Research round-up no. 3: Wharton in the Jazz Age

Edith Wharton with Bernard Berenson.

 I wrote a chapter!  It’s off with my advisor right now, but I did get some good feedback from my thesis reading group last night.  As such, I haven’t actually spent a lot of time this week researching.  Still, I do have a few things to share.

One song

Charles Ives composed this piece in 1906, and it has since been called “the first radical musical work of the twentieth century.”

The piece evokes an evening comparing sounds from nearby nightclubs in Manhattan (playing the popular music of the day, ragtime, quoting “Hello! Ma Baby” and even Sousa’s “Washington Post March“) with the mysterious dark and misty qualities of the Central Park woods (played by the strings). The string harmony uses shifting chord structures that are not solely based on thirds but a combination of thirds, fourths, and fifths. Near the end of the piece the remainder of the orchestra builds up to a grand chaos ending on a dissonant chord, leaving the string section to end the piece save for a brief violin duo superimposed over the unusual chord structures. (via Wikipedia)

I wish I had though to listen to this while I was writing!  I’ve yet to see any evidence that Wharton listened to Ives’s music, but much of his work is directly inspired by locales where Wharton also spent time.

Two links

Brown University and the University of Tulsa have partnered to digitize a huge catalog of modernist journals and magazines dating from 1890 to 1922.  The list includes wonderful things like The Little Review (which initially serialized Joyce’s Ulysses), PoetryBlast, and many, many more.  The preservation scans have also been made into PDFs and are available to download for free.  You can load up your e-reader or harddrive with free early 20th century poetry and fiction goodness, in its original context.  I got really excited because the project includes Scribner’s Magazine, where Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country was serialized in 1913.  (I used the materials to make a case about the narrative gaps and elisions in the novel, most of which do not fall between the serial breaks.)

As it’s relevant to both Wharton’s novel The Mother’s Recompense (which I’m still finishing) and my next chapter subject, Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, I was fascinated to see this Burton Holmes film about mid-town Manhattan in the 1920s.

Three lines

Anne had left her, and Mrs. Clephane, alone in her window, looked down on the new Fifth Avenue.  As it surged past, a huge lava-flow of interlaced traffic, her tired bewildered eyes seemed to see the buildings move with the vehicles, as a stationary train appears to move to travellers on another line.  She fancied that presently even little Washington Square Arch would trot by, heading the tide of sky-scrapers from the lower reaches of the city…

— Edith Wharton, The Mother’s Recompense (1925)

Further adventures

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.

The limits of “sympathy”: Franzen on Wharton

Without sympathy, whether for the writer of for the fictional characters, a work of fiction has a very hard time mattering.
So what to make of Wharton, on her hundred and fiftieth birthday? There are many good reasons to wish Wharton’s work read, or read afresh, at this late literary date. You may be dismayed by the ongoing underrepresentation of women in the American canon, or by the academy’s valorization of overt formal experimentation at the expense of more naturalistic fiction. You may feel that, alongside the more familiar genealogies of American fiction (Henry James and the modernists, Mark Twain and the vernacularists, Herman Melville and the postmoderns), there is a less noticed line connecting William Dean Howells to Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis and thence to Jay McInerney and Jane Smiley, and that Wharton is the vital link in it…

But to consider Wharton and her work is to confront the problem of sympathy.

— Jonathan Franzen, “A Rooting Interest: Edith Wharton and the problem of sympathy” [subscription required]

A case of perfect timing?  Wharton’s 150th birthday has ensured that I have plenty of up-to-the-minute criticism to fight against in my thesis.  While I absolutely agree with most of the middle of this long quote (I am indeed dismayed, etc.), my chapter on Wharton is predicated on the thorny argument that negative affect (i.e., the frustration or irritation at the text that prevents “sympathy” in the reader), at least in The Custom of the Country, is exactly why that novel is still considered to “matter” today.

Without wasting my day typing up a longer discussion here (sorry, saving that for my thesis itself), I should say that my major problem with Franzen’s argument rests with the overwhelming subjectivity of most of his terms, including “matter” and “sympathy.”  I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that fiction “matters” to me for very different reasons than other readers, and that any “sympathy” I feel for a character will depend at least somewhat on my race, gender, class standing, and personal history.

Vintage Movie Monday: Blondie of the Follies (1932)

Blondie of the Follies is the story of two girls living in Depression-era New York who escape poverty by going on the stage and then becoming kept women.  How scandalous!  This pre-Code film opens with an all-out slap fight between its female leads (played by Marion Davies, who also produced the film, and Billie Dove in her last film role).  From there, it moves on to depict heavy drinking and child neglect as part of life in a poverty-stricken New York tenement.

For all the glitz and glamor of the stage, this is actually a fairly dark film about the situation of women during the Depression.  It seems a far cry dialogue-writer Anita Loos’s earlier works like the snappy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or even the lavish silent film Intolerance.

As one character outright states: “This big gay life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, is it?”

I do have to agree with Laura, who felt, “At 91 minutes the film does go on a bit too long, with Blondie and Lottie fighting and making up repeatedly, but it has a number of striking sequences, particularly in the early going.”

The scene that sparked my interest the most features a party performance of a song spoofing director Edmund Goulding’s other 1932 film, Grand Hotel.  “One look at that guy Barrymore and you’re out!”

Research Round-up no. 2: the hodgepodge of American culture

I’m just getting going on writing this first chapter — I’m at that terrible beginning part where I can’t figure out what to say first — so I’m not researching as heavily right now.  Still, it’s nice to put some things together and remind myself why this project is fun.

One song

I chose this piece, a modern performance of an old-time banjo song, to correspond to the excerpt below about “negro melodists.”  Hugh Reginald Haweis names it as a song one might have heard by African-American performers abroad at the turn of the century.

Sometimes while reading Wharton, it’s easy to forget that these types of American culture were happening in concert with the more rarefied air of Renaissance art scholarship (like the Berensons did, below).

Two people

Bernard Berenson (1865 – 1959)

It’s kind of hard to imagine, but Renaissance art wasn’t always the hot tip when it came to collecting.  In fact, a market for Old Master paintings didn’t take off in the US until the early 1900s.  When it did, American art historian and attribution-poineer Bernard Berenson was perfectly poised to become the preeminent authority on the topic.  He helped Isabella Stewart Gardner grow her art collection; he was praised by William James for his manner of applying “elementary psychological categories to the interpretation of higher art”; and, importantly for my research, he served as friend, reader, and traveling companion to Edith Wharton.

Mary Berenson (1864 – 1945)

Born Mary Smith, Berenson’s wife was also an art historian.  According to Wikipedia, she is now thought to have helped Berenson write some of his influential books on Renaissance art.  Sadly, as happens all too often, she has been overshadowed by her husband and his memory.  Her writing appears to be entirely out of print, though Harvard has an extensive archival collection dedicated to her and her husband.

The daughter of Philadelphia Quakers, she had attended Smith College and then the Harvard Annex (later Radcliffe College) as one of its first eight students. She studied Berkeley, Hegel, and other philosophers, and recalled how once, after hearing the English art critic Edmund Gosse mention the “sacred word Botticelli” during a Harvard lecture, she looked at her brother, essayist Logan Pearsall Smith, “with eyes brimming with emotion and excitement,” and exclaimed: “Oh Logan! We are at the very centre of things!”

Diane E. Booton, in Harvard Magazine

Three lines

Madame de Trezac had lately discovered that the proper attitude for the American married abroad was that of a militant patriotism; and she flaunted Undine Marvell in the face of the Faubourg like a particularly showy specimen of her national banner. The success of the experiment emboldened her to throw off the most sacred observances of her past. She took up Madame Adelschein, she entertained the James J. Rollivers, she resuscitated Creole dishes, she patronized negro melodists, she abandoned her weekly teas for impromptu afternoon dances, and the prim drawing-room in which dowagers had droned echoed with a cosmopolitan hubbub.

— Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country

Further adventures

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.

Vintage Movie Monday: Intolerance (1916)

After working with D.W. Griffith on several smaller silent film projects, Anita Loos helped write some of the title cards for Griffith’s 1916 epic, Intolerance.  She is often not credited for this work, which is a shame.

The film is considered one of the great classics of the silent era, due largely to its epic scope and unconventional plot structure:

The three-and-a-half hour epic intercuts four parallel storylines each separated by several centuries: (1) A contemporary melodrama of crime and redemption; (2) a Judean story: Christ’s mission and death; (3) a French story: the events surrounding the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572; and (4) a Babylonian story: the fall of the Babylonian Empire to Persia in 539 BC. (from Wikipedia)

The various plots have their own detailed visual styles, not only matching sets and costumes to the time period, but also utilizing color coding and themed title cards to help audiences tell them apart at a glance.  The Babylonian story, for example, has a yellowish cast and detailed title cards with historical footnotes.  The French story’s blueish title cards feature a fleur de lis motif.  The contemporary melodrama, on the other hand, has a more standard black and white look and simple title cards like the one below.

Loos worked on the titles for Intolerance, but it is impossible to know which ones she wrote.  Laura Frost hazards some educated guesses about which titles might have been Loos’s:

In most cases, we can only speculate which writer was responsible for which title, but the stylistic differences are suggestive. Loos was clear about her role. In her memoir, she recalls, “D. W. bade me put in titles even when unnecessary and add laughs wherever I found an opening. I found several” (GI, 103). Interspersed among the instructive and weighty inscriptions are lighter and more ironic captions that seem more reflective of the “Loos-style.” For example, in the scene in which The Dear One, who has jealously watched a woman’s undulating walk draw men’s attention on the street and decides to imitate her by tying her skirt into a hobble, a title dryly comments that “The new walk seems to bring results” as men flock to her ridiculous gait.

Intolerance is popping up a lot recently; the still above has appeared in both the video game L.A. Noire and this year’s big Oscar nominee, Hugo.  

It is by all counts a marvel of silent cinema, one that demands a huge attention investment from its viewers and rewards them in turn with a complicated intercut narrative structure and many gorgeous visual moments.

Loos worked Intolerance into her own later work by giving Lorelei, the protagonist of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a story about her cameo in the film.  Fittingly, Lorelei is supposed to have played one of the vampish Babylonian maidens — frankly a perfect role for her buxom chorus girl character.  And given Lorelei’s later screen life as the perfectly-cast Marilyn Monroe, it is hard not to search those maidens’ faces for her half-lidded eyes and trademark pout.

Intolerance is now in the public domain; you can watch it for free or download it from the Internet Archive.  However, that version doesn’t include the color-coding of storylines, which I found really fascinating and helpful.  Netflix’s streaming version does, if you’d like to watch it like that.

Research round-up no. 1: Edith Wharton and The Custom of the Country

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.

One song

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.”

Two people

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.

Three lines

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

Further adventures

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.

Vintage Movie Monday: The Silent Films of Anita Loos (1912 – 1916)

The silent film has gotten a bit of a boost recently: The Artist, a modern silent “classic,” scooped up many BAFTA nominations, won big at the Golden Globes, and will probably fare pretty well at the Oscars too.  I haven’t seen it yet, but my thesis research into the career of Anita Loos has meant that I’ve recently spent time immersing myself in the art of silent cinema.

Loos wrote an incredible number of screenplays, treatments, and scenarios during the silent era, and continued working in the talkies both pre- and post-Hayes Code.  Many of these films are now lost, but several of them have luckily been preserved.  Even better, a handful are available to watch for free through the Internet Archive.

While these early silents aren’t the best demonstration of Loos’s vivid wit and style, they are a fascinating glimpse into the work of a young (very young) artist who is just getting started.

For a more scholarly take on Loos’s silent film writing work, I highly recommend Laura Frost’s article, “Blondes Have More Fun: Anita Loos and the Language of Silent Cinema.”

 

The New York Hat | 1912

The New York Hat was directed by D W Griffith for the Biograph Studio in 1912. It has many of Griffith’s stock players in it. You may spot Mae Marsh as a gossip or Lillian Gish as a customer in the store but the main roles are played by Lionel Barrymore as the pastor and Mary Pickford as he girl. The script was written by Anita Loos.

This 16-minute short film was Loos’s third screenplay and the very first to be produced.  She earned $25 for it.  It was filmed at Fort Lee, New Jersey, where many silent films were produced in the early days of cinema.

Loos would go on to write title cards for Griffith’s Intolerance, a huge boost for her burgeoning career.

His Picture in the Papers | 1916

A young man can only get the woman he loves if he becomes famous, and manages to get his picture in the newspapers. He determines to let nothing stand in the way of his doing exactly that, and in the process winds up getting involved with a gang of criminals and a locomotive chase.

This hour-long silent film was written by Anita Loos (still quite early in her career) and directed by her future husband, John Emerson.  It starred Douglas Fairbanks.  Loos write five films for Fairbanks and made him quite a star.

Her witty writing style is on display here in the title cards, which play with ideas of language, reading, and thinking.  For example, a title card introduces Count Xxerkzsxxv, with a note reading, “To those of you who read titles aloud, you can’t pronounce the Count’s name. You can only think it.” Continue reading

A detective on Christmas: Dorothy L. Sayers’s Strong Poison

I blogged about a Christmas film noir, but I didn’t actually mean to read a Christmas detective story as well.  But Dorothy L. Sayers’s Strong Poison was calling out to me from the shelf where I’d stuck it, just above a collection of Poe’s mystery stories.  I actually bought the book several years ago in Atlanta, and I’d packed it up and moved it across the country with me, but I’d still never read it.

Well, I had tried once, when I originally purchased it.  But the first chapters are a bit slow, and my attention span was not great, so it returned to the shelf.  This time around, however, I pushed through the clunky opening and found myself totally taken with Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane.

The book begins at the end of a murder trial: a neat device for catching the reader up on the details quickly, but the voice of the stodgy judge is a bit much to wade through.  Luckily, he disappears as soon as the hung jury refuses to deliver a verdict as to whether detective novelist Harriet Vane poisoned her one-time lover with arsenic.  Wimsey has been present at the trial and really taken to Vane, who he knows didn’t commit the murder.  He vows to clear her name, find the real killer if he can, and then marry Vane.  She’s grateful for the first two but has some other ideas about the last one.

The Christmas aspect is actually minimal; with the retrial set after the winter holiday, Wimsey spends the Christmas season making his investigation (and trying to convince the Chief Detective Inspector to marry his sister already).  But Sayers uses the holiday setting to get in a few witty jabs:

“Great bore, Christmas, isn’t it? All the people one hates most gathered together in the name of goodwill and all that.”

Sayers creates Wimsey as a sarcastic but lovable aristocrat who has friends in all sorts of unexpected places, always ready to help him out when needed.  I particularly love his “Cattery,” the temp typist pool he maintains and sends off to work typing jobs/do recon on suspects.  In fact, all the secondary characters, who adore Wimsey and help him in his sleuthing, are wonderfully drawn and a joy to follow.

It’s worth noting that Sayers herself was a pretty badass lady, not unlike Vane.  She was one of the first women to take a degree from Oxford and was made a Baker Street Irregular.

Sadly, it looks like the next two Peter and Harriet books, Have His Carcase and Gaudy Night, are currently out of print.  I’ll be tracking down used copies as soon as I can, because I can’t wait to read more featuring the two of them.

Vintage Movie Monday: Lady in the Lake (1947)

I had this whole plan for a month of Christmas-themed Vintage Movie Monday posts.  And then finals happened.  But!  That doesn’t mean I can’t still tell you about the weirdest Christmas movie I’ve watched this year, Lady in the Lake.

It’s based on a Raymond Chandler novel of the same name, so you know what that means: Christmas noir!  A terrific subsubgenre with, as far as I can tell, only one other entry, the superb Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005).

The film has a very strange experimental visual style, which is kind of off-putting at first.  It is told mostly in the filmic first person, as though the camera were Phillip Marlowe’s point of view.  The other actors address the camera directly, and at times, the actor playing Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) addresses the camera (himself) in the mirror.  It’s actually excellently done, but I wouldn’t want to watch a whole slew of films like this.  The studio really played up this aspect in the marketing, though, probably because it was so novel.

As these posters show, the marketing materials promised that “You” would solve a murder mystery with Robert Montgomery in the film!

I’m certain there’s plenty written (if not, there needs to be) about the viewer’s response to the direct gaze of the actors.  It might, interestingly, bring male and female viewers to the same level in some way, though of course women might also feel cognitive dissonance when Marlowe is finally shown in the mirror.

The story is a standard noir yarn: boy meets girl, boy gets mixed up in murder investigation, boy gets crap kicked out of him, boy outsmarts everyone in the end.  But in a neat reversal, the supposed femme fatale is actually the good girl who gets the boy in the end while the innocent lamb is the cold-blooded murderess.  It all takes place over Christmas, and fittingly for a holiday movie if oddly for a noir, there’s a happy ending.

All the actors are excellent, but Audrey Totter (above) is really something out of this world.  Her faces alone are worth watching for.

For some darker, more cynical but not totally depressing holiday film fare, I’d definitely suggest pairing this with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang for a really fun double feature.