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.

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.

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.

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.

Hocus Pocus was really formative for me

Halloween is among my favorite holidays, and not because I love to dress up.  I have a deep and abiding passion for the monstrous, the creepy, and the outright terrifying.  Nothing makes me happier than to spend October curled up with the scariest books and movies I can find.

Previous years’ favorites have included Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” this true life account of a night in a haunted house from Southern Literary Messenger, “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” and “The Wrong Grave” by Kelly Link, John Polidori’s “The Vampyre,” Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, silly/sublime tv show The Vampire Diaries, Neil Gaiman’s “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire” and The Graveyard Book, and Guillermo del Toro’s tremendous film El Espinazo del Diablo, just to choose a few.

It’s been rough trying to squeeze in a month’s worth of horror between classes and work, but I’ve still managed to dip into a few things.  So what am I loving this year?

The Wolfman, which is an enjoyable remake of the 1941 original that deposits all of our contemporary quirks and weirdnesses on the Victorian setting. I liked it primarily because I always like stories in which the supernatural gets all up in your science and rationality and sends it straight to hell.

Edith Wharton’s After Holbein.  Okay, I’m not done reading this yet, but Wharton is big around Skinny House these days, so we’re including it.

The Halloween episode of Community, quite possibly my new favorite episode of the show. Star Trek + zombies = forever win.

(And I will tell you what I did not love: Jennifer’s Body.  I was ready for the feminist horror to film to end all horror films, a complete revolution in the genre, and the positing of ultimate female power, finally, at last.  Instead I got a lurid display of female jealousy and the same old chicks-are-totally-crazy bullshit.  Serious disappointment, to say the least.)

And now that we’ve carved pumpkins and gotten a taste of serious autumn chill, we’re ready for trick-or-treaters and then the rapid descent into winter depression.

But first!  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention All Hallows Read, a new tradition in the making, in which we all give each other spooky books on or around October 31.  I gave my mom The Graveyard Book this year, but as it’s my signed first edition, I’ll be asking for it back.  Still, I think this could be much fun in the years to come.  (Don’t know if you could tell, but I can never get enough of sharing scary books.)

Happy Halloween, y’all!