Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Gore Vidal on Sinclair Lewis, with a side glance at Edith Wharton

From the archives of the New York Review of Books (October 8, 1992): Gore Vidal on Sinclair Lewis, with a side glance at Edith Wharton:

In youth Lewis wrote yards of romantic verse, much of it jocose; yet he had heard Yeats at Yale and was much impressed by the poetry of the early Yeats. Like most born writers, he read everything: Dickens, Scott, Kipling were his first influences. But it was H.G. Wells’s The History of Mr. Polly that became for him a paradigm for his own first novel. Like most writers, again, he later claimed all sorts of grand literary progenitors, among them Thoreau, but it would appear that he mostly read the popular writers of his time and on the great divide that Philip Rahv was to note—Paleface versus Redskin—Lewis was firmly Redskin; yet, paradoxically, he deeply admired and even tried to imitate those Edith Wharton stories that were being published when he was coming of age, not to mention The Custom of the Country, whose Undine Spragg could have easily served time in a Lewis novel.
. . . 
The first five novels established Sinclair Lewis as a serious if not particularly brilliant novelist; but one with, as they say at Billboard, a bullet. As a careerist, Lewis was an Attila. In his pursuit of blurbs, he took no prisoners. He cultivated famous writers. Main Street is dedicated to James Branch Cabell and Joseph Hergesheimer, the two classiest novelists of the day. Babbitt is dedicated to Edith Wharton, who took it all in her magnificent, ruthless stride.
. . . 
When Lewis’s sometime model Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence, Lewis wrote to congratulate her. As for this uncharacteristic lapse on the part of a committee designed to execute, with stern impartiality, Gresham’s Law, Mrs. Wharton responded with her usual finely wrought irony: “When I discovered that I was being rewarded by one of our leading Universities—for uplifting American morals, I confess I did despair.” She praises Lewis vaguely; later, she is to prove to be his shrewdest critic.
. . . 
At a Minneapolis party, Carol meets Dr. Will Kennicutt, a doctor in the small town of Gopher Prairie. He is agreeable, and manly, and adores her. In a short time: “He had grown from a sketched-in stranger to a friend.” Will is “sincere” (a favorite word of Carol’s is “insincere”). Carol meanwhile (as a result of Mrs. Wharton on interior decoration and Italian Gardens?) has dreamed that “what I’ll do after college [is] get my hands on one of those prairie towns and make it beautiful.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

House of Mirth at Networked New York

Our latest Networked NY Q&A is with Reed Gochberg, a doctoral student in English at Boston University. Reed studies late nineteenth-century American literature and culture and her research interests include American intellectual history and urban cultural history.
Your paper at Networked New York offered a re-reading of the tableaux vivant in The House of Mirth, which you place in the context of New York cultural institutions established in the final decades of the nineteenth century. What are the key elements of this historical moment and these cultural institutions that you see at work in Wharton’s novel?
I first began considering these ideas after visiting an exhibit at another New York institution this past November: the “Beauties of the Gilded Age” series at the New-York Historical Society, which showcases (on rotation) the miniature collection of Peter Marié. Marié was a bachelor who commissioned miniatures of beautiful New York women (including Edith Wharton) and amassed a collection of over three hundred such portraits. On visiting the exhibit, I was immediately reminded of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and its famous tableaux vivant scene, in which the protagonist, Lily Bart takes part in an “entertainment” staged by a wealthy New York family in their Fifth Avenue mansion. As one of twelve performers in tableaux vivant, she appears as Joshua Reynolds’ painting, Mrs. Lloyd, in a striking display that showcases both her beauty and her ability to become an art object (see image at left). I was struck by the seeming reversal of such a process: photographs of women transformed into miniatures, as opposed to women transforming themselves into paintings.
The cultural context of the novel definitely suggests its interest in cultural institutions, especially given the historical proximity of its publication (1905) to the founding of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1870) and other contemporaneous institutions. On further reading of the tableaux vivant scene, other inversions present themselves: rather than a museum where art objects are displayed, Wharton describes a ballroom transformed, temporarily, into a theater/gallery. And more importantly, rather than directing their money to philanthropic purpose—and particularly, supporting the public arts—her wealthy characters are throwing a private party. When read in light of these broader philanthropic networks, the scene suggests a powerful commentary on an important moment for cultural institutions in America—and an issue that’s continually relevant to today’s debates about the funding of the arts.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Mrs. Manstey's View

From Today in Literature:

On this day in 1891, Edith Wharton's first published story, "Mrs. Manstey's View," was accepted by Scribner's Magazine. Wharton was twenty-nine years old, brought up in wealth and high society, and recently married to a prominent banker; she was as opposite to her destitute heroine as she was to being a struggling young writer, and her first story throws the write-about-what-you-know rule out the window.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Edith Wharton's Houses

From The New Yorker


Criticism, contention, and conversation about books that matter.

MAY 23, 2012


Edith Wharton knows houses. Her first published book was “The Decoration of Houses,” written with Ogden Codman, Jr., which argued for “house-decoration as a branch of architecture,” and against “the indifference of the wealthy to architectural fitness.” Wharton and Codman took a reformist stance, suggesting that clients stop treating the interiors and the exteriors of their houses as separate projects and start seeking more simplicity and less ornament. Wharton had an opportunity to play architect and decorator herself in Lenox, Massachusetts, where (with the help of professionals) she built the Mount, a Georgian mansion with a cascade of beautiful gardens. She wrote to her sometime lover Morton Fullerton, “Decidedly, I’m a better landscape gardener than novelist, and this place, every line of which is my own work, far surpasses The House of Mirth… ”
Yet “The House of Mirth” is bookended by contrasting visions of domestic architecture. In the first chapter, we visit the lawyer Lawrence Selden’s bachelor apartment with its “shabby leather chairs,” “pleasantly faded Turkey rug,” and shaded balcony, and it seems a personal oasis. In the last, we visit the unmarried heroine Lily Bart’s spare boarding-house home, “where there was no other token of her personality about the room, unless it showed itself in the scrupulous neatness.” Those rooms show the difference between the lot of the single man and the single woman in New York society as vividly as the dialogue. The societal rituals Wharton satirizes and elegizes always have specific sets. In “The Age of Innocence,” she nods to the future development of Manhattan real estate with a sidelong reference to the pioneering spirit of Mrs. Manson Mingott, who “put the crowning touch to her audacities by building a large house of cream-colored stone … in an inaccessible wilderness near the Central Park.” Location, architectural style, and decoration make a language—one Wharton could read and write fluently.
“The Custom of the Country,” however, is her architectural masterpiece. The novel follows the social progress of Undine Spragg, an American beauty from Midwestern Apex City, whose one desire is to move up. Lily Bart and Newland Archer, the protagonists of Wharton’s better-read “House of Mirth” and “Age of Innocence,” are both society-born insiders. Undine Spragg is an outsider, and her name itself encompasses the warring forces at work in her desire for progress. “Undine” suggests finer things, but is actually an homage to a more mundane invention, a hair-waver put on the market by her phlegmatic father the week she was born; “Spragg” is pure Apex. (Wharton does a similar thing with Ellen Olenska, in “Age of Innocence”; “Ellen” is New York, while “Olenska” forever sets her apart from the Wellands and the Archers.)
Undine’s lovers want to see her as divers et ondoyant, but she is really a Spraggy businesswoman. There’s a parallel plot where the husbands and fathers make and lose fortunes through real estate and the stock market, but Wharton seems as uninterested in that kind of commerce as Undine is. Instead, houses become the way we readers chart Undine’s climb, which is entirely accomplished by strategic marriage. With each husband, she changes city, house type, and architectural style, moving from brownstone to château to hôtel particulier. It is Undine’s misreading of those houses (she assumes big house equals money equals freedom) that leads her into each bad marriage, and pushes Wharton’s plot forward. Undine will never be satisfied, as the last lines of the book make clear, but our magazine-bred voyeurism is.

Read more

Monday, May 14, 2012

From The House of Mirth: Song, Music, and Dance

Dance review

From the House of Mirth: A tragic heroine for the age of greed

TORONTO — From Friday's Globe and Mail
Lily Bart is an anti-heroine in a morality play with no real moral. She’s the beautiful but materialistic protagonist of Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel The House of Mirth, a bleak preview of the greedy, scandal-addicted world we live in today.

James Kudelka’s ambitious new work for Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie, From the House of Mirth, pays tribute to Wharton’s novel in song, music and dance. Composed and arranged by Vancouver's Rodney Sharman with a libretto by Toronto playwright Alex Poch-Goldin, the work is a theatrically sumptuous retelling of Lily's sad tale.

The action unfolds on a set that is sparse yet suggests luxury and privilege: Musicians line the back wall, a crystal chandelier hangs overhead and performers in evening dress swirl and sway. In short order, Wharton’s characters begin to emerge from the wash of movement.

There’s Selden (countertenor Scott Belluz), who loves Lily but is not wealthy enough for her ambitions. Trenor (tenor Graham Thomson) has money and initially shares it with Lily, briefly rescuing her from her debts – but of course, he expects repayment in either affection or cash. Rosedale (baritone Alexander Dobson) and Dorset (bass baritone Geoffrey Sirett) are both fascinated by Lily and offer support at various stages of her fall from grace.

Kudelka has divvied up dramatic duties along gender lines – the men sing the story forward while the women add layers of meaning to the narrative through dance. And so Trenor’s wife Judy is performed by dancer Claudia Moore in elegant silence (except when she loudly declaims a single sentence that signals the beginning of the end of Lily’s reign as society’s darling).
[read the rest at the link above]

--Submitted by Rita Bode

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Summer (production)

The Edith Wharton Society might well be interested in the world première of Summer, a new play based on the novella by Wharton, opening at the Jack Studio Theatre in Brockley on the 8th May.

The production coincides with Wharton's 150th birthday celebrations taking place worldwide. Summer is a new play written by Julia Stubbs Hughes, a London based theatre director. Julia has written Summer over the last three years, continually developing the work with actors. This is her debut play and is focused solely on the three main characters in Wharton’s novel. This ensemble production will incorporate live music and innovative design; it is a simple and concise adaptation using modern language with a focus on character and text.

Happily, Summer is to be published by Playdead Press to coincide with our production. Of course I'd like to welcome you to join us for the production should you find yourself in London, but we are also looking for contributors to ‘Our Summer Book’ at; an online collection of work exploring Edith Wharton's impact across the globe, with particular reference to Summer. It has become a constantly evolving forum for our company’s responses to the Summer, Wharton and the production, but we are very keen to open it out to other Wharton enthusiasts, and create a true resource.

 You’ll find all the information you need and Our Summer Book at

House of Mirth at the Metropolitan Playhouse through May 20