, as someone has said, scarcely distinguishable from the ordinary serial in a woman’s magazine; and indeed it is in the women’s magazines Mrs. Wharton's novels now begin first to appear. A Son at the Front is a little better, because it had been begun in 1918 and had her war experience in it, with some of her characteristic cutting satire at the expense of the belligerents behind the lines. It is not bad as a limited picture of middle-aged civilians during the War—though not so good as Arnold Bennett's The Pretty Lady.

Old New York was a much feebler second boiling from the tea-leaves of The Age of Innocence. I have read only one of Mrs. Wharton's novels written since Old New York: Twilight Sleep, which is not so bad as her worst, but suffers seriously as a picture of New York during the middle nineteen-twenties from the author's long absence abroad. She is no longer up on her interior-decorating—though there are some characteristic passages of landscape-gardening: "'Seventy-five thousand bulbs this year!' she thought as the motor swept by the sculptured gateway, just giving and withdrawing a flash of turf sheeted with amber and lilac, in a setting of twisted and scalloped evergreens."

The two books of hers which I have read since then—The Art of Fiction (which, however, does contain an excellent essay on Proust) and the volume of memoirs called A Backward Glance—I found rather disappointing. There is almost nothing even worth glancing at in A Backward Glance except a portrait of Henry  James: entertaining but slightly catty and curiously superficial. She tells us nothing much of interest about herself and makes amends to her New York antecedents for her irony of The  Age of  Innocence by presenting them in tinted miniatures, completely remote and unreal. It is the last irony of The Age of Innocence that Newland Archer should become reconciled to ''old New York." "After all," he came to tell himself, "there was good in the old ways." Something like this seems to have happened to Edith Wharton. Even in A Backward Glance, she confesses that "the weakness of the social structure" of her parents' generation had been "a blind dread of innovation''; but her later works show a dismay and a shrinking before what seemed to her the social and moral chaos of an age which was battering down the old edifice that she herself had once depicted as a prison. Perhaps, after all, the old mismatched couples who had remained married in deference to the decencies were better than the new divorced who were no longer aware of any obligations at all.

The only thing that does survive in A Backward Glance is some trace of the tremendous blue-stocking that Mrs. Wharton was in her prime. The deep reverence for the heroes of art and thought—though she always believed that Paul Bourget was one of them—of the woman who in earlier days had written a long blank-verse poem about Vesalius still makes itself felt in these reminiscences. Her culture was rather heavy and grand—a preponderance of Goethe and Schiller, Racine and La Bruyère—but it was remarkably solid for an American woman and vitally related to her life. And she was one of the few Americans of her day who cared enough about serious literature to take the risks of trying to make some contribution to it. Charles Eliot Norton—who, as she remarks, had so admirably translated Dante—once warned her that "no great work or the imagination" had "ever been based on illicit passion." She had the right to protest—even with contemptuous complaints that the writers of the later generation had "abandoned creative art for pathology"—that she had "fought hard…to turn the wooden dolls" of the conventional fiction of her time "into struggling, suffering human beings." She had herself been one of the few such human beings in the America of the early nineteen hundreds who had found a voice and left a record.

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