On June 14, 2007 The New York Review of Books published my "Letter to the
Editor" pertaining to the information I uncovered regarding H. C. Bunner's
influence on Edith Wharton's early works. Edmund White conceding some of my facts and refuting others made a reply. When I addressed his comments in a2nd "Letter to the Editor" it was declined because of space in the column and other more pressing issues. [The letter appears below.]
BUNNER & THE SISTERS
By Linda Selman <http://www.nybooks.com/authors/13294> , Reply by Edmund White
In response to The House of Edith
To the Editors:
I read with interest Edmund White's review of Hermione Lee's biography Edith Wharton [NYR, April 26]. One mystery that has not been solved by Ms. Lee or any other scholar is, who influenced Wharton's early artistic development? Why did Edith Wharton, descendant of New York's "Four Hundred," choose for her subject matter the lives of the struggling lower classes to portray American moral values?
As I was adapting Wharton's novella Bunner Sisters (written in 1891, published in 1916) for the stage, I uncovered that missing link. I assumed, as well as everyone else, that Wharton made up the name Bunner. It turns out we were mistaken. The influence on the still young, unformed Wharton was H.C. Bunner, author, poet, playwright, and editor in chief of Puck Magazine, America's first successful political comic weekly. He was the "literary light" of her era.
As a writer and member of the Authors Club, H.C. Bunner (1855–1896) was the first to bring to the forefront the radical concept of New York City as a creative resource, spelled out in his 1883 essay "New York as a Field for Fiction" in Century Magazine. He even laid out the format on how to write it. Bunner asked his fellow writers, "May we find a field for character-study in New York as Thackeray found in London and Augier in Paris? Must we not import our character, like our fashions, and our dressing-cases, and our wine?"
The quintessential New York writer, Bunner had already accepted the challenge he put forth to others by establishing this unique literary genre, "The New York Story," in serial format each week in Puck and later in Scribner's. During his lifetime, the public clamored for a Bunner sensibility, a Bunner style, and a Bunner point of view. His stories focused on the drama and hopes of the immigrant, the poor, and the new middle class as they attempted to carve out meaningful lives in the tenement houses of the city and its environs. Bunner recognized the importance and worth of this community. He used his magazine as a forum to integrate these individuals into the fabric of American life.
Edith Wharton's novella Bunner Sisters is a testimony to him and his form. The story's title, writing style, and genre reflect the actual lives of H.C. Bunner and his brother Rudolph. As Wharton herself wrote later in life, "I had yet no real personality of my own [in the early 1890s], and was not to acquire one till my first volume of short stories [The Great Inclination] was published—and that was not until 1899."
Among Bunner's devoted and admiring friends were literary giants Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, and W.D. Howells. He received an honorary degree of Master of Arts from Yale University (1895) and every year Columbia University awards a student the H.C. Bunner Gold Medal for the best essay written about American literature. Bunner's brief life—died of tuberculosis at the age of forty-one—ought to be regarded as a tragic and untimely loss to American letters.
New York City
Edmund White replies:
Edith Wharton may have been referring to H.C. Bunner in her choice of a title, Bunner Sisters, but it seems unlikely that his was the decisive influence on Mrs. Manstey's View or Ethan Frome. In her early work she consistently revealed her strong ethical sense of the cost of riches and the underside of conspicuous consumption—and her sensitivity to these questions is a prominent (if underrated) aspect of that work.
June 4, 2007
TO: Letters to the Editor
RE: Linda Selman’s Response to Edmund White’s June 14 Response
BUNNER & THE SISTERS
In his letter [NYR, June 14], Edmund White concedes “Edith Wharton may have been referring to H. C. Bunner in her choice of a title, Bunner Sisters.” Let me remind Mr. White that it is no small gesture for a fiction writer to honor openly another by incorporating his or her name into the title of the story.
Young painters pay homage as a matter of course by reproducing the style, form and techniques of an admired master’s genre as their own. The desire to emulate that genre is incorporated into the fledgling artists’ early works before their unique form of expression is discovered. As a young writer of prose, H. C. Bunner followed that approach with de Maupassant, as did Edith Wharton with H. C. Bunner.
Wharton closely practiced and incorporated the essence of Bunner’s new genre, The New York Story. In an inspired Open Letter, “New York as a Field for Fiction,” Century Magazine, 1883, he set forth a challenge to the literary community of America:
Suddenly, within the span of a man’s life, it [New York City] has become the sole receiving port of a marvelously great immigration, the commercial and financial center of the nation, and one of the largest and richest cities of the world. This, it seems to me, is a promising place to look for social phenomena, if only in the clash of the old and the new, and the general struggle to fix standards of society.
Go out among the living folk to study character and color – the vital essence that is all the difference between the conventional figure and the creation of character… Go to any street and pick out the family mansion that was once the pride of the block. Go home with… clerks and other plain folk at the shop and in the boarding-house…. and fancy for ourselves how he looks and talks, and what he thinks…. You cannot tell all about people from their occupations….
The field is clear…. The novelist of New York will find no competition…. Mr. James devotes himself to settling international complications of taste and affection…but his “Washington Square” might as well have been the smokiest of sparrow-haunted London parks as that fair old spot that was once the Potters Field.
For if the mere journalist whose range of vision is bounded by his office wall may see this much, how much more is to be found by the man who has served his apprenticeship to fiction, who has the eye to study and the hand to write! I cast my hint upon the waters. I hope somebody will fish it out in whose care it will thrive.
Edmund White states, “…it seems unlikely that his [H. C. Bunner] was the decisive influence on Mrs. Manstey's View or Ethan Frome.” I disagree. Wharton’s first published works were poems inspired by and linked to the myths, art and poetry of the classics. However by 1890, she was focusing on the shifting lives of immigrants, the poor, and the lower middle classes residing in and around New York City. This was the world H. C. Bunner had exposed and for which he had gained prominence and worldly success in the years before Wharton’s early fiction was to be recognized. In fact, it was Bunner’s editor at Scribner’s, Edward L. Burlingame, whose job it was to cultivate new American literature, who discovered her.
In Edith Wharton, Hermione Lee describes Wharton’s first short story, “Mrs. Manstey’s View” (1891) as a work of “sad urban confinement and poverty…. the beginnings of the tearing-down and the building-up of old New York.” “Bunner Sisters” (1891) her second work, Lee writes, “is the most poignant and cruel of these early stories of America’s underclass… a… subdued, realistic masterpiece of thwarted lives….” “Ethan Frome” (1911) Ms. Lee concludes, “comes as a great shock, and not just because of the violent switch from her usual upper-class, sophisticated, international territory to the remote hills and poor farmers’ lives of nineteenth-century New England. But Wharton has been interested in American deprivation for a long time – as in “Bunner Sisters.” Although Lee acknowledges the themes of the stories as evolving from the under-classes of American society, she did not uncover the influence as being that of H. C. Bunner. His name until now has never been connected with Wharton.
Edmund White also refuses to credit H. C. Bunner for Wharton’s “strong ethical sense of the cost of riches and the underside of conspicuous consumption.” Where does he imagine Wharton’s inspiration came from? Certainly not from her milieu but rather from Bunner’s championing of the under-classes in his short stories and in the pages of Puck.
In “Mrs. Manstey’s View” the protagonist, Mrs. Manstey, an infirm elderly widow, looks down from her third floor boarding-house room window onto the back yard of her city block – “a street where the ash-barrels lingered late on the sidewalk and the gaps in the pavement would have staggered… [But] in the very next enclosure did not a magnolia open its hard white flowers against the watery blue of April?” It was just as Bunner was repudiated to have done from his office windows at the Puck Building. “The windows,” states Henry Gallop Paine, Puck’s managing editor, “looked out over Mulberry Street, and Bunner was as interested in the tenants of the four-story brick tenements opposite and in their doings as if they were old friends. If nothing interesting was happening on Mulberry Street, he would go and look out the back windows on Jersey Street. And what he saw there will soon be found in his volume entitled Jersey Street and Jersey Lane.” At the end of Wharton’s story, Mrs. Manstey dies on the same day the work on the extension of the building opposite her, which would have blocked her view forever, “resumes.” The ending is a mirror image of Bunner’s “The Story of a New York House.” At its conclusion, the protagonist, Mr. Dolph, an infirm elderly widower, dies on the same day the house he built years before is being broken down “brick by brick.”
Wharton’s novella “Bunner Sisters,” is the story of two poor, working-class sisters, whose shop and living quarters can be found in the basement of a Stuyvesant Square tenement. The story’s title, writing style, and genre reflect the actual lives of the Bunner brothers: Rudolph Francis and Henry Cuyler. Wharton honors Stuyvesant Square, the same locale H. C. and the Authors Club (in which he was a member) resided. She honors the bucolic environs of New Jersey, where both the Bunner sisters and the Bunner brothers sojourned when they were in need of “a breath of real country air.” H. C. Bunner helped establish an “American Bloomsbury” in Nutley, New Jersey. Evelina, the younger sister of the Bunner sisters, writes a letter extolling the spiritual union of marriage as had H. C. Bunner in his extraordinary short story, “A Letter and a Paragraph.” Like Ann Eliza, the elder sister in “Bunner Sisters,” Rudolph, the elder brother of the Bunner brothers, sacrifices a good portion of his life for the success of his sibling. Both became the caretaker of an ailing and dying loved one – in Rudolph’s case his mother and in Ann Eliza’s her sister Evelina. Each experienced at an early age the death of a sibling to tuberculosis. For them, as well as for Edith Wharton, existence becomes a quest to capture a unique and authentic self within life’s limitations. As Wharton writes, “The city [New York] under fair spring sky seems to throb with the stirring of innumerable beginnings.”
“Bunner Sisters” was not published until 1916; long after Henry Cuyler Bunner was dead, Edward L. Burlingame had retired from Scribner’s and Edith Wharton had found fame.
H. C. Bunner’s challenge to American writers did not go unheeded. Edith Wharton successfully created the beginnings of her own unique genre by consistently incorporating into her fiction Bunner’s seminal writing style and point of view.