Thursday, April 24, 2008

Edith Wharton's Reputation

From The Wall Street Journal:

As Mr. Zaid observes, the posthumous stature of an author's work can lurch wildly. In the 1930s, Edmund Wilson deflated Edith Wharton's over-large reputation; then it grew beyond what it was before; and now the critic Andrew Delbanco has brought it back down again to human scale. But the status of a businessman's claim to fame is subject to much the same kind of variance: "from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations," as patriarch Sam Bronfman used to say worriedly about his distillery business, despite its seemingly unassailable success.

Editor's note: Is the piece referred to here Edmund Wilson's "Justice to Edith Wharton," and, if so, does anyone know why it is considered here as an essay that deflated her reputation?

From Andrew Delbanco's review of Hermione Lee's biography:

This book is a powerful rebuttal to that view. It builds on the work of previous scholars -- on Lewis's biography, on Blake Nevius's study of Wharton's methods of revision, on Cynthia Griffin Wolff's psychological insights, and many more. And it comes at an interesting moment in the history of Wharton's reputation, which was highest in the 1920s, when she was selling well and winning prizes. By the 1930s, her stock was falling, as the claims of modernism took hold and the Depression made her characters and themes seem precious and indulgent. In 1939, not long after her death, Clifton Fadiman, then the books editor at the New Yorker, could write that those who continued to read her did so for reasons of "class fidelity." In the postwar years, Wharton held her own as a literary worthy -- though often paired with James as a lesser disciple -- but it was really not until the 1970s, with the surge of interest in women's studies, that she became a major writer again. This time she came back as an unexpected "Do Me" feminist. The affair with Fullerton and the discovery of "Beatrice Palmato," a fragment of erotic writing with an incest theme (probably written around 1919), intensified interest in her as a writer about women abused by inattention or exploitation, who are sexual furnaces waiting to be stoked. By the 1990s, helped by Martin Scorsese's fine film of The Age of Innocence -- which, as Scorsese discovered, is about high-society people as merciless as any gangster -- Wharton had become a popular writer of lush period pieces.

With all these versions of Wharton now behind us, the question is whether interest in her work will now be renewed again, and if so, for what reasons. She is a writer who flatters the self-satisfied rich even as she anatomizes them, by granting them their materialist premise: that the acquisition, the display, and the transmission of money are the primary activities of life. Only rarely does an alternative way of living come into view in her work. In our age of twentysomething i-bankers, when fortunes are quickly made and quickly lost, Wharton may well find a new audience -- but will it be more interested in her views of the interior life or of interior decoration? Is she finally a writer who points beyond getting and spending, or a writer nostalgic for the first Gilded Age who shows us, in luscious detail, how it once was done? Hermione Lee has presented the best possible case for the former. The jury in our own gilded age is still out.

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