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.