A Rooting Interest | The New Yorker

Edith whatton

The older I get, the more convinced I am that a fiction writer’s work is a mirror of the writer’s character. It may well be a flaw in my own character that my literary tastes are so deeply intertwined with my responses, as a person, to the person of the author, that I continue to dislike the posturing young steinbeck who wrote “tortilla flat” while loving the later steinbeck that he battled personal and professional entropy and produced “East of Eden,” and that I draw what amounts to a moral distinction between the two, but I suspect that sympathy, or lack of it, is involved in almost everyone’s literary judgments. the readers. . Without sympathy, either for the writer or for the fictional characters, a work of fiction has a hard time making a difference.

so what to do with edith wharton, on her one hundred and fiftieth birthday? There are many good reasons to want Wharton’s work read, or read again, at this late literary date. you might be put off by the current underrepresentation of women in the American canon, or by academia’s valorization of overt formal experimentation at the expense of more naturalistic fiction. She may be lamenting that Wharton’s work is still supposed to be as outdated as the hats she wore, or that several generations of high school grads know her primarily through her icy minor novel “Ethan Frome.” You may feel that, along with the more familiar genealogies in American fiction (Henry James and the modernists, Mark Twain and the vernaculars, Herman Melville and the postmodernists), there is a less conspicuous line connecting William Dean Howells to F. scott fitzgerald and sinclair lewis and from there to jay mcinerney and jane smiley, and that wharton is the vital link in it. you may want, as I do, to re-celebrate “the house of joy,” draw much-deserved attention to “the mores of the country,” and re-evaluate “the age of innocence,” your three great novels with the same title. but consider wharton and her job is to face the likability problem.

No major American novelist has led a more privileged life than Wharton did. Although he was seldom completely free from financial worries, he always lived as if he were: investing his inherited income in houses in wealthy districts, indulging his passion for gardens and interior decoration, endlessly touring Europe in chartered yachts or cars. chauffeured, hobnobbing with the powerful and famous, scorning inferior hotels. Being rich like Wharton may be what we all secretly or not-so-secretly wish for, but privilege like hers is not easy to wish for; puts her at a moral disadvantage. And she was not privileged like Tolstoy, with her schemes for social reform and her idealization of the peasantry. she was deeply conservative, opposed to socialism, unions, and women’s suffrage, intellectually drawn to the unforgiving worldview of Darwinism, hostile to the crudeness, noise, and vulgarity of America (by 1914, she had settled permanently in France and visited the United States only once after that, for twelve days), and was unwilling to support her friend Teddy Roosevelt when his politics became more populist. she was the kind of lady who would throw a loud letter of complaint at the owner of a shop where a clerk had refused to lend her an umbrella. the biographers of her, including the esteemed r. w. b. Lewis, provides this iconic image of the artist at work: writing in bed after breakfast and throwing the completed pages on the floor for her secretary to sort and type.

edith newbold jones had one potentially redeeming handicap: she was not pretty. The man she would most like to marry, her friend Walter Berry, a leading connoisseur of feminine beauty, was not one to marry. After two failed youthful courtships, she settled for an affable, unassuming guy, Teddy Wharton. the fact that the next twenty-eight years of their marriage were almost completely sexless is perhaps due less to her appearance than to her sexual ignorance, the fault of which he lays squarely on her mother. As far as is known, Wharton died after having only one other sexual relationship, an affair with an elusive bisexual and serial bisexual journalist, Morton Fullerton. She was in her mid-forties by then, and her beginner’s idealism and brazen ardor, detailed in a secret diary and in letters kept by Fullerton, are both moving and somewhat embarrassing, as they seem to have been. later for wharton. herself.

Her father, a benign but recessive figure, died when she was twenty, after suffering the financial strains of providing a lavish lifestyle for his wife. wharton, his whole life, only had bad things to say about her mother; she also separated from her two brothers. He had relatively few friendships with women and none with female writers of his caliber—more blows against him, in terms of likability—but he forged close and lasting friendships with an extraordinary number of successful men, including Henry James, Bernard Berenson, and André Gide, many of whom were homosexual or were confirmed single. In cases where his male friends were married, Wharton appears to have treated the wives primarily with indifference or outright jealousy.

The fine quip of one of Wharton’s contemporary critics, who wrote as a masculine Henry James, could also be applied to her social activities: She wanted to be with men and talk about the things men talked about. The half-loving, half-terrified nicknames that James and her circle gave her—the Eagle, the Angel of Devastation—are part of her reports of her. she wasn’t charming or easy to get along with, but she was immensely energetic, always curious, always interesting, always formidable. she was a doer, an explorer, a giver, a thinker. When she, at forty, finally fought her way out of the death of her marriage and became a best-selling author, Teddy responded by spiraling into mental illness and embezzling a good chunk of her inheritance. she was distraught over this, as anyone would have been, but not so distraught that she wouldn’t force teddy to pay; three years later, with firm resolution, she divorced him. Lacking good looks and the feminine charms that might have accompanied her, he ultimately became, in all but one way, her man of the house.

The strange thing about beauty, however, is that its absence tends not to arouse our sympathy as much as other forms of deprivation do. Conversely, Edith Wharton might be more congenial to us now if, in addition to her other assets, she had resembled Grace Kelly or Jacqueline Kennedy; And no one was more aware of this ability of beauty to nullify our resentment of privilege than Wharton herself. At the center of each of her three best novels is an exceptionally beautiful female character, deliberately chosen to complicate the problem of likability.

The reader of “The House of Joy” (1905) meets her heroine, Lily Bart, through the eyes of an admired man, Lawrence Selden, who happens to meet her at Grand Central Station. Selden immediately wonders what Lily is doing there, reflecting that “it was characteristic of her that she always aroused speculation, that her simplest acts seemed to be the result of far-reaching intentions.” To Selden, it’s inconceivable that a woman in possession of as much beauty as Lily isn’t always calculating how to use it. And Selden is right about this: Lily, financially strapped, is constantly forced to turn to her only safe resort, but he’s no less wrong. Lily’s problem is that she’s never able to square those far-reaching intentions with her momentary desires and her tentative moral sensibilities.

on the surface, there seems to be no reason for a reader to sympathize with lily. the social stature she is hell-bent on securing is one she herself admits is dull and sterile, she is deeply selfish and incapable of true charity, she proudly contrasts other women’s appearance with her own, she has no intellectual life to speak of , is discouraged from pursuing her soul mate (selden) by the modesty of her income, and she is in no danger of starvation. She’s basically the worst kind of party girl, and Wharton, in the same way that she never even tried to be suave or charming in her personal life, eschews standard novelistic tricks to warm up or soften Lily’s image: The Book it is devoid of moments of stroking the dog. so why is it so hard to stop reading lily’s story?

one of the main reasons is that you don’t have “enough” money. the details of her shortfall may not be comprehensive – she needs to dress well and gamble at the bridge tables to catch a man who can enable her to dress well and gamble for the rest of her life – but one of the novel’s mysterious strengths as art form, from balzac onwards, is the ease with which readers connect with the financial anxieties of fictional characters. When Lily, by taking a long romantic walk with Selden, is ruining her chance to marry the extremely rich but comically dull and uptight Percy Gryce, with whom she would have had a most shady relationship, you might want to yell at her, “You idiot.” Don’t do it! Go back to the house and close the deal with Gryce! Money, in novels, is such a powerful reality principle that its need for it can override even our wish for a character to live happily ever after, and Wharton, throughout the book, applies the principle with his characteristic ruthlessness, tightening the financial screws on Lily, as if the author were in league with nature at its most ruthless.

What ultimately undoes Lily, however, is not the unforgiving world, but her own bad decisions, her inability to foresee the seemingly obvious social consequences of her actions. his propensity for error is a second likability engine. We all know what it feels like to make a mistake, and the delight of watching other people make one, particularly the mistake of marrying the wrong person, is a central draw of narratives from “Oedipus” to “Middlemarch.” Wharton compounds the delight in “The House of Joy” by creating an eminently marriageable heroine whose mistake is being too afraid to make the mistake of marrying badly. Time after time, at the crucial moment, Lily exploits her chances to trade her beauty for financial security, or at least a chance at happiness.

I don’t know of another novel more concerned with feminine beauty than “the house of joy”. That the fluent German-speaking Wharton chose to saddle her lily-like heroine with a beard—in German, bart—points to the gender reversals the author engaged in to make her difficult life livable and the story of his writable private life, as well as other forms of investment, like giving lily the looks she didn’t get and denying her the money she did have. The novel can be read as a sustained effort by Wharton to imagine beauty from within and gain sympathy for it, or, conversely, as a sadistically slow and thorough punishment of the pretty girl she couldn’t be. beauty in novels usually cuts two ways. on the one hand, we are aware of how often it distorts the moral character of the people who possess it; on the other hand, it represents a kind of natural capital, like the perfect fruit of a tree, which we are instinctively reluctant to see wasted. Throughout the novel, as inexorable as Lily’s dwindling funds, is the watchful eye of her youthful appearance. the clock begins ticking on page 1—“under her dark hat and veil she regained the youthful smoothness, the purity of hue, which she was beginning to lose after eleven years of working late and dancing indefatigably”—and continues to tick the urgency of lily’s plight, inviting us to share it emotionally. But it’s only at the end of the book, when Lily finds herself holding another woman’s baby and experiencing a series of unfamiliar emotions, that a more powerful kind of urgency kicks in. the financial potential of her appearance is revealed as an artificial value, in contrast to her true value in the natural scheme of human reproduction. What has been merely a series of private misfortunes for Lily suddenly becomes something bigger: the tragedy of a New York City social world whose priorities are so divorced from nature that they kill off the emblematically attractive woman who should be. , by natural right, prosper. The reader is led to look for an explanation of the tragedy in Lily’s terribly distorting social upbringing, the kind of upbringing by which Wharton herself felt distorted, and to pity her for it, as, according to Aristotle, one should pity a child. tragic protagonist. /p>

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