Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Filters, Portraits, and History's Mixed Bag: 'A Lost Lady' and 'The Age of Innocence.'

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Filters, Portraits, and History's Mixed Bag: 'A Lost Lady' and 'The Age of Innocence.'

Article excerpt

It has always been surprising to me that Willa Cather's and Edith Wharton's lives failed to touch. They were born eleven years apart (1862 and 1873); their careers in fiction overlapped for more than three decades; two years separated their Pulitzer Prizes (Wharton's for The Age of Innocence in 1921, and Cather's for One of Ours in 1923); they both were Jamesians, Francophiles, shared acquaintance with fellow writers like Sinclair Lewis and Scott Fitzgerald; and they died a decade apart--Wharton in 1937, Cather in 1947. In a 1931 Colophon piece Cather admits trying to imitate Wharton's fashionable fiction before discovering her own home pasture in O Pioneers! (1913) (On Writing 93), and in a New York Times interview in 1924 she mentioned reading a Wharton article on France (WC in Person 70), but I find no other recognition. Neither in the R. W. B. Lewis biography nor in the collection of Wharton letters does the index include Cather; the exhaustive James Woodress biography of Cather includes only three entries under Wharton, and these refer to inclusions in lists of Cather contemporaries. Surely Cather must have read the 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Innocence, which appeared when she was concluding One of Ours and before she began A Lost Lady. I begin with a question I can't answer: How much did Cather's reading of Wharton's masterpiece influence A Lost Lady? Questions like this can seldom be answered satisfactorily; however, the comparisons they generate do contribute understanding of the subjects, and placing these two novels side by side indicates significant similarities, if not influence.

Cynthia Wolff's labeling Wharton's writing The Age of Innocence "a nostalgic act" (310) could easily be applied to Cather's writing A Lost Lady. Both novelists observe their subjects over the chasm left by the war in France. Wharton laments the losses of these years in her autobiography: "The brief rapture that came with the cessation of the war . . . soon gave way to a growing sense of the waste and loss wrought by these irreparable years. . . . I myself had lost a charming young cousin, Newbold Rhinelander, shot down in an aeroplane battle in September 1917" (Backward 363-64). She then mentions the untimely death of a young American officer friend, Ronald Simmons, for whom she commissioned a vault in a Marseilles cemetery, and also the passing of older intimates Howard Sturgis and Henry James. In a spirit heavy with these losses she began writing about the war "with a new intensity of vision," she says. "A study of the world at the rear |she had lived in Paris during the war~ seemed to me worth doing, and I pondered over it till it took shape in A Son at the Front" (368-69), a novel "intended as another wreath on Simmons' grave" (Lewis 457), which appeared, to mixed reviews, only in 1923. "Meanwhile," Wharton continues, "I found a momentary escape in going back to my childhood memories of a long vanished America, and wrote The Age of Innocence" (Backward 369). Lewis bluntly says that disillusionment with the contemporary American cad of the type she saw overrunning Paris after the war led her back to the world of her growing up and young womanhood, a nineteenth-century world she defined to Sara Norton as "a blessed refuge from the turmoil and mediocrity of today--like taking sanctuary in a mighty temple" (Lewis 423-24). But the writing was more than a refuge, notes Lewis; it helped her rediscover a vital continuity in herself after experiencing a cleavage from everything she had known and been--became, in effect, an "act of reconciliation. In The Age of Innocence Edith Wharton sought to come back to herself" (424-25).

At this point we are able to approach Willa Cather. In a brief prefatory statement in her 1936 essay collection, Not Under Forty, Cather wrote, "The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts, and the persons |like Flaubert's niece, and Mrs. Fields, Sarah Orne Jewett, Katherine Mansfield, and Thomas Mann~ and prejudices recalled in these sketches slide back into yesterday's seven thousand years. …

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