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Innocence Abroad

Edith Wharton, at 150, is introduced to Cultural Studies.

Feb 6, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 20 • By VICTORIA ORDIN
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New York

Sitting somewhat soaked in the lush auditorium of the Morgan Library a few weeks before Christmas—no cabs in the rain, of course, and no umbrella—I listen with pleasure and interest, but not without reservations, to CUNY professor Hildegard Hoeller’s lecture on “Edith Wharton: Old and New New York.” 

Her ambitious talk explores four texts from Wharton’s career, early to late, to portray her as both a great woman writer and great writer of New York. A major Wharton scholar who specializes in 19th- and 20th-century American literature, Hoeller boasts an impressive and provocative list of publications. Still, it’s instantly apparent she is also a creature of Cultural Studies.

“Mrs. Wharton,” wrote Louis Auchincloss in his introduction to  her autobiography, A Backward Glance, “was always determined to be surrounded with a beautiful world, even if she had to build it herself.” Yet what we might consider a quintessentially Romantic/Idealist impulse to “make,” rather than “find,” a world is at odds with aspects of Wharton’s brief ars poetica in A Backward Glance. For Wharton, there is a moment when characters, “these people .  .  . actually begin to speak within [her] with their own voices.” She describes the emergence of dialogue in surprisingly passive terms, given what Auchincloss calls her perpetually “tid[y] .  .  . fussy .  .  . and controlling” nature:

I become merely a recording instrument, and my hand never hesitates because my mind has not to choose, but only to set down what these stupid or intelligent, lethargic or passionate, people say to each other in a language, and with arguments, that appear to be all their own.

Hoeller’s talk is highly informative, and, for a lecture of 50 minutes pitched not to literary critics or graduate students, is excellent, too. Still, my dominant impression leaving the Morgan Library is that Cultural Studies really has become entrenched as the literary-critical way of the world. I can’t object to the substance of what Hoeller is saying, but you have to approach Edith Wharton’s ambivalent, vexed, and ever-shifting relation to Manhattan in the context of her profound investment in all forms of beauty, from the natural to the material to the aesthetic. I am ill at ease when what lies beyond the text begins to overtake what lies within it.

Hoeller describes, for instance, what she regards as a persistent and intense racial anxiety running through Wharton’s work, an anxiety pervasive in New York throughout Wharton’s life. That Wharton takes up race to greater and lesser degrees in her writing is beyond dispute; but how much critical energy this should absorb is less clear. And Hoeller’s unsurprising rejection of Wharton as a writer of the leisure class, exclusively or predominantly, is not unpersuasive: Though conventional wisdom has it that Wharton was the female Henry James, the two writers were, in fact, very different, and their relationship, while close, was complicated. But Hoeller doesn’t press on the James connection, nor is she interested in situating Wharton’s aesthetics or philosophical assumptions in a larger contemporary context.

Hoeller is right to consider the New York Times’s 1937 obituary as narrow and simplistic: Edith Wharton’s vision of New York was not confined to Fifth Avenue, nor was the theme of “innocence” as unambiguous and central as the Times took it to be. In her complex and near-obsessive rewriting of New York throughout her life (much of it as an expatriate), Wharton’s “mode” was seldom nostalgic. Hoeller argues, however, that Wharton was investigating through fiction what it meant to record and relate to the past in order to forge what Gerald Kennedy calls “a relation between an authorial self and a world of located experience.” This was all the more urgent, Hoeller argues, because of the vast and constant changes in New York itself.

To illustrate her ambitious and varied claims, Hoeller focuses on four texts: “Mrs. Manstey’s View” (1891), The House of Mirth (1905), The Age of Innocence (1920), and “The Old Maid,” the most famous novella in Old New York (1924). “Mrs. Manstey’s View,” a very short story which first appeared in Scribner’s, is about a poor, solitary old woman living in a dingy tenement surrounded by disorder and debris whose only joy and experience of beauty is the view past all this from her apartment window. The landlady proposes an addition which would block her view, the only thing which makes life “worth living.” This is a constant, nagging question throughout Wharton’s fiction, and Hoeller conceives that it has a particular resonance in ever-changing New York.

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