Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

The Limits of the Cosmopolitan Experience in Wharton's the Buccaneers

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

The Limits of the Cosmopolitan Experience in Wharton's the Buccaneers

Article excerpt

Edith Wharton's final, unfinished novel, The Buccaneers, published posthumously in 1938, charts the great excitement of its eponymous characters' initial journey to England and examines what happens when the exhilaration of travel ends and the reality of living abroad begins. Five young American women cross the Atlantic, marry, and settle into the storied homes of the British gentry. Playfully termed "buccaneers" by two older women who advise them and smooth the way for their social entree, the young women are hardly, as the title implies, pirates, much less plunderers of traveling vessels. Rather than operating as rootless raiders free to transport their spoils across the globe, Wharton's buccaneers are invaders who, upon settling into marriage, must confront the cultural expectations of their adopted home:

  "I think I'm tired of trying to be English," [Nan] pronounced.  The
  Dowager rose also, drawing herself up to her full height. "Trying to
  be? But you are English. When you became my son's wife you acquired
  his nationality. Nothing can change that now," "Nothing?" "Nothing."
  (413)

Near the end of The Buccaneers, this conversation between the Dowager Duchess of Tintagel and Nan, her young daughter-in-law and the current duchess, signals the end of a cosmopolitan fantasy wherein characters move easily between cultures. Sensing the futility of her hope to act as a citizen of the world (this being the broadest definition of a cosmopolitan subject), Nan addresses the dowager's contention that, upon her marriage to the duke, she irrevocably assumed his nationality. This belief collides with Nan's wish to remain nationally undefined. At issue is not only the fact that Nan does not self-identify as a British subject but also that she quite possibly chooses not to embrace any nationalized identity, and certainly not one acquired through marriage.

As do other Wharton novels, The Buccaneers depicts the degree to which the act of joining a society requires the acceptance of possibilities and limits in equal measure. What particularly interests Wharton in The Buccaneers is the moment when nationalist interests emerge as a corrective to cosmopolitan openness--that is, when demands for conformity reveal an underlying cultural inflexibility that newly married young women find both surprising and troubling. Understanding the cosmopolitan as "an enlightened individual who believes that he or she belongs to a common humanity or world order rather than to a set of particular customs or traditions" reveals something of the openness of the cosmopolitan experience, where "common humanity" trumps local concerns (Trepanier and Habib 1). Taking pointed interest in the relationship between transnational marriages and the cosmopolitan experience, The Buccaneers stresses the difficulty of maintaining ideals about belonging to a common humanity" beyond the romance of courtship. Transnational marriages seem to uphold a cosmopolitan ideal of exploring mutually rewarding differences traceable across cultural boundaries; however, as the young Duchess of Tintagel observes, the expectation to embody one's new nation supplants a vision of "enlightened" world citizenship.

Wharton lived what could be described as a cosmopolitan experience; she was a lifelong enthusiastic traveler who recorded her travels and the insights they afforded her. Wharton's recently published letters to her governess, Anna Bahlmann, begun when she was twelve, record her accounts of the bonds travel could create with both people and material surroundings (Goldman-Price). Similar letters to later correspondents would record the delights of many journeys. Born and married in New York, Wharton was a multilingual expatriate who spent her formative years largely in France and Italy and lies buried in Versailles. She published travel books on Italy, France, and Morocco, set her novels in both Europe and the United States, and saw her work translated into multiple languages. …

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