Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, and a Case of Anxiety of Influence

In August, 1925, Virginia Woolf published an essay titled “American Fiction” in the London Saturday Review, where she serenely ruled out the importance of a number of leading U.S. novelists, including Henry James, the well-respected (but now forgotten) Joseph Hergesheimer, and, perhaps most eyebrow-raisingly, Edith Wharton. Wharton’s masterpiece “The Age of Innocence” had been published just four years earlier, winning that year’s Pulitzer Prize in fiction—the first for a female author. Woolf was careful to say that it was impossible to “dismiss” such “distinguished names,” but she added that their praises were qualified because they were “not Americans,” by which she seemed to mean that, although these authors were born and raised in America and often wrote books set in their country of origin, they had become foreigners after years of living abroad, and had, osmotically or chameleonically, taken on the artistic traditions of their adoptive cultures. Instead of the invigorating innovation of a Walt Whitman, who had the sense to stay home (and whom Woolf extolled as “the real American undisguised”), these transplanted authors wrote what sounded like classic British fiction; or, as Woolf put it, “They do not give us anything we have not got already.”

Wharton, for one, was less than pleased, and she wrote to a friend, “Mrs. Virginia Woolf writes a long article … to say that no interesting American fiction is, or should be, written in English; and that Henry, Hergesheimer and I are negligible because we have nothing new to give—not even a language!” She added, sarcastically, “Well—such discipline is salutary.”

Wharton was then sixty-three. What aging author would be happy to see herself dismissed by a writer twenty years younger—especially one then being celebrated for advancing a modernism that was threatening to make Wharton’s own accomplishments obsolete? Just three months before writing her essay on American fiction, Woolf published “Mrs. Dalloway,” a work in the mold of Joyce’s revolutionary “Ulysses,” which first appeared in book form in 1922. Having initially rejected “Ulysses” as indecent and boring—and having declined to publish it at the Hogarth Press, the tiny publishing operation she ran with her husband—Woolf had a change of heart, partly under the influence of another displaced American writer, T. S. Eliot, who convinced her that “Ulysses” was a masterpiece. Woolf, despite a lingering ambivalence, was sufficiently swayed as to attempt “Mrs. Dalloway,” a novel written in the stream-of-consciousness style pioneered in “Ulysses” and also, like Joyce’s novel, set on a single June day and quenched of almost all conventional plot or character development.

Critics exalted “Mrs. Dalloway” as an important advance in literature. In the Saturday Review, the critic Gerald Bullett unfavorably compared Wharton’s latest, “A Mother’s Recompense,” with “Mrs. Dalloway,” calling Woolf “a brilliant experimentalist,” while Wharton was “content to practice the craft of fiction without attempting to enlarge its technical scope.” This injury also did not escape Wharton’s notice, and she defended herself to a friend in a letter, unapologetically calling her novel “old-fashioned” and saying, “I was not trying to follow the new methods.” That she disapproved of those methods was clear when she added, “My heroine belongs to the day when scruples existed.” (Elsewhere, she rejected the modernism of Joyce and Woolf, calling the former’s work “pornographic,” the latter’s “exhibitionism.”)

All things considered, Wharton is an old-fashioned writer. Even “The Age of Innocence,” with its narrative of a young man bowing to societal strictures in his choice of a wife, more closely resembles that of Jane Austen than the work of an avante-gardist like Joyce. And, while the novel does hint at the advent of the modern consciousness—contrasting the New York mores of the eighteen-seventies (when the main action is set) with the postwar New York of 1920, when Wharton was writing—it nevertheless hews to the understood rules that a novel must be a dramatically arranged series of events that unfold in the course of weeks, months, or years (not a single day), involve a set of characters within a defined social setting (not an entire city, like Dublin), and culminate in a moral or emotional crisis that lends meaning to the fate of the hero or heroine (not one character rescuing another from a drunken collapse in a red-light district, followed by the unmediated erotic musings of an unfaithful wife). “The Age of Innocence,” for all its brilliance—and there is an argument for its being one of the best American novels ever written—does not “enlarge fiction’s technical scope,” except in one startling respect.

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