American Culture

Edith Wharton, the American Austen

Edith Wharton (courtesy Wikimedia)

“We live in our own souls as in an unmapped region, a few acres of which we have cleared for our habitation; while of the nature of those nearest us we know but the boundaries that march with ours.” – Edith Wharton, “The Touchstone”

Reading Edith Wharton again after many years is a revelation. This next author from the 2013 reading list is one I hadn’t looked at since undergraduate school, for sure, more likely since high school. Like the good student I was, I waded through Ethan Frome at the behest of my beloved English teacher Mrs. Ragan – and promptly forgot it.

Truth is, I didn’t forget it, or the author – Wharton simply wasn’t a writer who appealed to a 16-year-old with dreams of rock and roll glory: I was more impressed with J.D. Salinger and anyone who wrote for what was then a relevant publication, Rolling Stone magazine. As that now completely compromised journal reminded me in their motto, they had “all the news that fits.” And Holden Caulfield’s entertaining manias connected to my E.Q. more affectingly than Frome’s Yankee stoicism. Wharton’s sedate (read: dull) world of men and women living in “quiet desperation” (to reference a writer I did get, though not as well as I thought at that time) didn’t get me going. And I believed, as the poet Thom Gunn said, “Man, you gotta go.”

Sometime after lost years of undergrad craziness, rock “stardom,” and legendary (in my own mind) decadence – and having found myself occasionally in more trouble than one ought to be in – I backed away from the counterculture, as much for their good as mine. I somehow found myself a teacher working on a master’s degree in English and casting about for a writer about whom I could do thesis work. My affinity for all things English (thank you Messrs. Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr) had led me to spend far more time reading the work of those from their homeland than my own. When I considered how my light should be spent, it came down to one author: Jane Austen. I’d found Mansfield Park and Persuasion revelatory: in the former I’d seen a writer who seemed as invincible as Shakespeare or Milton in prior works I’d read (Pride and Prejudice and Emma) having to struggle with her material; in the latter I saw a prototype to the modern novel – in Persuasion there is no happy ending as there is in those previously mentioned Austen works. A man and a woman love each other, lose each other, and find the courage to try again – with each other. And, in a moment that says more about me growing up than about Austen being timeless, I realized that even the finest writers sow their isn’t and reap their same. As the aforementioned Mr. Lennon once observed, “It’s all about knocking out a bit of work, isn’t it?”

Ethan Frome is not a good example of Wharton – and why it’s so beloved as a text for teaching the author’s work to students (I suspect length is the determining factor) puzzles me. The lives (and loves) of “the underclasses” are outside her ken – and her examination of the stoic-to-the-point-of-mulish Frome, his “horribly good” wife Zeena, her “pretty but troubled” cousin Mattie (the obligatory “right one” for Ethan) and the “tragedy” (though pathos is the right term for the situation) of the “accident” that changes all their lives is setpiece stuff. Wharton handles the material skillfully – as Austen handles Fanny Price and her wealthy, modestly dissolute relations-behaving-badly material in Mansfield Park. But there’s a gap – deep if perhaps not broad – between a great writer being skillful and a great writer being transcendent. In Ethan Frome, Wharton does not bridge that gap.

Included in the volume with the above-mentioned “failure,” however, are a novella and three short stories. And here Wharton’s genius shines. “The Touchstone” is the novella, and it depicts the world Wharton knew intimately (as evinced in her masterworks The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence). A young man struggling to make a success in New York moneyed society has love letters from a woman who has become a celebrated author; against his ethics, he sells the letters for publication after the woman’s unexpected death in order to gain a stake for himself and marry the young woman he loves.  In “The Last Asset” a “society woman” has arranged a marriage for her daughter in order to save her own standing among the wealthy she lives among and off of. “Xingo” is a satire of the well-to-dos’ attempts to be intellectual – and what happens to them when they bring true intellectuals into their midst. “The Other Two” is perhaps the most fascinating story of the collection: a beautiful woman who has “married her way up” in society delicately reconciles her two former husbands to her current spouse.

In each of these works Wharton masterfully depicts the social conventions of the class she was born into, grew up in, and married among: the moneyed aristocrats of New York society and their ilk in Europe and elsewhere. In this she shares with Austen (who, though not as privileged in her upbringing as Wharton, certainly associated with and knew well the privileged of Regency England) a keen discernment about both the social pressures of such socio-economic groups – and the psychological effects of those pressures. That discernment reveals itself best in a pair of quotes.

First, Austen: “Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken.”

Then, Wharton: “Only the fact that we are unaware how well our nearest know us enables us to live with them.”

Insights into the humanity of all of us from observing the foibles of a small subculture of us make Jane Austen – and Edith Wharton – great. And remind us of what Wharton and Austen make clear again and again: the “mysteries of the human heart,” as Faulkner termed them, make the stuff of literature…

CROSSPOST: The New Southern Gentleman

3 replies »

  1. I love this recent series you’ve done, Jim. Pointing some of my students to them.