Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Inhospitable Splendour": Spectacles of Consumer Culture and Race in Wharton's Summer

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Inhospitable Splendour": Spectacles of Consumer Culture and Race in Wharton's Summer

Article excerpt

In her posthumously published essay "A Little Girl's NewYork" (1937), Edith Wharton refers to her mother, Lucretia Jones, as "a born 'shopper'" (361). The conservatory of the family's Twenty-Third-Street New York home remained "an empty waste, unheated and flowerless, because the money gave out with the furnishing of the billiard-room." Despite her having grown up in this atmosphere of consumerism, however, there is surprisingly little reference to shopping in Wharton's autobiography, (1) though her fiction demonstrates her familiarity with New York's famous shopping districts, where characters like Lily Bart in The House of Mirth (1905), Undine Spragg in The Custom. of the Country (1913), and Pauline Manford in livilight Sleep (1927) hone their skills as consumers. In The House of Mirth, consumer culture's negative impact is suggested through Lily's social and physical decline, figured in her displacement from her aunt's Fifth Avenue home to a south side boardinghouse, a route that takes her through "the degradation of a New York street in the last stages of decline from fashion to commerce" (297). Alluding to the literal transition of fashionable neighborhoods into retail districts, this phrase also positions commerce below fashion in a hierarchy of social evolution. But by casting commerce as a lower stage to which fashionable society descends rather than a foundation upon which fashion is built, the phrase obscures the intimate ties between them. As Lily's demise suggests, the social currency of Wharton's women, "born to shop," largely depends upon their obscuring this relationship--living, dressing, and shopping well, but doing so without calling attention to capitalism's role in underwriting their fashionable lives.

In Summer (1917), Wharton dramatizes consumer culture's role in a different class dynamic. A young woman living in the western Massachusetts hamlet of North Dormer, Charity Royall, like Wharton's other women characters, experiences the pressure to consume, but as she comes to understand herself as socially and economically ill-equipped to navigate consumer culture, she suffers heightened anxiety about her identity as a modern consumer. Highlighting Charity Royall's complex subjectivity, Summer represents Wharton's ambivalence to consumer culture, indicated, as Nancy Bentley has argued, by her interest in "the sweeping forces of a new economic world" (228) (upon which she relied to promote her work) but also the "persistent anxiety" (229) with which she viewed the impersonal and dangerous power of such forces.

Wharton situates Charity's subjectivity formation both in relation to specific manifestations of consumer and visual culture, such as the shop window display and the cinema, and in light of her concerns about race. Recent studies by Monica Miller, Daphne Brooks, and Grace Elizabeth Hale have increased our understanding of the connections among race, spectacle, and consumption in the early twentieth century. (2) More specifically to Charity's experience, Parley Ann Boswell, Jennie Kassanoff and Elizabeth Ammons all illuminate issues of race, spectacle, and consumption as they operate in Summer. Building on their work, I examine how the interrelatedness of race, spectacle, and consumption bear upon the formation of Charity Royall's subjectivity. Represented in relation to what the narrator terms the "inhospitable splendour" (147) of consumer culture and its visual models of normative female behavior and appearance, and in language and imagery belying an anxiety about race, Charity's struggle to reconcile her class, gender, and racial identities with the expectations and effects of a rising consumer culture suggests both the challenges such culture presents for rural woman as well as Wharton's ambivalence about that culture itself.

The shop window and women on display

Charity is originally from the Mountain, a rural community fifteen miles from North Dormer judged to be socially and morally inferior and, described as the "swarthy Mountain" (179), associated with racial otherness. …

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