The semester has really only begun, but I’m off to the races on my masters thesis. I have a reading calendar that is rapidly filling up, a personal goal to write 2 pages every day, a thesis group that has already proven invaluable, and initial deadlines for each of my three chapters.
The first, which I’ve just started drafting, focuses on Edith Wharton’s 1913 novel The Custom of the Country. I took a class on Wharton during my first grad semester, but it only scratched the surface of her extensive bibliography. Now I’m getting a chance to dig a little deeper (though not much, seriously, she wrote so. many. things). While it’s tangential to my argument about Wharton’s work, I’m really struck by her engagement with modernist culture, something that isn’t always clear in her novels.
The 1913 Paris première of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps has been well-documented; the crowd, offended by the modern music and strange dance style, rioted in the theatre. The moment is now considered one of those turning points of the modern era. (For an excellent discussion of the ballet and its relationship to modernism and the Great War, I highly recommend Modris Eksteins’s Rites of Spring.) A long list of modernist culture-makers were associated with the production, either through Ballet Russes or by being in attendance.
But it wasn’t just the darlings of the avant-garde in the theatre that night; Wharton witnessed the ballet and the riots as well. She noted in her journal that she found the performance “extraordinary.”
Henry James (1843 – 1916)
Wharton was close friends with James up until his death in 1916. He famously encouraged her to “do New York,” but the shadow of his influence also hung over her writing for her entire career. He visited her in Paris in 1908, while she was just beginning to work on Custom; while there, she convinced him to sit for this portrait by Jacques-Émile Blanche.
Edmund Wilson (1895 – 1972)
Wilson was an accomplished literary critic and famously kind of a dick. In an essay seeking to do “Justice to Edith Wharton,” he described the main character of Custom as “the prototype in fiction of the ‘gold-digger,’ the international cocktail bitch.” This phrase, and its attendent weird literary misogyny, inspired my thesis project.
She wanted to be noticed but she dreaded to be patronized, and here again her hostess’s gradations of tone were confusing. Mrs. Fairford made no tactless allusions to her being a newcomer in New York—there was nothing as bitter to the girl as that—but her questions as to what pictures had interested Undine at the various exhibitions of the moment, and which of the new books she had read, were almost as open to suspicion, since they had to be answered in the negative. Undine did not even know that there were any pictures to be seen, much less that “people” went to see them; and she had read no new book but “When The Kissing Had to Stop,” of which Mrs. Fairford seemed not to have heard.
— Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country
For a random assortment of photos, quotes, video, and other items tangentially related to my thesis, check out nonmodernist on tumblr.
And as always, you can follow all my grad school adventures in real-time via the “grad school is forever” tag on tumblr.