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The Making of Edith Wharton

ISSUE:  Winter 1976
Edith Wharton: A Biography. By R. W. B. Lewis. Harper and Row. $15.

A CHARACTERISTIC, if apocryphal, story of Edith Wharton is this: she was being shown through the house of an opulent neighbor, who remarked, “And this I call my Louis Quinze room.” Edith, staring about through her lorgnette, replied, “Why, my dear?” No other American writer so easily draws the epithet formidable.This is at least part of the reason why Wharton’s works are much more admired than studied or taught. Something has occurred since her immense popularity over the first three decades of this century to make her seem peculiarly intimidating and alien, Quite simply, she has had a bad image.

From the time that V. L. Parrington dubbed her “Our Literary Aristocrat” in the 1920’s, Wharton has too easily been placed outside the “main current” of American literature and culture, And Percy Lubbock’s Portrait of Edith Wharton in 1947 increased the barriers through which one approached her fiction—she appeared reserved, snobbish, haughty, repressed, fastidious and yet oddly reluctant to take her own work seriously. She was the grande dame, at once frivolous and frightening. Edith Wharton’s biographer, then, has to work in the context of a stereotype that has often interfered with the reading of her work. The importance of R.W.B.Lewis’s Edith Wharton: A Biography is that it not only gives us a better understanding of how her writings related to her life, but it also shifts and refines the image we have of her, making her fine works themselves accessible in more ways,

What kind of woman appears in Lewis’s pages? Certainly her most striking new quality is a richly erotic nature. For those who accepted the recurrent legend that Edith Wharton was sexually frigid and incapable of passion, the sensational discovery is that for three years in her forties she had an affair with the Paris-based journalist Morton Fullerton. His papers and her intimate journal show that her sexual nature was not repressed but left dormant. When awakened she made an adventurous erotic companion. On the other hand, one’s suspicion from reading her novels that she somehow distrusted passion, no matter how strongly she might have felt it, is curiously confirmed, for she seems to have experienced sexual fulfillment both as intense bliss and as an assault on her entire identity: “I am a little humbled, a little ashamed to find how poor a thing I am, how the personality I had moulded into such firm lines has crumbled to a pinch of ashes in this flame!” Yet there are two extraordinary documents published here for the first time which demonstrate that Wharton could express passion and sexual response most movingly. At the end of her affair she wrote the poem “Terminus,” which moves in Whitmanian rhythms from personal rapture to communion with all human wanderers. And when she was 73, she wrote a scene of incestuous lovemaking for the projected novel, “Beatrice Palmato,” a fragment of skillful pornography. With these evidences of new reaches of her imagination, one will inevitably read her fiction in a slightly different light.

Edith Wharton’s erotic nature, however, was not her distinguishing trait, and it deserves emphasis only to correct a false image. Much more central to her personality were three qualities revealed throughout Lewis’s biography—her professionalism as a writer, her restlessness and voracious curiosity and what might be called her home-making. Infusing all three of these qualities was an unusual energy, a fierce commitment to the writing of her own life, and Lewis’s account is arranged to show how her development can be understood through the blockages and misdirections of this energy and then the gradual control of its flow.

Some of her visitors had the illusion that Edith Wharton’s writing was only a part-time amusement, giving way easily to picnics, conversation and travels, but Lewis clarifies her artistic commitment. She could keep her work separate from her social life in part because she had so thoroughly mastered her own craft. In her routine mornings of sequestered writing, she produced so wide a range of fine literature—fiction, poetry, essays, guides, autobiography—at so regular a rate that there is ground for Lewis’s placing of her as the first American woman of letters. She was professional in another sense as well. Although she had inheritances that made her financially independent, it was not familial wealth that made her a rich woman. The trappings that accompany the familiar image of Edith Wharton—the estates in the Berkshires and in France, the touring cars, the private cruises—were actually financed by her always substantial and sometimes astonishing literary earnings. But it took her almost 40 years to attain the technical assurance and the certainty of purpose so evident in her later professional life, and Lewis gives a painful account of the alternate fits of bursting energy and nervous collapse that made up the identity crisis through which this daughter of old New York all improbably became a writer.

Edith Wharton’s second striking quality was already apparent to an observer in the 1880’s when, despite her outward propriety, “the young hawk looked out of her eyes.” Her abundant energy took the form of a never-satisfied restlessness, appearing first in inner frustrations and later in her constant movement, her yearning to be somewhere else. Although travel and seasonal moves had figured in the social patterns of old New York, Wharton developed a pace and an initiative in movement that severed her from her class. Even those who shared her later travels often found her plans exhausting. Henry James was not being entirely comic in alluding to her as the great eagle, the Angel of Devastation. If her restlessness could be read as a sign of unfocused energy, it also expressed her impatience with current conditions, her eagerness to explore other places, to test other possibilities of life. Lewis sees her as peculiarly American both in her denigration of her own country and in her habit of referring for culture to so many distinct literatures. He could generalize this principle to view much of her adult life as an effort to slip out of a limiting background and to appropriate to herself those aspects of many other traditions that she had carefully chosen as the best.

The other side of Edith Wharton’s restlessness is reflected in her comment to an enthusiastic admirer of The Mount: “Oh, I am rather a housekeeperish person.” For all her apparent transience, she ardently entered into the building, refurbishing, outfitting and landscaping of houses, and she did it very well. In one sense this passion for making a home can be seen as compensating for her frenzied displacements; her uprootings made her yearn for a rooted life. But nostalgia for settled values—a major theme in her later writings—is quite a different matter from acceptance of settled values. Rather than rootedness, what Wharton seemed to be seeking was self-determination, the most deliberate and detailed control of her own life. Although their tastes in accommodations differ, there is a surprising affinity between Edith Wharton in the Pavillon Colombe and Nick Adams in his tent on the Big Two-Hearted River: “He was there, in the good place. He was in his home where he had made it.” Whether she was creating houses and gardens, writing books, organizing war relief, planning excursions, molding a circle of friends or shaping the rituals that ordered daily life, one sees the same pattern—the searching, the deliberate choosing, the personal molding. What seemed traditional about Edith Wharton was actually willed and selected. It is delightful to recognize that this woman of the highest American social credentials should turn out to be so essentially self-made.

What does her life illuminate about her writings? One is first struck by the paradoxes. A writer so subtly attuned to the nuances in her characters’ conduct registered her own desires by grand gestures and displacements. The novelist whose fiction makes such a compelling picture of spiritual containment and helplessness—the very psyche as shaped by social habits—not only showed in her own life great freedom of movement but also struck those around her as a person of peculiar authority, brisk competence and initiative. Clearly, Wharton’s writing was in part an act of compensation. Insofar as Lewis himself interprets her works here, he looks at them as psychic gestures, and for the first time there is enough biographical data available to make this kind of reading convincing and helpful. Not only does he relate her repeated concern with variations on marriage, courtship and adultery to her own general disillusionment with her marriage, but he shows the roots of particular stories in the current forms of her discontent. In emphasizing the psychological sources of her work, however, Lewis plays down the social and intellectual sources, so that one comes away from the biography at times still puzzled about how she developed the keen intelligence and the complex historical attitudes apparent in so much of her work.

One remains puzzled, too, about Edith Wharton’s response to her situation as a woman writer. It is difficult to assess the images of women in her fiction; for, as Lewis points out, she often changed the sexes when she recast her own experience in fiction. What are we to make of the fact that one of her most richly developed characters is a man—Newland Archer—whose psychological life is projected in two contrasting women, each seen essentially as an object? As for her own life, Lewis gives a careful account of the recurrent guilt Edith Wharton experienced over defying her class background to become a writer, but he says little about the conflicts and uncertainties she had to cope with as a woman. In fact, the period when these conflicts would have been most troublesome—her twenties and early thirties—remains somewhat shadowy in his account as contrasted to the richly detailed and firmly outlined life after age 40.By this time, of course, Wharton’s own personality was marked by unusual self-command and authority, and one cannot help pondering the sacrifices she had to make to attain that control and freedom from distraction, the struggles she would not have faced as a man. Could she have been the writer she was if she had had children or had not had her large household staff? Did her discontent with Teddy Wharton reach beyond incompatibility to rebellion against marriage itself and its subtler roles? Why were most of her dearest friends single males? Why in the midst of her characteristically demanding and brilliant talk did her eyes dart around to the displaced cushion?

That one can even ask such questions now with precision, however, is a measure of R.W.B.Lewis’s achievement in this biography. He keeps a careful balance between the conflicting demands of narrative intelligibility and inclusiveness, and the result is not only an illuminating account of Wharton’s life but a wealth of material for further study. There is an overall shape to this life, as suggested by the division into six parts, but the patterning is unobtrusive. It follows naturally from the material and yet allows for local complexities of attitude, temporary uncertainties, unaccommodated incidents. Lewis’s own explicit interpretations are modest and convincing. They do not stand in the way of the information he offers, and he often lets the data make its own comment, as when he records Wharton’s remark after witnessing Paris’s worst flood in 170 years, “If it could only have happened in Omaha!”

The massive research that went into this biography is apparent chiefly in the concluding acknowledgements and the abundance of information. Within the text itself one often has the sense of assurance and graceful movement that a novelist generates by imaginative control of the material. This illusion is broken in only two ways. To characterize the world Wharton moved in, Lewis catalogues her friends and associates with their respective qualifications, and the series of thumbnail sketches, attractive and useful in themselves, impedes the larger narrative movement. The only other internal sign that this easy, confident narrative is in fact pieced together out of sometimes intractable material is the indirect comment made by the availability or absence of information. Although we still know, for instance, almost nothing of the courtship that led “Pussy” Jones to do, as Henry James said, “the utterly inconceivable thing” of marrying Teddy Wharton, we do now know that her wedding dress had a court train covered with puffs of white silk mull. In both its interpretive control and its openness to information that may not fit but will allow further analysis, Edith Wharton: A Biography is an immense service to those who have long been curious about the sources of her art, and it is more generally a challenge to students of American culture to recognize how surprisingly hers was, after all, an American life.


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