Mrs. Wharton in New York

Edith Wharton was born in New York City in 1862 as Edith Newbold Jones. Her mother was a Rhinelander, one of the poor ones, or more accurately not quite one of the rich ones. Her paternal grandmother was a Schermerhorn. Thus the “Knickerbocker element” survived in her pedigree. These were the remnants of the old Dutch patroons who were themselves early overwhelmed by immigrants from the British Isles and by British military force. It was early indeed since Peter Stuyvesant surrendered in 1664 and New Netherland or New Amsterdam became New York. From the beginning the old society was beleaguered; had it not been there would be no Manhattan, this world city as porous as cheesecloth. Traders from New England came down from Maine through Connecticut and were not at first as roundly welcomed as we might imagine today. And, needless to note, worse was to follow the little band of old New Yorkers, causing them vainly to whisk their tails against the flies and gnats like so many carriage horses.

Into this enclave, old New York society, Edith Wharton was born. She took her positioning seriously and the old stock with its thumb in the dike of Manhattan was one of her themes as a novelist. It might be said of her what Henry James wrote of Hawthorne: “It is only in a country where newness and change and brevity of tenure are the common substance of life, that the fact of one’s ancestors having lived for a hundred and seventy years in a single spot would become an element of one’s morality.”

Being from New York rather than from Salem, Massachusetts, she was not a Yankee and not a lingering puritan conscience inhabited by ghosts and provincial scruples. She grew up a cosmopolitan from the first, early traveling abroad with her parents; she married after the usual biographical unsteadiness in the matter of broken engagements and again traveled abroad, then settled on Park Avenue and in Newport and, much later, built herself a grand house in Lenox, Massachusetts, kept traveling, finally sold the house, divorced her husband, Edward Wharton, “cerebrally compromised Teddy,” as Henry James called him, summing up this wild manic depressive who gave her a lot of trouble. Along the way she had a three-year affair with the romantically overextended seducer Morton Fullerton. And then in 1913, after the divorce, she settled permanently in France. There was more to it than that.

Edith Wharton was twenty-nine when her first short story was published and thirty-seven when her first collection appeared in 1899. Two years before The Decoration of Houses, written with the architect Ogden Codman, had been published. Even though starting late, Edith Wharton quickly became a professional writer in the best and then again in the less than best sense of the phrase. She wrote steadily, novel after novel, made money, and spent money with a forthright and standard-bearing loyalty to those twins of domestic economy, taste and comfort.

She liked expensive motorcars and once told Henry James that the last of these had been purchased with the proceeds from The Valley of Decision, a two-volume mistake about eighteenth-century Italy with characters named Odo and the Duke of Monte Alloro, and showing that Italy can be as dangerous for certain English-language novelists as the vapors from the undrained Marshes. (To this point: Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, a weary and unsuitable surrender to the moist murk a gloomy eye might discover in the beautiful country. Hawthorne himself did not make the common surrender to Italy and complained of “discomforts and miseries,” found the Roman winter an unadvertised blast of chills, and could not countenance nudity in sculptures.)

Henry James, looking at the motorcar purchased by the assault on Italy, and referring to The Wings of the Dove, is reported to have said, “With the proceeds of my last novel, I purchased a small go-cart, or wheel-barrow, on which my guests’ luggage is wheeled from the station to my house. It needs a coat of paint. With the proceeds of my next novel I shall have it painted.”

There is a tradesman’s shrewdness in Edith Wharton’s work. She knows how to order the stock and dispose the goods in the window. She was a popular author, or, to be more just, her books were popular, not always the same thing. (Even in her day there were writers, many of them women susceptible to sentiment, who trafficked in novels in the present-day manner—more soy beans on the commodities market.) Edith Wharton is free of lush sentiments and moralizing tears. In The House of Mirth, her triumph, she is not always clear what the moral might be and thereby created a stunning tragedy in which the best and the richest society of New York revealed an inner coarseness that might remind one of pimps cruising in their Cadillacs.

Nevertheless she is often caught up in contrivance as a furtherance of product. And she likes the ruffled cuff and wonderful transcontinental glamour, interesting enough in itself, but speeding to pointlessness, something like the wonder about it all when a heavy rain falls on an elaborate garden party. The novel is viewed as a frank transaction between elements, elements to be laid out and pasted down like tiles in a frame. A “situation” is of course the necessity of fiction. Yet what of the cracks, the anxiety we sense in greater novelists about the very intention of the careful arabesques so purposefully designed and all of a sudden baked hard as rock?

In a story by Chekhov called “Terror,” a young man has been flirting with the wife of his good friend and she has been sighing in the Russian manner for him. Somehow he at last takes her to his room and the husband enters to get his cap left there earlier, set up, we would say, by the dramatist’s art. At the end the young man wonders: “Why has it turned out like this and not differently? To whom and for what was it necessary that she should love me in earnest and that he should come to my room to fetch his cap? What had the cap to do with it?” A Question about the domination of structure imposed upon a violence of feeling that would in any case have led the two to mount the stairs, open the door?

Neatness of plotting; balancing of the elements by a handy coincidence beyond necessity: that is the way it often goes with this prodigious worker, busy at the morning’s pages. She tends to lay hold with some of the gregarious insistence she displayed as the sort of hostess who organizes trips after lunch. Too many caps to be retrieved at the bedside of indiscretion, too much of a gloss. It’s the last slap of the polishing cloth and then forge ahead in a majorful fashion.

The Reef for instance: the young man is hoping to marry the recently widowed woman he has long loved. She puts him off with family affairs in her mother-in-law’s château in France and with problems relating to her young child and to her stepson. All are Americans, but the château somehow appears as naturally as if it were a deed to a wood lot. In a fit of chagrin the young man has an affair in a cheap Paris railroad hotel with a penniless, adrift American girl trying her hand at this and that abroad. This manifestation of impatience over and done with, the widow and the young man recombine, so to speak; and soon the girl from the railroad hotel turns up and will become engaged to the stepson, heir to the château and all the rest. The plot is suspenseful and executed with considerable gallantry and many Jamesian pauses in articulation—questions that do not quite ask, answers that hang in the air, the cues in the matter of a dialogue to a moral dilemma. The convenience of the young girl’s turning up to be promptly fallen in love with by the heir is too brilliant, too much like a train throwing off passengers at the most useful station.

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