Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

"For the Use of the Magazine Morons": Edith Wharton Rewrites the Tale of the Fantastic

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

"For the Use of the Magazine Morons": Edith Wharton Rewrites the Tale of the Fantastic

Article excerpt

Edith Wharton's relationship with the reading public and the market economy was ambiguously made up of acceptance and resistance, desire and mistrust. She obviously sought success and dealt with her publishers in a very professional and business-like manner, yearned to establish a connection with her readers, but was aware of the dangers involved in lowering her literary standards to meet popular taste. In the latter part of her career, pressed by economic necessity and a decrease in popularity, she appeared at times more willing to compromise and come to terms with the requests of the marketplace.(1) Her rewriting of two tales of the fantastic, "Pomegranate Seed" (1931) and "All Souls'" (1937), is a good illustration of the delicate balance between the demands of the text and those of the public, and Wharton's differing degrees of success in maintaining it. These are Wharton's last "ghost stories," written toward the end of her life and generally considered among her best. Although they have received a good deal of recent critical attention, so far no examination of the stories' production and publishing problems has been conducted on the basis of the manuscripts.(2) I would like to offer here a reading of these two tales that takes into account their earlier manuscript versions and the substantial variants introduced in the published ones. I will try to explain the reasons for these changes by referring to some yet unpublished correspondence between the writer and her editors. I think that a closer look at Wharton's writing process will throw a different light on the narrative focus of the tales, partially undermining some earlier interpretations. My evaluation of the revisions, and of their impact on the final structure of the texts, will take into consideration Wharton's own ideas on the ghost story as a genre, as well as recent theories of the fantastic.

In an early essay entitled "The Vice of Reading," Wharton stressed the importance of "an interchange of thought between writer and reader" (513), but she also exposed the harm to literature of what she called "the mechanical reader" in "bringing about the demand for mediocre writing" (519). In the "Preface" to Ghosts, the collection of tales of the supernatural published in 1937, she recalled: "When I first began to read, and then to write ghost-stories, I was conscious of a common medium between myself and my readers, of their meeting me half way among the primeval shadows, and filling in the gaps in my narrative with sensations and divinations akin to my own" (2). At the end of her career, Wharton had to come instead to the frustrating conclusion that "the faculty required for their enjoyment [of ghost stories] has become almost atrophied in modern man," and identified the causes in "those two world-wide enemies of the imagination, the wireless and the cinema," thus elaborating on this issue: "to a generation for whom everything which used to be won by an effort, and then slowly assimilated, is now served up cooked, seasoned and chopped into little bits, the creative faculty (for reading should be a creative act as well as writing) is rapidly withering, together with the power of sustained attention" (2).

As an example of this unfortunate change in the reading public she referred to having been bombarded with anxious inquiries, following the first publication of "Pomegranate Seed," about "how a ghost could write a letter, or put it into a letterbox" (2). It is this kind of mechanical reader who undermines the effect of a tale of the fantastic and puts inappropriate demands on the writer. A letter from Rutger Jewett, Wharton's editor at Appleton, confirms this positivistic trend: "Every week since `Pomegranate Seed' was issued I have forwarded letters to you which have been sent me by the Post. Certainly the story aroused interest. I am wondering if the writers of these letters are trying to make you give a material, physical explanation of psychic phenomena. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.