Our final contributor profile is devoted to Sarah Wilson, who received her Ph.D. from Columbia University and is Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Toronto. Her teaching interests include nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature; literary modernism; theories of ethnicity, pluralism, democracy, and cosmopolitanism; and urban studies.
Sarah’s book Melting-Pot Modernism is forthcoming later this year from Cornell University Press. Here Sarah traces the melting-pot impulse toward merging and cross-fertilization through the writings of such literary figures as Henry James, James Weldon Johnson, Willa Cather, and Gertrude Stein, as well as through works of autobiography, sociology, and social commentary drawn from the era. What interests Sarah in Melting Pot Modernism is the unexamined connection between the ideological ferment of the Progressive era and the literary experimentation of modernism. Sarah aims to reveal the richly aesthetic nature of assimilation at the turn of the twentieth century, focusing on questions of the individual’s relation to culture, the protection of vulnerable populations, the sharing of cultural heritages, and the far-reaching effects of free-market thinking.
For the Cambridge Companion, Sarah has contributed the chapter “New York and the Novel of Manners,” which complicates the story usually told about the novel of manners from Henry James to Edith Wharton by situating works of Lower East Side realism in its midst. Here is an excerpt:
At the conclusion of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1920), the gentlemen of the Welland-Mingott clan gather in Newland Archer’s library, and their talk turns to the social disintegration implied in the rise of that “foreign upstart,” Julius Beaufort. Lawrence Lefferts, the perennial (and hypocritical) defender of “society,” thunders: “If things go on at this pace … we shall see our children fighting for invitations to swindlers’ houses, and marrying Beaufort’s bastards.” Only a chapter (and twenty-six years) later, Lefferts’s quintessential articulation of Old New York embattlement is driven home by the revelation that Newland Archer’s eldest son plans to do just that. For The Age of Innocence, “Beaufort’s bastards” come to stand for illegitimacy legitimized by the passage of time: more specifically, they speak to a struggle over manners staged through generational change. Like many New York novels of the turn of the twentieth century, Wharton’s novel frames the rapid social change of the era in generational terms: cultural conflict comes off as family squabble. As the discussion of Beaufort’s bastards suggests, generational change stages intimate clashes between what is and is not culturally acceptable, all while troubling existing divisions between what is family” and what is “foreign,” what is private and what is public. “Manners,” in this sense, become the battleground through which turn-of-the-century New York writers bring cultural difference home; in particular, New York novels of manners reckon with such cultural difference by recognizing it as an inescapable force of historical change.
In this sense the New York novel of manners both resembles and differentiates itself from traditional novels of manners. Like the traditional novel of manners (best exemplified by the novels of Austen), these texts are concerned with the social conventions by which communities and classes can be mapped. The fiction of Wharton and Henry James remains relatively true to this tradition, while beginning to gesture at the forms of difference that press at the boundaries of class and culture in New York. However, a significant proportion of turn-of-the-century New York novels expand the populations understood to be “mappable” by novels of manners: novels by William Dean Howells, Abraham Cahan, and Paul Laurence Dunbar bring into the tradition classes and cultures, races and ethnicities (and even literary genres, such as naturalism) not usually associated with manners literature as traditionally conceived. These novels share their preoccupation with manners with a polyglot host of other turn-of-the-century New York texts, reflecting the allure of manners – their diversity, even their exoticism – for chroniclers of a cosmopolitan society.