Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Lita Is-Jazz": The Harlem Renaissance, Cabaret Culture, and Racial Amalgamation in Edith Wharton's Twilight Sleep

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Lita Is-Jazz": The Harlem Renaissance, Cabaret Culture, and Racial Amalgamation in Edith Wharton's Twilight Sleep

Article excerpt

Edith Wharton's 1927 novel Twilight Sleep has consistently suffered from a lack of critical scrutiny because, perhaps, when it is paired with better-known novels like The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, or The Custom of the Country, it appears rather anomalous-Madam Wharton, novelist of elite drawing rooms from New York to Paris, does the Jazz Age. Although Twilight Sleep is unique in Wharton's repertoire, particularly stylistically, it nonetheless deals with a set of concerns similar to her best-known works. Specifically, the novel examines the aftereffects of the invasion of old New York by newly-wealthy Westerners like Undine Spragg of The Custom of the Country or Norma Hatch of The House of Mirth. Set in the twenties, Twilight Sleep can be said to be one of the final chapters in Wharton's history of the New York elite, from the "tight little citadel" of The Age of Innocence (44), to The House of Mirth's society of "atoms whirling away from each other" (248), to a point at which society has become so mixed with various ethnicities, classes of origin, and regional affiliations that what holds the New York elite together is no longer "family" (as in The Age of Innocence) or even money (as in The House of Mirth). Indeed, in Twilight Sleep, Jazz-Age society has become almost completely unglued: the city's elite is an incoherent mish-mash of people who have little connection to and even less sympathy with each other.

Thus many of the social trends to which Wharton's earlier works respond--a fluid class system, a growing consumer culture, an increasing tendency toward the acceptance of outsiders, and the shifting constructions of elite white womanhood that result--find their full expression in the 1920s. By then, the proliferation of tenements, skyscrapers, department stores, and theaters had forced New Yorkers to "perceive themselves as part of an environment of restless and progressive change" (Taylor 32). These consumer-cultural forms, centered around Broadway from City Hall to Times Square, provided "road maps for a new, rapidly changing urban world" and allowed an unprecedented number of New Yorkers to occupy a diverse range of city spaces (69). New York's turn-of-the-century entertainment industry--Tin Pan Alley, Yiddish theater, and ragtime--became produced for a national audience in the 1920s. In reality, this non-Anglo, working class-influenced popular culture and the social roles it engendered mediated between the new and the conventional, but to many, both the growth of consumerism and the increasing popularity of othered art forms seemed to confirm America's taste for low culture. Such a taste--even worse--seemed to be infecting genteel white women. Walter Lippman, a friend of Wharton's friend Bernard Brerenson, asserted (and Wharton would have agreed) that the problems with American democracy were cultural; Americans, he claimed, now lived like immigrants: "transient" and "rootless," with the vulgar tastes of the nouveau fiche (qtd. in Taylor 111). From Lower East Side peddling to Ladies' Mile shopping and Broadway theater-going, New Yorkers developed a culture based on street experience, with all of the publicity, voyeurism, and class, race, and ethnic heterogeneity it implied. Jazz Age New York seemed perfectly symbolized by the mayoral term of Jimmy Walker, the young Tammany ladies' man of Irish working-class roots known for being stylish, corrupt, and the first mayor to be inaugurated on the radio (Lankevich 157). He was also well-known for having left his wife for a popular dancer.

The very public inauguration of such a young mayor was in keeping with what to many seemed an alarming rise of a mass youth culture. Paula Fass has shown that many adults connected the supposed post-war "youth problem" to the decline of civilization itself(18). Concerned only with personal gratification and hungry for "experience," the young seemed to obey no social sanctities (20). This new youth culture was often likened to "primitive" cultures of ethnic, class, and racial others; like these others, they seemed "raw forces unleashed" on American society. …

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