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.

 

Leo Robson, “John Williams and the Canon that Might Have Been,” and making sense of a class from the past

Screen Shot 2019-03-25 at 6.47.46 PMIn “John Williams and the Canon that Might Have Been” (at The New Yorker), Leo Robson writes about the novels of John Williams, who co-won (if that’s a word)  the National Book Award in 1973 for his novel Augustus, along with John Barth’s Chimera.  Williams is best known today for the academic novel Stoner (1965), which has undergone a huge resurgence since Williams’s death in 1994.

As Robson says, Williams represented something at odds with the expansiveness of a Saul Bellow, but what? Robson: “Williams had been spellbound by [Yvor] Winters’s authoritative tone and by a set of absolutist convictions relating not just to Anglophone poetry but to literature as a whole. Modish, persona-heavy metafiction or fealty to a more austere and straight-backed standard: this was not a difference that could be split.” [emphasis added]

Robson goes on to explain the theory underlying Williams’s practice:

Winters thought that the high point of literary expression had come and gone during the Renaissance, when “the tougher poets” like Fulke Greville wrote with a sense of rational order in the “plain style.” In the early eighteenth century, a decisive break had occurred—the start of what Winters branded Romanticism, defined as the misbegotten idea that “literature is mainly or even purely an emotional experience.” In the fullest statement of Winters’s views, “In Defense of Reason” (1947), a compendium of his earlier critical books, he railed against what he called “the fallacy of imitative form”—the tendency to express disintegration or uncertainty through language that itself exhibits those qualities. The “sound” alternative, Winters wrote, was to make a lucid statement “regarding the condition of uncertainty.” The “conscious author” and the pursuit of “formal perfection” emerged as desirable alternatives to “the fragmentary and unguided thought of the character, as he walks down the street, or sits in a bar, or dreams at night.”

Robson ultimately asks “What if cool analysis and formalist precision had gained greater purchase at the time?”

But there was one place where it did gain purchase, if only for a semester: a course on the short poem in English that I took as an undergraduate.

We worshiped the plain style.

Fulke Greville was it. 

We were taught to have have little use for the Renaissance fancy guys like Sir Philip Sidney, because they were good but not plain. Literary quality was adherence to the plain style–tough, unemotional, understated.

Our principal text was John Williams’s English Renaissance Poetry. I didn’t know until Robson’s piece that this was (a) a transgressive and original anthology and (b) a book that seriously irritated Yvor Winters, who said “that Williams (‘the little bastard’) would make “a good deal of money out of me.”

Screen Shot 2019-03-25 at 6.47.00 PMOur other main text was Yvor Winters’s Quest for Reality,  a holy touchstone. (The cover I recall is a black and yellow one, but I may have conflated it with Forms of Discovery.)  Wallace Stevens made the cut, too, as did J. V. Cunningham.

Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, and the rest of the Romantics, on the other hand, were infra dig–definitely not plain, and far too emotional to be real poetry, which had to constrained and contained.

The shock of recognition (TM Edmund Wilson) that I had on reading Robson’s piece was that I hadn’t realized back then that I was being taught school of literary criticism, much less one that had somehow gone underground and surfaced in an undergraduate class.  I was being taught poetry, full stop, and accepted those standards as given.

In addition to being interesting in its own terms and in reintroducing readers to John Williams, then, Robson’s essay is a reminder of how seriously students (well, one naive student, anyway) take in what they’re told and the ways in which canonicity can shape young minds–even if it’s a minor or uncanonical canon.

 

 

In search of (lost) digital American literature archives

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Women writers at the original SSAWW site at Lehigh, still awaiting scholarly attention.

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Or “Ubi sunt . . . ?” Where are the disappearing author archives of ten years ago?

In our English 573: American Authors and Online Editions class yesterday, the students and I discussed work by Sui Sin Far,  an essay by Mary Chapman, and chapter 3 from one of the books we’re reading this semester, Amy Earhart’s Traces of the Old, Uses of the New. 

Then we kept discussing current sites and lost sites, the individual sites put up as a labor of love in the late 1990s like those of Alan Liu, Voices from the Gaps, NativeNet, A Celebration of Women Writers etc. before the MLA had even adopted its standards for site information in 1999. We talked about how these sites had been made to make reading versions of unavailable texts available (pre-Google Books, remember) and, as Earhart describes, to make a more diverse set of  texts available.  We talked about Jean Lee Cole’s Winnifred Eaton archive, too, which has fortunately been resurrected here: https://jeanleecole.wordpress.com/winnifred-eaton-digital-archive/.

We discussed the difference between HTML and TEI, between (pre-DH? Certainly, as I’ve been told repeatedly, not DH) individual sites and the large, well-funded, and deservedly praised and vetted-by-scholars Walt Whitman Archive or The Mark Twin Project, not to mention the various ways in which we can look visualize data now.

Screen Shot 2017-09-26 at 9.16.19 AMWe looked at the underlying coding of the early HTML sites. I told them about the pre-Web Taylorology from 1993, that, when we looked at the code, of course did not change because it is plain text.

But we also went on a little virtual tour, sometimes courtesy of the Wayback Machine, and I told them about sites that had vanished completely, like Jim Zwick’s Mark Twain and Imperialism, or walled up their texts behind a paywall or university access, like the University of Virginia Text Center or the Women Writers Project–great and innovative projects, no question, but not now available to most of us.

Screen Shot 2017-09-26 at 9.26.21 AMWe also looked at page that had once served a purpose, like the W. D. Howells novels typed or scanned, organized, and mounted on the web that had been given to the Howells Society by Eric Eldred.  (Using Eldred’s format for consistency, I scanned and corrected An Imperative Duty for the site, and it took a while.)

We don’t need these now as when we only had individual sites, the Making of America Site and Project Gutenberg. Now we have Google Books, Hathi Trust, and any number of exciting large-scale projects (just go to NINES and look); new ones are announced seemingly every day, and they’re great–metadata, maps, interactivity, great TEI encoding, or whatever.

I keep hearing that the era of the archive is over and so is the era of recovery.

But if it’s over, why are we still, in some cases, shoring up texts and authors that are in no danger of going away?  Why are we leaving the authors who were recovered on those early sites like the SSAWW one still lingering in a limbo–readable but maybe not findable (because metadata), not celebrated, and without all the modern digital accoutrements that would allow them to find a new audience?

 

 

 

 

New issue of Studies in American Naturalism: Review of Anne Boyd Rioux’s Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist and Linda Kornasky’s review of Bitter Tastes

The new issue of Studies in American Naturalism is available at  http://muse.jhu.edu/issue/36848.  In addition to fine articles, it includes Linda Kornasky’s fine review of Bitter Tastes: Literary Naturalism and Early Cinema in American Women’s Writing (thanks, Linda!) and my review of Anne Boyd Rioux’s Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist.  There’s also a great review by Sheila Liming of Meredith Goldsmith and Emily Orlando’s Edith Wharton and Cosmopolitanism (for which I wrote the Foreword).

I don’t think SAN would mind if I posted a few samples from a couple of them:

Kornasky on Bitter Tastes:

Donna Campbell’s substantial new study introduces a unique perspective on American women writers of literary naturalism. Campbell proposes that “placing women’s naturalism at the center rather than the periphery of the [naturalist] movement reveals an ‘unruly’ counterpart to the rules of classic naturalism” by Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, etc., which, she contends, “expresses an interest less in philosophical consistency in its treatment of determinism than in the complex, sometimes uneven workings of social forces that operate on female characters constrained with the extra complications of women’s biological and social functioning” (4). This alternative, re-orienting perspective suggests, nonetheless, that new attention should be paid not only to “unruly” naturalism written by women often overlooked in naturalism studies, but also to texts written by men usually not included there. Moreover, Campbell brings turn-of-the-century and early twentieth-century film into her study, paralleling naturalism and early film’s emphasis on visual “authenticity” (11).

My review of Rioux’s Constance Fenimore Woolson:

Anne Boyd Rioux opens her excellent new biography of Constance Fenimore Woolson with two indelible images that are the sum total of what most readers know about the author: in the first, “a woman jumps from the third-story window of her Venetian palazzo”; in the second, weeks later, a distraught Henry James sits in a boat in the middle of a Venetian lagoon, trying helplessly to submerge both the dresses and the record of their friendship, but the dresses “billow up like black balloons” (xiii). Unlike the dresses, Woolson’s critical reputation has been less than buoyant in the century since her death, although an edition of her complete letters (Complete [End Page 88] Letters of Constance Fenimore Woolson, 2012), numerous book-length critical studies and articles employing feminist approaches, and Rioux’s new collection of Woolson’s stories should do much to restore her reputation.

Rioux’s carefully chosen title, Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist, signals this revival and Woolson’s struggle for acceptance, for it echoes James’s Portrait of a Lady, the work of an author whose reputation has shaded if not entirely effaced Woolson’s own in literary history. “Lady,” too, is particularly apposite, for Rioux’s running theme is what the literary world might have made of Woolson had they treated her as simply a “novelist” without the diminishing modifier “lady.” The book is thus a twofold portrait, not only of Woolson but of the literary world of high-culture magazines and publishers in which she found success but struggled to create a kind of writing that relied neither on the prosaic lack of idealism, as she saw it, in Howellsian realism, or the bloodless analytics of Jamesian psychology.

So you want to write a letter to Edith Wharton

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Figure 1. EW was as poised in her letters as she is in this photograph.

After reading so many letters to as well as from Edith Wharton last month at the Beinecke Library, I had a few thoughts, not all of them reverential, on writing letters to Edith Wharton.

First of all, her letters are a joy to read because her command of the language is–can I say perfect? Even if you can’t make out a word at first, you know that the sentence is grammatical and that the defect lies in your ability to read her handwriting, not in the letter itself. This is immensely helpful in deciphering the letter and also an inspiration to the rest of us, who’ll then resolve to write more gracefully.

But suppose that you’re one of her contemporaries, and you want to write a letter to her. What then?

With apologies to Wharton scholars for the hasty generalizations below, here are a few tips:

  1. If you’re a close friend or family member, you’ll know the right tone to take, and the exchange will be friendly, funny, and great to read.
  2. If you’re an editor with whom she has a good professional relationship, such as Edward Burlingame or Rutger Jewett, you can expect friendly and witty letters as well as the immemorial authorial complaints about sales and advertising and the number of periods to use in an ellipsis.  Let’s just say that Mrs. Wharton and common sense do not agree with current recommendations from the Modern Language Association.
  3. orangeine

    Figure 2. Lily Bart might have been marginally safer with Orangeine than chloral hydrate, although it, too, could be deadly.

    If you’re a random fan, she might keep your letter, as she did the one from the president of the Orangeine Company, who was delighted to see her mention the product in The House of Mirth and in effect offered her an endorsement deal, if I remember correctly. Needless to say, she didn’t comply.

  4. If you’re trying to get her to address your book club, autograph a copy of a book, give her an award (except the Pulitzer Prize), give you a few pithy words explaining her literary philosophy, or any of the other requests that famous authors must get by the thousands, the answer is no.  You might get a frosty but polite letter back from her secretary, roughly as follows: “Mrs. Wharton never speaks in public,” “Mrs. Wharton has made it a rule to reserve autographs for her close friends,” or  “Mrs. Wharton appreciates the honor but is unable to attend,” etc.
  5. If you’re a member of a literary rights agency such as Curtis Brown, most of the time you will have to address your correspondence directly to “Mrs. Wharton,” but all the letters you receive will be from her secretary and will begin “Mrs. Wharton begs me to remind you” or another such phrase. In other words, you have to talk directly to her, but she responds through a secretary–which, if you think about it, makes sense given the constraints on her time. Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 8.59.41 AM
  6. If an underling or someone unfamiliar with Wharton slips and addresses her as “Miss Wharton”–you will certainly hear about it, and not in a good way.

The peak “letter to Wharton” experience may be this one, which is at the Lilly Library. It’s  a form letter written to EW from GLOBE: THE INTERNATIONAL MAGAZINE, dated Aug. 6, 1936. It begins “Dear Miss Wharton: Will you write for us?” and asks her to write a short, “intimate” piece for the magazine.  It concludes, “We hope you will go to bat for us. … the deadline was yesterday.”

I’d love to have been a fly on the wall when Mrs. Wharton read this one.

“Edith Wharton’s Two Worlds” opening lines

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).

Should you be required to join Facebook to see public history posts?

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Maybe this happens to you: you’re taking a break and looking at Twitter, and you see a tweet about a Call for Papers or an interesting history post. So you click on the link, and you get the screen above.

Are these public posts? No, they’re private ones, behind the wall of Facebook. Just because Facebook is widely used (yes, I have an account, too) doesn’t mean it’s an open source for information.

Sure, you could log in,  if you don’t care about having your interests and clicks and data measured, which I don’t especially on FB.  That’s the Mephistophelian bargain you make when you sign up for Facebook; as the old saying goes, if you’re not paying for the product on the internet, you ARE the product.

It’s one thing when the Association for Cat Necklace Distributors or some such thing wants to keep its organization behind the Facebook wall.

But when it’s supposedly public information? Or a supposedly open scholarly society? That’s irritating.

So if you see me retweeting, with an open link, the closed information and calls for papers that pass through my Twitter feed, that’s why.