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The novelist in letters
A review of The Letters of Edith Wharton edited by R. W. B. Lewis & Nancy Lewis.
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R. W. B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis, editors
No fewer than eight thousand letters of Edith Wharton survive in libraries and private collections. Correspondence was the lubricant of the many whirring wheels of her long and active life. If her art was her first love, it was still only one of many. She ran two large houses, one near Paris, the other on the Riviera, with well-trained staffs and elaborate gardens; she travelled incessantly, the most indefatigable and discriminating of tourists; she entertained with charm and skill (Henry James spoke of her “succulent and corrupting meals”); she raised large sums for charity, particularly in World War I; and she kept a sharp eye on her publishers and her investments. In her “leisure” hours she read exhaustively, treasured her friendships, and loved her dogs. Percy Lubbock quoted ingenuous critics as saying that her books had to be written “on the bare margin of such a populous and ornamental existence.”
Every day there were people to write: editors, agents, lawyers, men of business, American cousins at home, and then, more importantly for posterity, the cherished friends: Sara Norton, Daisy Chanler, Moreton Fullerton, Gaillard Lapsley, John Hugh-Smith, Bernard Berenson. The Lewises, excellent editors of this rich volume, found that half of the surviving correspondence was of little interest to the general reader. Of the remaining four thousand letters they have used four hundred. These epistles are vivid, deeply intelligent, and highly readable. Above all, they constitute an indispensable annex to R.W.B. Lewis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography. In some instances they seem almost to caricature the woman he delineated. She is more passionate, more self-willed, even more prejudiced. But she is always intensely alive.
The great loss is her letters to Henry James, of which the master burnt perhaps as many as a hundred and seventy in the bonfire of his private papers. If one of the very few that he preserved, describing a visit to the front in 1915, is a fair example, we are missing the best of her correspondence, for she would have pondered the words in writing to her cher maître. What comes out very clearly, however, in the other letters is the fact that, however much she loved and revered the man, and admired the great novels of his middle period, she had even less stomach for his late style than she indicated in her memoirs. In 1903 she wrote to her editor at Scribner’s:
I return the reviews with many thanks. I have never before been discouraged by criticism, because when the critics have found fault with me I have usually abounded in their sense, & seen, as I thought, a way of doing better the next time; but the continued cry that I am an echo of Mr. James (whose books of the last ten years I can’t read, much as I delight in the man), & the assumption that the people I write about are not “real” because they are not navvies & char-women, makes me feel rather hopeless. I write about what I see, what I happen to be nearest to, which is surely better than doing cowboys ….
And the year before she had written to the same editor: “Don’t ask me what I think of The Wings of the Dove.”
Of course, I recognize that many readers have felt this way about the late novels, but it still seems surprising that a person as discriminating as Wharton, who thought James worthy of the Nobel Prize and tried to help him get it, should have bogged down so completely before what many critics (including this one) regard as his finest fiction and the culmination of his life work. But then Wharton had little use for Joyce or Eliot, either, and deplored the Proust of Sodome et Gomorrhe. What her letters do contribute, however, to the understanding of James, the man, is this appalling and pathetic picture of the master in the grip of a near suicidal depression in 1910 after the poor reception of the Scribner’s deluxe edition of his collected work. Visiting him in London she had this to record;
I could hardly believe it was the same James who cried out to me his fear, his despair, his craving for the “cessation of consciousness,” & all his unspeakable loneliness & need of comfort, & inability to be comforted! “Not to wake—not to wake—” that was his refrain; “& then one does wake, & one looks again into the blackness of life, & everything ministers to it—all one reads & sees & hears.” And London is a torture—& the thought of the return to Rye intolerable; his hotel uninhabitable; any other hotel not to be considered; life without a nurse too difficult; the nurse at Rye insufferable; another strange nurse impossible; solitude suicidal; & companionship excruciating. Don’t think I am exaggerating: it was all this & more—with cries, with tears, & a sudden éffondrement at the end, when, after pleading with me to stay—“Don’t go, my child, don’t go—think of my awful loneliness!”
If we are missing the letters to James we are partially compensated with those to Morton Fullerton, who, as all readers of Lewis’s biography know, was Wharton’s lover in 1908 and 1909. It is pretty certain that he was her only one. She was forty-six, and her marriage to the boring and neurotic “Teddy” Wharton was foundering. She found in Fullerton, a clever journalist slightly younger then herself, the hero whom she had been waiting for all her life but who she had never dreamed would really come. He seems to have been a rather second-rate sort of man, with a history of shabby love affairs with both sexes, but it must be recorded that he was much liked by two such discriminating gentlemen of the world as Henry James and Walter Berry. At any rate he could not long remain (and perhaps had no desire to) atop the pedestal on which the adoring novelist sought to place him. But for as long as he did, she imagined that she had at last discovered the life in which art and love had achieved their perfect blend. She wrote to him:
I shouldn’t say this if you hadn’t shown me that you understood. I don’t want to have any plan of conduct with you—to behave in this way or that way—but just to be natural, to be completely myself. And the completest expression of that self is in the desire to help you, to give you the chance to develop what is in you, 8c to live the best life you can. Nothing else counts for me now, Dear, except the wish to do some good work, & to have you sec in it the reflection of all the beauty you have shown me.
She shared the illusion of countless lovers that a perfect naturalism could and should reign between them:
Pascal’s terrible “il faut de l’adresse pour aimer” [“it takes skill to love”! has a noble side if it means the exercise of tact, insight, sympathy, self-effacement; but it is the most sordid of counsels if it appeals to the instinct to dole out, dissemble, keep in suspense, in order to prolong a little a feeling that hasn’t enough vitality to survive without such aids.—There would have been the making of an accomplished flirt in me, because my lucidity shows me each move of the game—but that, in the same instant, a reaction of contempt makes me sweep all the counters off the board 8c cry out:—“Take them all—I don’t want to win—I want to lose everything to you!"—But I pause, remembering you once told me that, on this topic, I serve up the stalest of platitudes with an air of triumphant discovery!—
If Fullerton really criticized her quite so bluntly, he was certainly taking her injunction to be natural very literally. But perhaps he was already beginning to be bored. I am aware that there are critics who have welcomed these letters as evidence that Wharton was now “fulfilled” as a woman and who profess to find that from here on a new depth of human sympathy appears in her fiction, but it simply distresses me to see a superior person moaning in the emotional grip of a more spotted soul, and I point out that her greatest novel, The House of Mirth, was written before she knew Fullerton, and that the artificial and “Racinian” (James’s adjective for it) The Reef was written immediately after the affair and contains a love scene obviously based on it. But academia will never lose its oddly romantic faith that a necessary connection exists between an artist’s work and an artist’s love life.
Wharton wrote to Fullerton, in the happy days of their affair, that, when the end came, he was simply to put her letters in a bundle and send them back, and that she would understand. But when that time came, it was not so easy. “What has brought about such a change?” she almost wailed. “Oh, no matter what it is—only tell me! * * * My reason rejects the idea that a man like you, who has felt a warm sympathy for a woman like me, can suddenly, from one day to another, without any act or word on her part, lose even a friendly regard for her, and discard the mere outward signs of consideration by which friendship speaks.”
She did, however—for her willpower was always formidable—make the effort to convert her love into friendship, and by May of 1909 she was able to write him: “The tiresome woman is buried, once for all, I promise, and only the novelist survives. Viens déjeuner avec elle sans crainte demain.”
Not quite, however. There were dying gasps:
I have had a difficult year—but the pain within my pain, the last turn of the screw, has been the impossibility of knowing what you wanted of me, & what you felt for me—at a time when it seemed natural that, if you had any sincere feeling for me, you should see my need of an equable friendship—I don’t say love because that is not made to order!—but the kind of tried tenderness that old friends seek in each other in difficult moments of life. My life was better before I knew you. That is, for me, the sad conclusion of this sad year. And it is a bitter thing to say to the one being one has ever loved d’amour.
By 1912 she had left her emotional involvement sufficiently in the past to be able to give Fullerton frank pointers on his literary style. Criticizing one of his articles, she tells him roundly that he has hung his whole argument with the heavy drape of the London Times jargon, “the most prolix and pedantic of all the dead languages.” Perhaps she was unconsciously paying him back for his old crack about her stale platitudes. But what I suspect she was really doing was asserting at last her own indisputable superiority as a writer, as Tennessee Williams’s aging actress in Sweet Bird of Youth hurls her genius in the face of the punk who has spent the night with her.
Nothing is more striking in the letters than Wharton’s anti-Americanism. She finds her fellow countrymen Babbitts (Sinclair Lewis was later to dedicate his eponymous novel to her) and bores, and makes exception for her friends only because they, like herself, are not really Americans but “wretched exotics produced in a European glass-house, the most deplacé and useless class on earth!” Here is her opinion, in 1904, of a summer hotel in Petersham, Massachusetts:
I despair of the Republic! Such dreariness, such whining sallow women, such utter absence of the amenities, such crass food, crass manners, crass landscape!! And mind you, it is a new and fashionable hotel. What a horror it is for a whole nation to be developing without the sense of beauty, and eating bananas for breakfast.
Two decades later, when Daisy (Mrs. Winthrop) Chanler protested that Edith was going too far, and that Ethel Derby (Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter) was not only innately American but a great woman as well, Wharton replies:
You mustn’t lecture me for not appreciating America on the score that I don’t know Ethel Derby, for I’ve known her for years and years and like her very much. * * * Of course there are green isles in that sea of misery.
The correspondence sheds some light on Wharton as an artist. Most revealing on the question of literary technique is a letter of 1907 to Robert Grant, the Boston lawyer and novelist whose work she much admired:
I conceive my subjects like a man—that is, rather more architectonically & dramatically than most women—& then execute them like a woman; or rather, I sacrifice, to my desire for construction & breadth, the small incidental effects that women have always excelled in, the episodical characterisation, I mean. The worst of it is that this fault is congenital, & not the result of an ambition to do big things. As soon as I look at a subject from the novel-angle I see it in its relation to a larger whole, in all its remotest connotations; & I can’t help trying to take them in, at the cost of the smaller realism that I arrive at, I think, better in my short stories. This is the reason why I have always obscurely felt that I didn’t know how to write a novel. I feel it more clearly after each attempt, because it is in such sharp contrast to the sense of authority with which I take hold of a short story.—I think it ought to be a warning to stop; but, alas, I see things more & more from the novel-angle, so that I’m enclosed in a vicious circle from which I suspect silence to be the only escape.
And she has this to say, in relation to The House of Mirth, as to why New York society is more corrupting than its counterparts in London or Paris:
The little corner of its garment that I lifted was meant to show only that little atrophied organ—the group of idle & dull people—that exists in any big & wealthy social body. If it seems more conspicuous in New York than in an old civilization, it is because the whole social organization with us is so much smaller & less elaborate—& if, as I believe, it is more harmful in its influence, it is because fewer responsibilities attach to money with us than in other societies.—
Social conditions in the new world, she maintained, “where the sudden possession of money has come without inherited obligations or any traditional sense of solidarity between the classes” can be a vast and absorbing field for the novelist and calls for a master.
It is sad that she did not heed James’s warning and “tether herself in native pastures.” More and more out of touch with an America she despised but insisted on writing about, her satire in her later years became shrill and cantankerous. It is a bit pathetic that when she was writing to Daisy Chanler, responding to critics who accused her of having lost touch with the vernacular, she should have defended herself by claiming that her male American characters talked like “Pick and Larry White.” These were two of Mrs. Chanler’s sons-in-law. Lawrence Grant White, brilliant architect and son of Stanford, did indeed speak precise and perfect English. But he was hardly a typical Yank!
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 6 May 1988, on page 68
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