Edith Wharton and V. L. Parrington

Screen Shot 2019-05-29 at 6.35.44 AMIt’s no secret that literary critics are shaped by their era, no matter how much the New Critics tried to pretend that they existed in a realm of Universal Truths about Aesthetic Judgment, so I’m not here to pile on to Vernon Louis Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought (1930).

Parrington was a giant in his day, and he synthesized and explained what he saw as, well, the main currents, etc.

Parrington died before completing the last volume of Main Currents, which exists as a sequence of lecture notes and previously published essays.  It’s a kind of critical voice–definitively categorizing, full of sweeping pronouncements, and obsessively worried about ethical actions and judgments–that would never get you past the covers of PMLA today. Who but Parrington could sum up Norris’s unfinished Vandover and the Brute  by calling it “a huge and terrible torso”? (332). And he does talk about now-forgotten naturalist authors like Ernest Poole (The Harbor, 1915) and progressivist Winston Churchill (the novelist, not the politician).

Yet the book is unaware of its own (whiteness) blinders: I saw no references to popular African American writers of the era that he covers so conclusively, such as Frances E.W. Harper, Charles W. Chesnutt, Pauline Hopkins, or Paul Laurence Dunbar. And how can you treat “main currents in American thought” without the insights of W. E. B. DuBois or at least a mention of The Souls of Black Folk?

As I alluded to in a tweet this morning (the one that made me want to write this post) Parrington’s judgments give a window into thoughts of the era but increasingly diverge from our own.

  • “Theodore Dreiser: Chief of American Naturalists.” Okay, there’s a case for that, which for Parrington relies on “sympathy and mercy” and Dreiser’s “vast and terrifying imagination.” (Just try getting away with language like that today at some of our more theory-oriented journals. Can you imagine what Reviewer #2 would have to say? I can, and it’s not pretty.)
  • “Sinclair Lewis: Our Own Diogenes.” Well, sure, if you really like Sinclair Lewis, and I do.
  • A short paragraph on “F. Scott Fitzgerald”: “A bad boy who loves to smash things to show how naughty he is. . . . Precocious, ignorant–a short candle already burnt out” (386). Obviously written before The Great Gatsby, let alone Tender is the Night. 
  • “The Incomparable Mr. Cabell.” I can hear you saying “who?” Like Joseph Hergesheimer, whom Raymond Chandler paired with Cabell as the “fancy boy” writers in contrast to his plainer style, James Branch Cabell was a well-considered writer whose fantastic novels set in Poictesme (link so that you can look up the pronunciation) were considered high art and whose novel Jurgen led to an obscenity case.  When I was writing the “Fiction: 1900 to the 1930s” chapter for American Literary Scholarship in 2000-2008, I read all the yearly criticism on him, and it’s fair to say that he’s much less popular than he was.  Parrington praises him for the “open door of woman-worship” that allows Cabell to “enter his world of deeper realities” (341)

Now here is the head-scratcher for modern readers: lumped under the heading “Certain Other Writers” with Willa Cather, comprising the front and back of two pages (381-384) for both of them, is “Edith Wharton–The Genteel Tradition and the New Plutocracy.”

In other words, Parrington devotes a chapter each to Dreiser, Lewis, Cabell, and Ole Rolvaag , but the front and back of a page each for Edith Wharton and Willa Cather, which for the time was probably about right.

Calling Wharton a “temperamental aristocrat” who was “isolated in America by her native aristocratic tastes” (I see what you did there, V.L.), Parrington approves of House of Mirth (Selden and Trenor are “the aristocrat and the plutocrat” [381]), Ethan Frome (“a dramatization of the ‘narrow house’ theme” [381]), The Custom of the Country (“a study of the social climber” [381]), The Age of Innocence (“an admirable work” [382]), and Old New York (“A return to her best manner” [382]). The rest of her work is “not important.”

Summing up, Parrington says “Mrs. Wharton a finished artist who grasps her material firmly; an intellectual attitude, delighting in irony” (382).

But she is is “Not a thinker like Cabell, whose irony springs from an imagination that contemplates man in his relation to cosmic forces, but an observer whose irony springs from noting the clash between men and social convention. The last of our literary aristocrats of the genteel tradition” (382).

For those keeping score at home, let me sum this up:

Cabell: a thinker, interested in “cosmic forces,” in touch with “deeper realities” through his contemplation of an abstract conception of “woman.”

Wharton: not a thinker but an observer, an “aristocrat” (x3), and–most damning of all–a relic of the genteel tradition.

I said on Twitter that Wharton must have been laughing in four languages at a judgment like this. Wouldn’t her extensive reading in social and biological evolutionary thought qualify her has a “cosmic” thinker? In fact, wouldn’t her status as an actual woman give her a little insight into what makes Cabell so special?

This little exercise in how literary reputations are made is just of many instances, of course, but if Edith Wharton–pictured in 1923 when she received an honorary degree from Yale University, the first woman to be so honored–is laughing, this may be why.