Edith Wharton, at 150, is introduced to Cultural Studies.
Feb 6, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 20 • By VICTORIA ORDIN
But of course, the question was not unique to Wharton in her time: It was also posed by William James in his Will to Believe, and while Hoeller cannot be certain if Wharton had read Henry James’s older brother, it is reasonable to suppose that she might have been influenced by William’s preoccupation with the same question. In The House of Mirth the question acquires life-and-death significance, since Lily Bart ultimately cannot answer in the affirmative.
When the landlady rejects her plea not to go forward, Mrs. Manstey sets the structure on fire. The damage is minimal, but when she learns that Mrs. Manstey is dying, the landlady agrees to halt construction until her death. Joking that Mrs. Manstey is an early housing activist, Hoeller cites a lament familiar to New Yorkers: “It’s a disease, like drink. . . . But there’s no help for it; if people have got a mind to build extensions there’s no law to prevent ’em that I’m aware of.”
The House of Mirth provides the best evidence that Wharton is not merely writing about Fifth Avenue. Hoeller focuses on the plot function of the charwoman who catches Lily Bart in Lawrence Selden’s apartment building and later blackmails her. For her, it is crucial that the opening scene takes place in Grand Central Station, a structure whose centrality and meaning in the lives of New Yorkers cannot be overstated: Between 1903 and 1913 it underwent massive renovation, raising questions about New York’s true identity. By locating Lawrence Selden’s first view of Lily Bart in such a public place, rather than a private home, Wharton “opens up” her novel from the beginning. A 1905 illustration, in which the charwoman figures prominently, also underscores Hoeller’s view that Wharton’s vision is more expansive than generally assumed. Spatially, it captures Lily’s tragic truth that there is no room for her to live, much less to flourish, in New York.
It’s a leap from 1905 to 1920 and The Age of Innocence, not least because of the Great War, which Wharton saw firsthand, writing about the destruction in France and the notion that anyone close to the trenches could never be the same again, never recapture any former state of “innocence.” But the Cultural Studies approach becomes clearest in Hoeller’s daring and sustained reading of the most famous novella in Old New York. As I later reread the novella I can only scratch my head: Hoeller’s thesis is that “The Old Maid” is a roman à clef which reflects not only Wharton’s anxieties about her own parentage but the possibility that Wharton was, herself, the little girl in the story who is not only part African American but also ignorant about her true parentage.
Curiously, Hoeller devotes not a moment to Wharton’s disparaging remarks (quoted earlier) on the subject of the roman à clef in A Backward Glance. Moreover, such autobiographical facts (even if true) aren’t terribly useful on an interpretive level. A richer avenue of inquiry about the psychologically intricate study of Delia Ralston and her spinster cousin Charlotte would be Wharton’s use of words such as “natural,” “unnatural,” “bond,” “alliance,” and “avowal” and what these tell us about her sense of how the cultural and social and economic impinge on the natural. Outside a small corner of the literary-critical landscape, it may not be fashionable to cite Stanley Cavell, but he stressed the value of “explaining the obvious” to his students.
I’m not suggesting that the critic must choose between strictly formal and aesthetic analysis, and attention to cultural, historical, and political forces. Wharton was an acute observer of society, culture, and history. But an artist deserves to be explored not merely for what she says but the way she says it, and if American writers must be subject to the Cultural Studies approach, Edith Wharton is among the least likely candidates.
Victoria Ordin is a writer in Los Angeles.