At the tender age of eleven, the young Edith Wharton read the opening sentence of her novel to her mother, “Oh, how do you do, Mrs. Brown, said Mrs. Tompkins. “If only I had known you were going to call, I would have tidied up the drawing room.” Her mother’s response would haunt Edith all her life, ‘Drawing rooms are always tidy.’ Wharton would recount the story to her friends for decades and included it in her memoir, A Backward Glance (1934). Wharton, who first published near forty, would win the Pulitzer Prize for Age of Innocence (1920), and receive three nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Mount, her residence in Lenox, Massachusetts, is where she wrote most of her novels. She died in France in 1938.
In October 1900, Lippincott’s Magazine published Wharton’s “The Line of Least Resistance,” a story set in Newport, where the rich summered in their ‘cottages.’ The tale concerned an unfaithful wife and her mouse of a husband. The short story prompted a letter of praise and encouragement from Henry James. I believe that between this letter from James and her mother’s criticism the inspiration for The House of Mirth is to be found. James had written to her: “I egg you on in, your study of the American life that surrounds you.”
The social standing and material wealth that Wharton knew and lived is not new to readers, nor is the interpretation of Mirth as an early feminist text. My proposition is different. Born Edith Newbold Jones, she was of those Jones, of whom it has been said all of us try to keep up with. On James’s advice she wrote what she knew. I wish to suggest that House of Mirth, while justifiably feminist in spirit, is also the author’s response to her mother’s withering comment. I’d argue that Wharton levels an indictment against anti-intellectualism in America, not from below among the blue-collars, or from nouveaux riches in the middle, but from above, from the upper class. Wharton fires her crafted metaphors and irony at the tuxedoed men with paunches, the overdressed women in the gilded wasteland.
The House of Mirth appeared in 1905, but it is another book, Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, a study of American morals and manners that we need to consider first before Mirth, since it had appeared earlier, in 1899. The landmark study bequeathed to us the phrase “conspicuous consumption,” which on the one hand means, living beyond one’s means but on the other hand, as Wharton demonstrated in Mirth, is equated with buying respectability in absence of any morality. Life is understood and defined in literal dollars and cents. Mother Wharton’s purview of life is as spectral as any ghost, “offensive … as a smell of cooking in the drawing room.” In the Gilded Age, Catholics and Jews were not invited into the dining room. Those outside of the Astor Four Hundred did not matter; they were tolerated. This is the Puritan inheritance and the birthright of John Updike’s WASPs, where everyone else, as Edward Wilson, played by Matthew Damon in The Good Shepherd, reminds the mafioso, is simply a “guest.” Tolerated as necessary evil, along with other untouchables, to do the work that nobody among them wants to do. At one time, that work was delegated to Negros and then the Irish and now….fill in the blank.
The most sinister episode in The House of Mirth is the night of the “tableaux vivants,” or “living pictures.” Wharton was fluent in French and read in German and Italian. As a reminder to readers, this is the scene in the novel in which the women, Lily Bart among them, are dressed up in imitation of the women in Dutch Master portraits. Lily, as Joshua Reynolds’s Mrs. Lloyd, stuns the evening crowd. To the reader Lily has achieved, with all her awareness, the apex of her existence; she is nothing more than a beautiful thing to men, and an act of charity to other women after her father dies. The woman who is not beautiful is condemned to the periphery. Lily ends up in a hat shop with her female friends as customers, subsisting on sleeping pills to stave off her anxiety. In Wharton’s sweeping panorama, a man’s wife is an extension of his success, a reflection of his sound business decisions. Nothing more. Adultery is tacit; it is tolerated as long as the discretion that governs it is not breached.
In continuing the weak-willed male character Wharton had offered readers in the short story that James had praised, she presents Lawrence Selden, a bachelor lawyer, who criticizes his surroundings, and drones on about some ideal “republic of freedom” where money and material possession matter nothing. Idle chatter. Readers know the rest of Lily’s career. He confesses his love too late. Yes, Wharton does illustrate a woman’s predicament: independence and poverty, or security and marriage. Modern readers must understand that divorce implied devastating consequences for women. Wharton lived the reality with Edward Wharton, who preferred hunting, dogs, alcohol and other women to his wife.
While rivers of ink have been spilt on the roots of anti-intellectualism in America, from Natty Bumpoo to education to Richard Hofstadter, I ask readers to think about the theme of identity in The Great Gatsby, the polished imagery of Jackie and John Kennedy, as the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination approaches, and the psychological need for icons that Protestantism destroyed in the Reformation. Just think about it. John Kennedy was an anomaly: he was Irish-Catholic, but certainly not nouveau riche. Other than James Garfield before him and Lyndon Johnson after him, there is no American president who rose from abject poverty. In her writing, while it may speak to the plight of women in her time, the may or must of personal destiny, Wharton offered a greater optic and criticism of the rhetoric of our daily reality, where every senator is a millionaire; platitudes suffice for content; religion and xenophobia are placeholders and distraction; technology is not a time-saver, then or now, and the image of political husband and wife, candidate and running-mate, are as tidy as the drawing room. If literature is the hero’s journey, then what end should we expect? Emma Bovary, or Lily Black for women, or that of Willy Loman, Terry Malloy, for the men? What republic? What freedom?