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.
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    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.

Prophetic Voices: Sinclair Lewis

lewisSinclair Lewis, Jack London, Sui Sin Far/Edith Eaton, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin, Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Upton Sinclair, Mary Austin, Frank Norris. Were they prophets without honor in their own country?

Back in the mid 20th century, when the world was young and New Criticism ruled, they were all sort of . . . well, political, and everyone “knew” that Art was never Political but a well-wrought urn. The closer to modernism you could get on a sliding scale, the greater you were as an artist. Maybe Crane is sort of like Gertrude Stein! Maybe Wharton is like Henry James!

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Dreaming of being Henry James? Nope.

Except that art isn’t disinterested but is always political, as critics since have pointed out. And the works you may have read by them, if you read them at all, were carefully curated to be Art rather than Politics.

This issue comes up now because all of a sudden people are rediscovering Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. But he wrote a lot of other good stuff, too, as did all the writers listed above, all of whom are well known today but often for a few works.

I started this post meaning to talk about them all, but there’s so much to say that this list will be only about Lewis; I will write about the rest later. I’ve read all his novels except The Job, many (Main Street, Babbitt, Dodsworth, Arrowsmith, Ann Vickers, Elmer Gantry, Cass Timberlane) more than once, though I couldn’t honestly tell you much about Gideon Planish or some of the other later ones.

You can also go to the Sinclair Lewis Society site for information: https://english.illinoisstate.edu/sinclairlewis/

Say you want to read or teach a Sinclair Lewis with some social or political relevance. I’m including the film versions, too.

It Can’t Happen Here, about a homegrown fascist takeover of the U. S., is popular right now.

annAnn Vickers: Feminist social worker with an honorary doctorate in sociology works in a settlement house, tries to reform a Southern prison, fights capital punishment, has an unhappy love affair and decides to have an abortion, and finally falls in love with a judge and decides to live with him when his wife won’t give him a divorce. Oh, and everyone calls her “Dr. Vickers.”  The Pre-Code movie version stars Irene Dunne; you can read a good discussion of it here (the source of the image).

imarriedadoctor1936_ff_188x141_052020100846Main Street (1920): The novel about Midwestern small-town America that made Lewis’s reputation, with a dissatisfied heroine who tries to reform a town that thinks she’s the one who needs reforming. It was made into a movie called I Married a Doctor, but the movie doesn’t convey the depth of the book. Image courtesy TCM.

Babbitt (1922): Begins with 24 hours in the life of a real-estate salesman (“Realtor!” I can hear Babbitt yelling) and then shows his growing anomie and disillusionment with conformity. He turns down the right-wing Good Citizens’ League and searches for his idealistic roots, only to–well, you’ll have to read it. Edith Wharton admired this book. The 1934 Warner Brothers movie stars Guy Kibbee as Babbitt.

elmer-gantryElmer Gantry (1927): Popular hypocritical evangelist (character based on Billy Sunday) who preaches what he definitely doesn’t practice and lives very well on the offerings from his flock. The 1960 movie version takes a lot of liberties with the plot but won Burt Lancaster an Academy Award. (Image link)

 

Arrowsmith.jpgArrowsmith (1925): An idealistic doctor-researcher, Martin Arrowsmith, faces incredible pressures from those who don’t believe science is important and discovers a “bacteriophage” to fight a tropical plague. Lewis turned down the Pulitzer Prize he was awarded for this novel. The fine 1931 movie version directed by John Ford and starring Ronald Colman is worth seeing, especially for its portrayal of Arrowsmith’s equal partnership with an African American doctor from Howard University.

dodsworthDodsworth (1929). Car manufacturing giant Samuel Dodsworth and his wife, Fran, leave their midwestern city of Zenith (fictional location of many of Lewis’s novels) and travel to Europe, where they try to acquire culture in different ways, Sam through visiting places and reading guidebooks, and Fran by finding men to tell her that she looks and is young.

There’s a lot more to it than this, however, including some discussions of Henry James & W. D. Howells as well as broader meditations on American exceptionalism and expatriate living. Fun facts: Dorothy Parker admired the ending tremendously, though she wasn’t crazy about the rest of it, and Lewis dedicated the novel to Edith Wharton.  The 1936 movie adaptation directed by William Wyler, with Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, and Mary Astor, is based on the stage play and is superb.

kingsblood_royalKingsblood Royal (1947). The racial dynamics of this are problematic now but were courageous in its day (1947). Neil Kingsblood discovers that he has an African American forebear, a coureur du bois, and defiantly confronts his racist neighbors, culminating in his standing down a white mob.

 

 

MLA Humanities Commons

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Figure 1. Humanities Commons offers you space to post your work and also a peaceful, forest-like atmosphere if you choose that header.

The Site Formerly Known As “MLA Commons” is now Humanities Commons (http://hcommons.org). It’s a user-friendly space to share your work rather than at Academia.edu.

I had already moved my work to the WSU Research Exchange and had asked whether links from research exchanges could be used in MLA Commons; Kathleen Fitzpatrick had tweeted back “not yet,” so maybe this new iteration will have that as a possibility.

In the meantime, I’m uploading my work–well, all that it’s legal to post–into the CORE section of Humanities Commons as well as in the WSU Research Exchange. As with all new spaces and technologies, there’s some duplication of effort (think about the evolution from vinyl to cassette to CD to downloads in music).  It’s a little like Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black seeing a newer, smaller CD format and saying, “Guess I’ll have to buy The White Album again.”

It’ll be worth it, though, for the possibility of sharing work in a broader space.

#Hamilton’s Eliza, subjunctive mood

mrs_elizabeth_schuyler_hamilton_web-jpg__800x600_q85_cropAbout #Hamilton and grammar, not American literature.

When you listen to the soundtrack of Hamilton repeatedly, features that you hadn’t noticed at first leap out at you.

For example, in “Guns and Ships” Burr sings, “He’s constantly confusing, confounding the British henchmen / Everyone give it up for America’s favorite fighting Frenchman!”

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America’s favorite fightin’ Frenchman

Chorus: “Lafayette!

Lafayette:I’m takin this horse by the reins makin’
Redcoats redder with bloodstains

And so on.

Rising Notes Ask the Question

The chorus repeats this five times, always on rising notes (I don’t know the musical term for it), as though asking a question.

Falling Notes Give the Reply

Then, when Lafayette says “there’s someone else we need” and Washington says, “I know,” there’s this:

Washington and Chorus: “Hamilton!”

This is also repeated 5 times and interspersed with the reasons, but in a series of falling notes.

We’ve heard the question and the first part (“Lafayette!”) in a series of rising notes.

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“You called? I’ve got this.” Image from thefederalistpapers.org

The falling notes and the repetition tell us that Hamilton is the answer.

Eliza, Subjunctive and Indicative Moods

Eliza’s lyrics, too, are carefully constructed. Her character is all about the present, as she constantly reminds Hamilton. Her key phrase is  “look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now” in contrast to Washington’s and Hamilton’s simultaneous past and future perspectives (“history has its eyes on you” for Washington; “this is the only way I can protect my legacy” from “Hurricane” for Hamilton).

In Act I, even without the subject of triple uncertainty in “Helpless”–she’s not sure first what Angelica’s going to do, next what Hamilton’s going to do, and finally what her father’s going to do–her speech patterns show this uncertainty.

Eliza lives in the subjunctive mood, which uses “if,” “should,” “could” and other such words to express  a wish or condition contrary to fact. Think about all the times she expresses herself this way:

In “That Would Be Enough”:

And if this child
Shares a fraction of your smile
Or a fragment of your mind, look out world!

In “Non-Stop”:

And if your wife could share a fraction of your time
If I could grant you peace of mind
Would that be enough?

By Act II, however, she’s past it. In “Take a Break,” she isn’t tentative about asking Hamilton to “go upstate,” and by the time of “Burn,” she uses the subjunctive differently.

She recalls the past (“when you were mine”), scorns the idea of a legacy (“you and your words obsessed with your legacy”) by burning his letters, and uses one more subjunctive, not so tentatively this time, in the last line of the song:

“I hope that you burn.”

By her last songs, “Best of Wives and Best of Women” and “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” Eliza’s totally in the indicative mood rather than the subjunctive. Her verbs are active and direct rather than tentative:

“Best of Wives and Best of Women”

“Well, I’m going back to sleep.”

“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”

“I raise funds”

“I speak out against slavery”

“I established the first private orphanage in New York City.” [this is the lyric as printed, although it sounds as though she’s saying “establish,” which would make the tenses more consistent.]

Hamilton has gotten a lot of press and praise for its innovative lyrics, its allusions, its uses of various musical forms, and so on, but it’s clear that it keeps that same level of consistency and innovation right down to its use of grammar.

What made Aaron Burr AARON BURR? Edmund Wilson and Harriet Beecher Stowe have some answers.

burrWhat made Aaron Burr become Aaron Burr?  Not just in 1804, but before and after?  I can think of no historical figure for whom Milton’s phrase “sense of injur’d merit” applies more strongly–and yet Milton, in Paradise Lost, was talking about the motivation of Satan.

The Burr that emerges in Gore Vidal’s novel (Burr, 1973) is supremely cynical, which sounds close to the mark, as does the outraged, haughty, secretive, and slippery Burr that Ron Chernow describes in Alexander Hamilton. I haven’t come to sections dealing with Burr in Joanne Freeman’s Affairs of Honor  yet, or finished Nancy Isenberg’s Fallen Founder.  Since I’m not a historian, Burr remains for me a fascinating literary character, and a tragic one.

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A. Burr and his Memoirs.

Matthew Davis’s  Memoirs of Aaron Burr (1836, 1855) (free at Archive.org) includes a raft of letters portraying Burr as the brave young officer, something of a martinet but a rational one. Among the interesting pieces there is a letter from Gen. Charles Lee, who confirms a Hamilton lyric by writing to Burr in October 1778, after he had been sentenced at his court-martial:

“As I have no idea that a proper reparation will be made to my injured reputation, it is my intent, whether the sentence is reversed or not reversed, to resign my commission, retire to Virginia, and learn to hoe tobacco, which I find is the best school to form a consummate general” (135).

As Thomas A. Foster writes in Common-Place, however, Davis was not a sympathetic biographer, at least where Burr’s relationships with women were concerned; that would wait for the later biographer James Parton, perhaps better known to most 19th-century Americanists as the husband of Sara Willis Parton (Fanny Fern).

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Burr as an older man, behind a tissue mask in the frontispiece of The Private Journal of Aaron Burr.

But The Private Journal of Aaron Burr (1903; free at HathiTrust) already gives a less elevated picture of Burr, and in his own words. It’s a book that could be subtitled Down and Out in Paris, London, New York, &c.  It’s difficult to reconcile the man of such intellectual gifts and bravery during the siege of Quebec and the Revolution, who (maybe, kind of, sort of–but acquitted!) thought about establishing a Western empire, with the man we see in his daily life drinking a little too much and seeking out some cream of tartar punch for the hangover, visiting his tailor, ordering a chess set, and so on. The reader can only think about the waste of talents that this represents.

Which brings me back to the original question: why did you do these things, Burr? Chernow makes a good case about why the duel with Hamilton occurred, but so much of the rest seems inexplicable.

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Harriet Beecher Stowe explains it all, but she had a soft spot for bad boys like Burr, according to Wilson.

Fearless as always, Harriet Beecher Stowe enters the fray in The Minister’s Wooing  (1859) and Oldtown Folks, by presenting two fictional versions of Aaron Burr. In The Minister’s Wooing, Senator Burr is brought up short by the memory of his mother as his better nature struggles with his darker side:

Burr was practised in every act of gallantry; he had made womankind a study: he never saw a beautiful face and form without a sort of restless desire to experiment upon it, and try his power over the interior inhabitant. But just at this moment something streamed into his soul from those blue, earnest eyes, which brought back to his mind what pious people had so often told him of his mother—the beautiful and early-sainted Esther Burr.

In Oldtown Folks, Burr is “Ellery Davenport,” grandson, as Burr was, of Jonathan Edwards. Davenport challenges his grandfather’s doctrine of predestination and points to the sorry state of Christianity as it is practiced to support his point:

Taking the mass of human beings in the world at this hour, they are in such circumstances, that, so far from it ‘s being reasonable to expect the morals of Christianity of them, they are not within sight of ordinary human decencies. . . . That ‘s what I call visible election and reprobation, get rid of it as we may or can.”

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Edmund Wilson, who in person could be as terrifying as this picture.

As the critic Edmund Wilson sums up Stowe’s argument:

Her point is that Jonathan Edwards, in his overweening spiritual pride, had put the Calvinistic qualifications for Election and Salvation so high, at a level so unattainable by the ordinary man–this matter had been much on Harriet’s mind ever since her brother Charles had been driven to despair by reading the treatise by Jonathan Edwards–that Aaron Burr, also the son of a clergyman and brought up in his grandfather’s shadow, had from the start been discouraged with religion and led by a powerful intellect completely to discard morality in furthering his own career.  This picture of Aaron Burr is thus a part of Mrs. Stowe’s expose of the pernicious effects of Calvinism (Patriotic Gore 49).

Wilson adds, “The truth is that this sort of character–sophisticated, clever and fearless–rather piques and excites Mrs. Stowe” (49), as she was later to show in The True Story of Lady Byron (1869), where she shows sympathy for Lord Byron despite his misdeeds.

The complexities of human nature are such that no one thing can explain Burr. But Stowe’s (and Wilson’s explication of Stowe’s answer) give the reason for Burr’s behavior in logic that my students often point out when we study Edwards: if you’re already predestined not to be saved, why be good?