Edith Wharton: A Backward Glance

“This wielding of the unreal trowel.” 
“Walter Scott’s Diary” (December 26, 1825).


I have hesitated for some time before beginning this chapter, since any attempt to analyze work of one’s own doing seems to imply that one regards it as likely to be of lasting interest, and I wish at once to repudiate such an assumption. Every artist works, like the Gobelins weavers, on the wrong side of the tapestry, and if now and then he comes around to the right side, and catches what seems a happy glow of colour, or a firm sweep of design, he must instantly retreat again, if encouraged yet still uncertain; and once the work is done, and he hopes to contemplate it dispassionately, the result of his toil too often presses on his tired eyes with the nightmare weight of a cinema “close-up.” Nevertheless, no picture of myself would be more than a profile if it failed to give some account of the teeming visions which, ever since my small-childhood, and even at the busiest and most agitated periods of my outward life, have incessantly peopled my inner world. I shall therefore try to describe, as simply as I can, what seems to have gone to the making of my books; and there is the more reason for doing so because so few writers seem to have watched themselves while they wrote, or if they did, to have set down their observations. Not a few painters have painted themselves at their easels, but I can think of nothing corresponding to these self-confessions in the world of letters, or at any rate of fiction, except the prefaces of Henry James. These, however, are mainly analyses of the way in which he focussed a given subject, and of the echnical procedure employed, his angle of vision once determined. Even that deeply moving fragment, the appeal to his Genius, the knowledge of which we owe to Percy Lubbock, is an invocation to the goddess and not an objective notation of her descent into his soul. What I mean to try for is the observation of that strange moment when the vaguely adumbrated characters whose adventures one is preparing to record are suddenly THERE, themselves, in the flesh, in possession of one, and in command of one’s voice and hand. It is there that the central mystery lies, and perhaps it is as impossible to fix in words as that other mystery of what happens in the brain at the precise moment when one falls over the edge of consciousness into sleep. My impression is that, among English and American novelists, few are greatly interested in these deeper processes of their art; their conscious investigations of method seldom seem to go deeper than syntax, and it is immeasurably deeper that the vital interest begins. Therefore I shall try to depict the growth and unfolding of the plants in my secret garden, from the seed to the shrub-top — for I have no intention of magnifying my vegetation into trees! When I began to talk with novelists about the art of fiction I was amazed at the frequently repeated phrase: “I’ve been hunting about for months for a good subject!” Good heavens! I remember once, when an old friend of the pen made this rather wistful complaint, carelessly rejoining: “Subjects? But they swarm about me like mosquitoes! I’m sick of them; they stifle me. I wish I could get rid of them!” And only years afterward, when I had learned more from both life and letters, did I understand how presumptuous such an answer must have sounded. The truth is that I have never attached much importance to subject, partly because every incident, every situation, presents itself to me in the light of story-telling material, and partly from the conviction that the possibilities of a given subject are — whatever a given imagination can make of them. But by the time I had written three or four novels I had learned to keep silence on this point. ...


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