Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Race, Culture, Nation: Edith Wharton and Ernest Renan

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Race, Culture, Nation: Edith Wharton and Ernest Renan

Article excerpt

An avid reader, Edith Wharton devoured volumes of philosophy and religion. As R. W. B. Lewis observes in his biography, she owned more books on religion than any other subject (510). (1) At every stage of life, Wharton searched in religion and philosophy for answers to pressing metaphysical and ontological questions. Among other things, she used these insights to intensify her already complex social and moral portraits of fictional characters. It is not surprising, then, that she would have read one of her age's most highly esteemed historians and philosophers, Ernest Renan (1823-92), especially since she shared with him a standpoint of rationalism and religious skepticism, a sense of irony and the ironic play of ideas, a "view of life as an amusing ideological spectacle" (Chadbourne 104), a high regard for French criticism, (2) and an esteem for France as the epitome of civilization and culture, able to weather any series of disasters. Wharton is on record for praising not only Renan but also SainteBeuve, Anatole France, and Matthew Arnold, all of whom were influenced by Renan. (3) Renan affected Wharton in two major ways. His rational positivism fueled her developing skepticism about the role of faith in a post-Darwinian world increasingly based on science and empiricism. And his ideas about nation and nationhood helped her come to terms with her own expatriation and questions about the preservation and dissemination of cultural value in the early twentieth century.

Wharton read Renan on at least two occasions, one in 1911 and the other in 1917. A catalog of her library indicates that she owned six books by Renan, some annotated, as well as a book about him written by William Barry. (4) Although no record of her opinion of Renan exists, one might speculate how the French thinker affected Wharton personally and influenced her work. It is clear that Wharton appreciated and even propounded many of the ideas with which Renan is identified. He was certainly read and discussed in Wharton's circle. Morton Fullerton, for example, in an essay about Henry James--a piece Wharton admits to having had "a hand" in creating (Letter to William Brownell, qtd. in Wegener, Uncollected Critical Writings 300)--favorably compares James's and Renan's standards of probity and faithfulness to their own principles (Fullerton 306). It is likely in particular that Renan's ideas helped Wharton grapple with a monumental issue in the nineteenth century: the balance between faith and reason; or, in the case of Renan, between faith and history. Renan mapped a theory of history, science, and religion that Wharton could apply not only to personal questions of faith but also to her understanding of the larger workings of culture. A skeptic with a keen ironic wit, he also provided Wharton with a literary outlook and mode of execution compatible with her own.

Born in 1823 in Brittany, Ernest Renan was raised a Roman Catholic and educated in seminaries. At age 22 he left the seminary and the church in order to pursue science. In 1848 he wrote The Future of Science (L'avenir de la science), in which he introduced ideas that he would develop all his life. Science, by which he meant rational inquiry, would eventually supplant religion, he maintained, and guide the direction of human progress. Renan's thinking epitomized the positivism and rationalism in vogue during Wharton's time and mirrored in the progression of her ideas. As Lewis remarks, Wharton's childhood passion for sermon reading and "stray wonderings about the vagaries of religious doctrines" (510) were supplanted by the rational positivism taught to her by her mentor, family friend Egerton Winthrop. The effect of this body of thought was "imposing" during Wharton's agnostic years. Although Wharton did not follow in Renan's footsteps--she toyed with the idea of converting to Catholicism at the end of her life--she did find reassuring his suspicion of blind faith, his notion of religion as a way to strive for perfection, and his view that this perfection actually existed in the Greek civilization that created art, science, and philosophy. …

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