Select Page

Edith_Wharton_publicity_shot_1905jpg.jpgIn 1902, Henry James wrote to Edith Wharton after reading her first novel, The Valley of Decision, and two volumes of her stories: “In the presence of a book so accomplished, pondered, saturated, so exquisitely studied, and so brilliant and interesting from a literary point of view, I feel that just now heartily to congratulate you covers plenty of ground.” But he warned Wharton away from pursuing the kind of historical fiction represented by The Valley of Decision. Instead, he advised her to take up a subject closer to home: “Do New York! The 1st-hand account is precious.”

Three years later, Wharton did indeed “do New York,” telling the story of Lily Bart’s downfall amidst New York’s moneyed class in The House of Mirth, one of her finest novels. [The picture at left is a publicity shot taken to promote the novel.]

Eighteen years later, in The Age of Innocence, Wharton would turn a less caustic eye on the city, dramatizing the world of her youth. When she showed the manuscript to her cousin Walter Van Rensselaer Berry, he observed: “Yes, it’s good. But of course you and I are the only people who will ever read it. We are the last people left who can remember New York and Newport as they were then, and nobody else will be interested.”

Berry was right about the novel’s quality, but wrong about its fate: The Age of Innocence was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1921 and sold 115,000 copies in two years. Wharton earned $55,000 plus $15,000 from Warner Brothers for film rights to the novel.

Just before beginning to write the novel, Wharton had read Sir James Frazier’s The Golden Bough, already a landmark in the nascent fields of ethnography and cultural anthropology. I’ll be spending some time in this morning’s lecture tracing Wharton’s references to ethnography in the novel. Here’s one of my favorite passages:

In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs; as when Mrs. Welland, who knew exactly why Archer had pressed her to announce her daughter’s engagement at the Beaufort ball (and had indeed expected him to do no less), yet felt obliged to simulate reluctance, and the air of having had her hand forced, quite as, in the books on Primitive Man that people of advanced culture were beginning to read, the savage bride is dragged with shrieks from her parents’ tent.

The overarching theme of the lecture will be the ways in which the novel of manners has always
been a genre that dramatized tribal behavior, even if the tribe in
question happened to be upper crast English society or the high society of Old New York. What’s wonderful about Wharton’s novel is the self-consciousness with which she approaches the genre because of her reading of Frazier’s book and other ethnographic texts. Passages like the one above become meditations not only on the mores and customs of society but also on the ways in the mysteries of language.

Later in the week we’ll think about Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the novel, which makes significant use of Wharton’s language in Joanne Woodward’s voiceover narration. The comparison of novel to film in this case is instructive because it shows us how difficult it is for film to plumb the significance of a phrase or gesture, which a novelist like Wharton can reveal in just a phrase.