Literary Lady Lights: Edith Wharton

I just wrapped up a paper on food in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and while it may have made my relationship to dinner a little shaky, it only cemented my relationship to Wharton.

It’s my belief that Wharton is just as relevant to us now as she was in the early 20th century, and that we should undertake to rediscover her beyond the pages of endless dissertations.  Her work is perfect for our historical moment; we too are image-obsessed, post-war, nostalgic, and conservative.  We too are navigating the tricky transition between centuries, struggling to integrate new technologies without losing ourselves in the process, and looking to our rich for supreme entertainment and distraction.

The cultural zeitgeist around Wharton is a strange thing.  While she’s well-known, constantly referenced, and still being written about, she is also the type of author that few people these days have actually read.  They’ll nod their heads when one mentions her, but then confess to not remembering a single of her book titles.  And yet, they’re all around us.

Wharton and Gossip Girl

That CW teen drama Gossip Girl is a sophisticated, self-referential version of Wharton’s greatest works just may be the best keep secret on television.  But it’s true, and it has been since the beginning, as this New York piece so lucidly points out:

Von Ziegesar began by modeling Gossip Girl on Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, that earlier tale of a closed New York society. Serena van der Woodsen, a beauty kicked out of boarding school, returns to her old school, only to be dogged by envious rumors of lesbianism and love children. Von Ziegesar’s first draft was horribly high-minded, a fusty Wharton imitation; she quickly trashed it and adopted the brassy tones of Gossip Girl, who ends her dispatches with the teasing sign-off, “You know you love me.”

The tv show has taken this jumping off point and swan-dived out into a delicious world of literary reference.  From the series’ first moments, wherein teenage Serena stands alone in Grand Central Station in an obvious callback to The House of Mirth, to season 2’s “The Age of Dissonance,” about a school play version of The Age of Innocence gone horribly post-modern and oh-so-right, not only is the Wharton stamp is all over the show, but that’s the show’s whole point.  You thought you were watching another rich-kids-behaving-badly soap; it turns out you were getting a first-rate education in the literary canon.

Wharton as YA lit heroine

A new biography posits Wharton as young adult heroine, a girl who flouted convention and the wishes of her mother to chase her dreams.   Katie Roiphe at The New York Times reads it as a wake-up call to the very teens cozying up to Gossip Girl every week, though her cry to “stop i-chatting and posting on people’s walls” is more embarrassing than anything.  Besides, who’s to say those girls aren’t dreaming up their own large scale projects on that new-fangled communication device, the computer?

Still, without having read the biography, I applaud the attempt to make Wharton known as a role model to YA lit audiences.  If it gets girls interested in reading her works, even better.

Ethan Frome meets… well, you know

By now, you’ve probably seen the hilarious video adaptation of Wharton’s short novel Ethan Frome, performed in original period dress and the style of an MTV scripted reality show.  If not, I can’t urge you enough to go watch it.  It’ll change your life.

(All the kids in my Wharton class spent the last week of the semester walking around in a daze, quoting it more to themselves than each other.  “I would effing die for you.  I mean, literally,” became our mantra; it may have looked like mental instability, but I swear it saved us from truly cracking up.)

The short film was created by a group called PERIODS., who number Mr. Spock himself, Zachary Quinto, among their members.  A second season of shorts begins in February, though there’s no word on whether they’ll adapt any more literary classics.

See also:

I found some very detailed posts about Wharton’s estate in the Berkshires, The Mount; Suzanne Vega wrote a lovely song called “Edith Wharton’s Figurines“; Studio 360 recently did a segment on The House of Mirth (in which Jonathan Franzen makes an ass of himself); and no trip to New York is complete without an Edith Wharton walking tour.

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