Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Wharton's Hudson River Bracketed and Coleridge's "Kubla Khan": Re-Creating Xanadu in an American Landscape *

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Wharton's Hudson River Bracketed and Coleridge's "Kubla Khan": Re-Creating Xanadu in an American Landscape *

Article excerpt

Edith Wharton anchors her 1929 novel Hudson River Bracketed in a poem, drawing elaborate attention throughout the narrative to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" (1797-98). In so doing, she employs the two basic types of literary allusion identified by Gregory Machacek in his 2007 historical analysis-indirect reference and phraseological appropriation (see Machacek 526). She draws on wording, images, and concerns from Coleridge's text to develop plot, setting, character, and theme in this Künstler roman, the story of a young writer's maturation. She prepares the way for sustained reprise of the poem by naming it overtly early on, but the intricate role it plays in her cross-genre conception has yet to be adequately analyzed and appreciated.

"Kubla Khan" is introduced at a critical moment in the opening action, and it is recalled or quoted at key points thereafter: it functions as the gateway to the protagonist's romantic, creative, and cultural awakening. That awakening takes place chiefly in the Hudson River Valley, a setting that garners special significance through iteration of the central allusion. Forging suggestive parallels with the dreamscape of Xanadu, Wharton endows the history, culture, architecture, and natural environment of the Mid-Hudson region with creative potency. Magically transformative properties borrowed from Coleridge in particular-and from the world of poetry in the largest sense-help her celebrate it as a place that inspires and nourishes artistic vision.

The novel follows protagonist Vance Weston through five to six formative years, from the age of nineteen to twenty-five. Initially a naively aspiring writer fresh out of college, he gains literary and personal sophistication as the novel progresses. By the end of these years of apprenticeship, he has published several critically acclaimed works of fiction. At the same time he has gained the discernment and humility to abandon a number of false starts and inferior manuscripts. Fully in command of his own powers as a writer, he is embarked upon a promising new book project. Wharton's well documented affection for Goethe's Wilhelm Meister is plainly evident in the design of young Weston's artistic development (cf. Wharton, A BackwardGlance 71). From the outset, tellingly, she emphasizes the importance of place, indicating that setting will serve not as mere backdrop for action but as subject. As preamble to the parallels she will establish between the Hudson Valley and Khan's kingdom, she contrasts Weston's place of origin with the East Coast region to which he migrates.

Wielding satiric wit, Wharton excoriates the physical and cultural flatness of the Midwestern states in which her protagonist has been reared and educated. The very names of the towns in which he and his family have lived-Hallelujah, Missouri, and Euphoria, Illinois- point toward the worship of materialism, "the religion of business" dominating such "go-ahead" (HRB 43) hives of commercialism.1 The inhabitants of these architecturally drab, intellectually barren towns take no interest in the cultural achievements of "Historic Times" (HRB 36). They simultaneously scorn and fear their neglected cultural heritage, "the icy draughts of an unknown past" (36). Their attention is focused exclusively on the "prosperous present" in which "industrial development" is regarded as "humanity's supreme achievement" (36, 43).

Wharton makes no attempt to be even-handed in her presentation of the American Midwest. Concentrating on the "thousands of Euphorias" (HRB 13) sprouting into existence by means of artificially engineered booms in real estate and stocks, she ignores the natural landscapes that might make some claim on readers' aesthetic sensibilities. Her object is to rain ridicule on the complacent antiintellectualism and "social insipidity" (13) of her protagonist's early environment. Despite his family's prosperity, his background is impoverished in all the ways that matter. …

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