Apart from Modernism: Edith Wharton, Politics, and Fiction before World War I

Apart from Modernism: Edith Wharton, Politics, and Fiction before World War I

Apart from Modernism: Edith Wharton, Politics, and Fiction before World War I

Apart from Modernism: Edith Wharton, Politics, and Fiction before World War I

Synopsis

Edith Wharton enjoyed a complex relationship with early modernism. Her love of French literature and her close relationship with Henry James made her open to experiment as a writer and committed to the seriousness of novel writing as an art. She enjoyed enormous success with The House of Mirth and the public clearly wanted more from her in this style. The novel's Naturalism and didactic purpose conformed to her own belief in the moral purpose of literature, so that Wharton's reading of politics, culture, and society led her to abandon modernistic experiment for ethical, rather than aesthetic reasons.

Excerpt

Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is
to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?

Passage marked by Edith Wharton
in her own copy of Keats’s Letters

IN THIS STUDY I WILL BE SEEKING TO ANSWER TWO PAIRS OF QUEStions. The first concerns the relationship between Wharton’s fiction and turn of the century beliefs about state and society. What kind of politics and ideology informs Wharton’s preWorld War I fiction, and how does this relate to the politics and ideology she and her peer group publicly espoused? The second pair concerns the relationship between this politics and the aesthetics of early modernism. Is it the case that before World War I there is significant evidence in Wharton’s fiction of the influence of ideas about the need for a different kind of new writing, one that reflects a sympathy and commitment to the theories of naturalism, symbolism, or impressionism, and is this influence so striking that we could justifiably call Wharton an early modernist? My argument will be that the answer to this final question is a firm no, and that this conclusion must be reached despite the siren calls of novels such as Ethan Frome and The Reef, whose formal qualities might lure us into believing otherwise. My central argument will be that this rejection of the label “modernist” is inevitable if we give due weight to the rhetoric of the fiction, which despite its political polyphony ultimately confirms the enduring influence of the ideological and class discourses that shaped Wharton as a young woman. These conservative discourses, which surrounded her from childhood and were questioned by her but never rejected, led her to esteem duty and the power of society above the individual, and made anathema to her Old New York principles the anarchy implicit in her reading of the aesthetic and cultural implications of modernism. Despite this temperamental antipathy to the culture of the new, however, her fiction provided a space in which she could . . .

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