Opening paragraphs of “Edith Wharton’s Two Worlds,” the Humanities Fellowship talk I gave last night.
To begin this talk, I’d like you to imagine a time when the United States, one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations on earth, was not so much one nation as two. It was a deeply divided country economically and politically, with millions of families living in rural or urban poverty while the wealthy paid little or nothing in taxes and lived in the utmost luxury. In this time you’re imagining, workers were driven from their jobs by increasing mechanization and by anti-union and anti-strike actions that spilled over into violence. Lax regulations on manufacturing meant that industries could pollute air and water and that workers would receive little or no compensation for their injuries. Families lost their homes and were forced into poverty and onto the streets by the financial shenanigans of the corporations who bought off state and federal legislators to ensure that government regulations, such as they were, would never touch them.
In this imagined time, there was rampant prejudice against immigrants from the east, who were deemed suspicious because of their “foreign” religious practices and fears that these immigrants would owe allegiance to the head of their religion rather than to the United States. Unrest in their home countries also meant that many immigrants were branded as politically volatile and prone to violence and terrorist acts.
In addition to conflicts over religion and immigration, in this imagined America Anti-Semitism was common, expressed at the highest levels of society, and enforced through restrictive covenants in housing and quotas to limit the numbers of Jewish students who could attend private universities. Racism was on the rise, including incidents of violence, and state legislatures in the South devised restrictions that made it harder for African Americans to vote. Goaded by the media and by strong celebrity personalities who used emerging media to stir up and unify their followers, white nationalist parties, some previously dormant like the KKK, gained legitimacy and power, playing on fears that immigrants would steal their jobs and change the character of the nation.
And in this imagined America, the position of women was not equal to that of men: they were barred from many occupations, discouraged from pursuing higher education, made less money than men, had no legal access to birth control and abortion, and were subject to abduction and sexual slavery.
This imagined America may seem familiar, even contemporary, but the world I’m talking about is that of Edith Wharton (1862-1937).