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.
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.