My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Is Edith Wharton an American novelist? I don’t know if anyone ever asked her, but her implicit answer was “no.” In her 1925 book The Writing of Fiction, she gives a lively history of the novel according to which the convergence of French psychological fiction with the English comedy of manners in Balzac’s work gave birth to the modern form, which treats the individual and society in a reciprocal relation and as an integral whole. Her own models were largely French—she credits Mme. de La Fayette with the first novel and reveres not only Balzac but also Stendhal, Flaubert, and Proust—though she also admires the English, German, and Russian classics. Politely naming no names, she scorns the modernists as a gang of puerile provocateurs ignorant of Apuleius and Rabelais, and lightly deprecates the difficult, formalist late work of her friend Henry James. She may mention Hawthorne once or twice, but otherwise no other Americans.
In this omission she might not have been wholly unusual for her time. What we think of as the canon of American fiction was taking shape even as she wrote in the mid-1920s, with the Melville revival and Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature. The idea of the American novel as a peculiar form, a weird and symbolic romance irreducible to the European realist model, was fully codified only after World War II, as was the 19th-century romance canon and its modernist sequel: Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, James, Faulkner. By the time feminists and multiculturalists arose in the 1970s to correct the absence of non-white and non-male writers from this canon, it was tempting to think Wharton had been excluded from it (except perhaps for the somber tragedy Ethan Frome) because she was a woman. But by our own time—when we have added Kate Chopin, Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, and more to the romance rolls—it’s clear that Wharton doesn’t entirely fit into our national literature on grounds other than gender.
The question might be moot—if she’s more inspired by Balzac than Hawthorne, who cares as long as the books are good?—except that it has probably made her status less secure than the quality of her work by itself might imply. Upon her death in the 1930s, Edmund Wilson felt compelled to write an essay rendering “Justice to Edith Wharton,” since her apparently less interesting late novels had overshadowed the best books of her early career. Wilson hypothesized that such important novels as The House of Mirth derived from her biography, particularly the crisis of her marriage to a man not her intellectual equal who eventually went mad:
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 and evolve as a partially independent organism through the vicissitudes of his emotional experience. Henry James in a virtual vacuum continued to possess and develop his métier. But Mrs. Wharton had no métier in this sense.
A man has an artistic project, a woman an emotional impetus. Understandably, this moved Cynthia Ozick to a rejoinder in the 1970s, pointedly called “Justice (Again) to Edith Wharton,” but it’s a curious defense of the author. In Ozick’s view, both Wilson and then-contemporary feminists were united in reducing women’s writing to affective effusion in contrast to male reason. With her always bracing moral severity, Ozick corrects this error by reviewing Wharton’s biography and finding her not a female sentimentalist but a selfish aesthete, a cold artiste incapable of real relations, and pitiless in the face of her husband’s desperate need. “Justice,” it turns out, is condemning her for real, not imaginary, ethical derelictions. In the end, Ozick restates Wilson’s contrast of Wharton with James with even more decisive severity:
The truth is she had only one subject, the nineteenth century’s unique European literary subject: society. Standard American criticism, struggling to “place” Edith Wharton in a literary environment unused to her subject, has contrived for her the role of a lesser Henry James. This has served to indict her as an imitative figure. But on no significant level is the comparison with James pertinent, except to say that by and large they wrote about the same kinds of people, derived from the same class. Otherwise the difference can be seized in a breath: James was a genius, Wharton not. James invented an almost metaphysical art, Wharton’s insights lay close against their molds: what she saw, she judged. James became an American in the most ideal sense, Wharton remained an estranged New Yorker. James was an uncanny moralist, Wharton a canny realist.
Not having a proper oeuvre is, for the American novelist, typical enough. The stately procession of the Jamesian corpus through its three phases, each bristling with unmissable performances, was atypical, at least before the stability that prevailed between 1945 and 2001. The isolated masterwork standing in lonely splendor above a mass of books that either never get read or never got written—Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, Invisible Man—might have been the more usual case, and for Wharton to have written two or three such classics is laudable. But in Ozick’s distinctions between the metaphysician and the observer, between the uncanny and the canny, we find the real indictment: the realist-romancer split all over again, decided in favor of the mage. Ozick allows that The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence are masterpieces in which “she does not simply grab hold of society, or judge it merely” but “turns society into an untamable idea.” Yet this achievement, faithful to French realism as it may be, surely falls short of metaphysics, and Ozick needs metaphysics in her fiction little less than does the God-haunted Melville. The credo of the American novelist, as stated by William Giraldi in his recent American Audacity, demands that
A novel should indeed be groping after some form of the metaphysical, a benediction to unseen powers, the upholding of the mysterium tremendum, those insistent inklings of the numinous.
To quote Deleuze’s perhaps exoticist essay on “The Superiority of Anglo-American Literature,” overcivilized French writers “are too human, too historical” when contrasted with the splendidly barbaric Americans, in whose work “everything is departure, becoming, passage, leap, daemon, relationship with the outside.”
I begin with such a preamble to explain why Wharton’s 1920 Pulitzer-winning classic The Age of Innocence left me with some slight dissatisfaction even though it is in all respects a perfect novel—and one that even pays tribute to American ideals. Set in the 1870s among “the 400”—the elite families of Old New York—it dramatizes a love triangle wherein an intelligent young man, Newland Archer, is caught between two women. One is May Welland, the respectable, beautiful, but unimaginative product of their eminently proper and rule-bound society. The other is the Countess Ellen Olenska, a cousin of May’s who was raised by a bohemian black sheep of the family and who married a Polish count before returning from her failed European marriage to her New York family in something like disgrace.
The novel, though narrated in the third person, is restricted entirely to Archer’s point of view. As an insider to this insular society, but one educated enough to see beyond its horizon, he is an ideal guide to the action. Like his author, he is eminently up to date on all the most current art and ideas from Europe. He reads Herbert Spencer, George Eliot, Walter Pater, Pre-Raphaelite poetry, and anthropological studies of “Primitive Man.” When he watches his fellow New Yorkers at the opera or at balls or at dinners, he persistently compares them to tribe members, what they value to totems, and what they do to rites and rituals. With a Tolstoyan gift for defamiliarizing what society would rather take for granted, Wharton, via Archer’s educated viewpoint, relativizes this social order that mistakes its arbitrary and restrictive forms for the dictates of nature.
With this doubled perspective—he is both tribe member and anthropologist—Archer is prepared to welcome Countess Olenska and her disreputable bohemian ways, not least because she is the only woman he’s ever met who is his intellectual equal. His mother and sister and fiancee are all products of a system that prepares women for courtship and keeping up social appearances and little else. In their circles, nothing untoward must be mentioned in front of a lady, and ladies, though they may practice archery or embroidery, do not read the latest immoralist aesthetic treatises or Darwinian atheist tracts or scandalous love poetry from Europe. Archer always sees May as “Diana-like”—not only because she is athletic, but because she is inherently virginal. Echoing feminist complaints across the 19th century from Wollstonecraft to Schreiner, Wharton concludes of May’s manipulation through coquetry and sentiment that “she was the subject creature, and versed in the arts of the enslaved.” This sentence implies more sympathy for May than the novel offers, however, since it heaps so much rhetorical abuse on her incuriosity and complacency that Wharton seems to hold the victims of social systems almost wholly responsible for transcending them, even though her weighty if luxurious descriptions emphasize their crushing solidity and durability.
Archer, for his part, outraged that Countess Olenska can’t obtain a divorce from her cruel husband in France, exclaims, “Women ought to be free—as free as we are.” Men aren’t very free in the novel’s world, though; they’re free to cheat on their wives—a privilege sustained by the hypocritical reticence about sex that high society demands—but this, Wharton and Archer agree, is not liberty but merely license. Archer’s would-be love affair with Countess Olenska differs from the squalid adulteries of his male friends because it’s based not on mere lust but on real love and mutual esteem. He sympathizes with her suffering: “It frightened him to think what must have gone to the making of her eyes.” Wharton unerringly evokes his helpless, overmastering love for the Countess, emphasizing over and over again that she has “lost her looks” and is not nearly as attractive as May; yet “the curious way in which she reversed his values” proves irresistible (in The Writing of Fiction, Wharton reveals herself to be an eager reader of Nietzsche).
On the other hand, Wharton also tints her portrait of Archer—his last name an allusion to that of Henry James’s most famous heroine—with irony. How much of his love for this woman he scarcely knows is based simply on a romance with the exotic? Wharton persistently associates Countess Olenska not only with Europe, but—as more recent race-conscious scholars in the Norton Critical Edition point out—with what WASP America would have regarded as exotic in general, from her bohemian apartment with its air of an Oriental bazaar to the descriptions of her early life:
[L]ittle Ellen was in crimson merino and amber beads, like a gipsy foundling. […] She was a fearless and familiar little thing, who asked disconcerting questions, made precocious comments, and possessed outlandish arts, such as dancing a Spanish shawl dance and singing Neapolitan love-songs to a guitar. Under the direction of her aunt…the little girl received an expensive but incoherent education, which included “drawing from the model,” a thing never dreamed of before, and playing the piano in quintets with professional musicians.
Archer’s “gentle and obstinate determination to go on rescuing” this “outlandish” woman has something of the romance (in the sense of fantasy and delusion) about it. May’s supposedly philistine reproof about her own relationship with Archer—the metafictional declaration, “We can’t behave like people in novels, though, can we?”—answers a real deficiency in the man’s character, emblematized in the astonishing moment when he goes down on his knees and kisses the Countess’s shoe.
As for the Countess’s independence of mind, Wharton, despite her own Euro-identificaton, does not equate it to Continental savoir-faire. Her husband’s emissary arrives to bribe her to come back to their failed marriage, but, he tells Archer, he resigned his commission when her discovered the Countess’s real character:
“[S]he’s an American. And that if you’re an American of her kind—of your kind—things that are accepted in certain other societies, or at least put up with as part of a general convenient give-and-take—become unthinkable, simply unthinkable.”
Despite this moving tribute to the author and the heroine’s homeland, the novel makes clear that there is no utopia on the world map. We live on a globe of tribes and rites, and every community finds its own way to sacrifice its members, traffic in its women, or waste the lives of its young. The climactic confrontation between the besotted Archer and the no less loving but more disillusioned Countess crystallizes Wharton’s fearless appraisal of our inherently flawed human condition:
“I want—I want somehow to get away with you into a world where words like that—categories like that—won’t exist. Where we shall be simply two human beings who love each other, who are the whole of life to each other; and nothing else on earth will matter.”
She drew a deep sigh that ended in another laugh. “Oh, my dear—where is that country? Have you ever been there?” she asked.
This rejection of utopia—and its Gothic or nightmare dystopian reversal—perhaps most marks the novel as “French,” as “too human,” in Deleuze’s sense. If the bad meaning of “romance” implies Quixotic folly, then “realism” in the pejorative is cynicism or meanness. The Age of Innocence—note the titular disparagement, like Lost Illusions or The Sentimental Education—is too carefully, beautifully written to be accused of meanness, exactly. Wharton’s joyfully exercised literary mastery is a utopia all its own. Such adroit plotting; such lush descriptions; such psychological insight; such vivid secondary characters; such apt allusions; such historical awareness; and above all, perhaps the most delicate thing, such symbolic economy (when Archer rides to meet the Countess in May’s brougham still painted for their wedding! when May tears her bridal dress just before Archer almost confesses his love for the Countess! when Archer goes to find the Countess and meets only a broken statue of Cupid!).
Yet where does the novel leave us? In its epilogue, we are 30 years ahead in a new social order, a kinder, more progressive one, yet one the aged Archer (and presumably his creator behind him) finds too fast and easy, too little acquainted with painful sacrifices and doomed efforts—even if it is more honest.
It’s amusing to remember in this context that Jonathan Franzen was proto-cancelled a decade ago for remarking in an essay that Wharton’s not being particularly pretty was a social disadvantage to her, one reflected in her fiction’s punitive attitude toward conventionally attractive women like May. With her own keen eye for the way things are, and her own merciless appraisal of the way things look, Wharton might have been the first to agree with him. If I read her sensibility right, she’d be likely to congratulate her fellow realist on sharp and unsparing perceptions and to judge her feminist champions mawkish and frivolous, like the puritanical and truth-averse ladies of Old New York immured in their comforting illusions.
Yet we might also recall the recurrent non-political judgment against Franzen—I’ve made it myself—that his own social and psychological realism is finally too mundane and knowing, that he keeps his characters too tightly under the control of a social thesis and a master plot to attain novelistic greatness. Allowing for Wharton’s infinitely superior command of the language, a command so assured it seems obscene to compare her to the slangy and slovenly Franzen, might we not say the same of The Age of Innocence? And is the quality it lacks not the American romance she seems hardly aware of and the modernism she witheringly condemns?
The Norton Critical Edition reprints an ambivalent contemporary review of the novel by the New Zealand modernist Katherine Mansfield, which concludes:
Is it—in this world—vulgar to ask for more? To ask that the feeling shall be greater than the cause that excites it, to beg to be allowed to share the moment of exposition (is not that the very moment that all our writing leads to?), to entreat a little wildness, a dark place or two in the soul?
We appreciate fully Mrs. Wharton’s skill and delicate workmanship; she has the situation in hand from the first page to the last; we realize how savage must sound our cry of protest, and yet we cannot help but make it…
Vulgarity, wilderness, darkness, savagery—what will the political critic say about the “settler colonial” sensibility shared between Americans and New Zealanders?—all those qualities are intimated in Countess Olenska but not really there in The Age of Innocence. Do they absolutely need to be there? Intellectually, I can’t defend the mandate. But we shouldn’t read novels with the intellect alone; writing them with the intellect alone may prove just as ill-advised.