Edith Wharton in 1905
photo: Edith Wharton Restoration
Tuesday is Edith Wharton’s 150th birthday and the Times is on it with the Downton Abbey angle, which despite its if you like [x] you might also like [y] is not really a stretch (Americans with no titles and aristocracy with no money).
Noodling through some of her stories,* I’m struck by how, though the language is dated, it’s no differently dated than other (nonfiction, non-‘literary’) pre-Modernist writing—I don’t have a sense of passing through some impermeable barrier into Art where every sentence is held in such tension that to remove one word brings down the whole affair. They read lightly and like gossip; they assume you know what happened in Milan or Modena and what any Vanderleyden would do in such a situation… or else why would you be reading?
Which is not to say say she’s unserious. She has such a gift for epigram, as in "The Descent of Man":
Her marriage had been too concrete a misery to be surveyed philosophically… […] Her husband’s personality seemed to be closing gradually in on her, obscuring the sky and cutting off the air, till she felt herself shut up among the decaying bodies of her starved hopes.
Much of Wharton would not fare so well in show-don’t-tell workshops. Too bad for us. I do think one can’t write these days with the same assurance about readers’ background and beliefs**, and reading Wharton I cringe occasionally at figures of speech (“every fiber of her being”) and gestures (“the blood rushed to her face”) that have now and maybe always had long passed their expiration date. But the stories—the plots—are so good.
Largely because they are very much of and at home in the world. I think that’s one of the reasons A Visit From the Goon Squad resonates so, and so differently than much contemporary (and arguably more crafted) fiction. There’s as much living and looking there as there is writing.
* let’s just shove copies of House of Mirth at people and deny Ethan Frome exists
** or maybe not, ahem Freedom