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Edith Wharton liked to refer to herself ironically as a “self-made man.” And in some ways the critics have agreed. Like many of her male contemporaries, she has been the subject of more than one full-scale biography, including R. W. B. Lewis’s Biography (1975), Cynthia Griffin Wolff’s A Feast of Words (1977), and Shari Benstock’s No Gifts from Chance (1995). Not until now, however, has she received the kind of intellectual biography often accorded male authors of her stature. Carol Singley’s Edith Wharton: Matters of Mind and Spirit fills this gap, where, as Wharton argues in Ethan Frome, the story often lies. If anecdotes of Wharton’s voracious intellect abound, few survive concerning her spirituality. Friends like Percy Lubbock and Bernard Berenson, themselves avid readers, envied the way she “gobbled”—and remembered—books. Her interests ranged from history to art, from science to philosophy, and (as the number of volumes in her library illustrate) from literature to religion. They all reflect her search for a “truth” that would join what Carol Singley describes as the often warring parts of her being: mind and spirit. Her quest, which encompassed “Christianity, from Calvinism to Catholicism; classical thought and religion; and modern philosophy,” pulled her in two directions: toward the cultural idealism usually associated with George Santayana and toward a Platonic idealism that transcended such constructs.
Singley describes the uniquely female aspects of Wharton’s struggle, [End Page 836] which made a marriage of mind and spirit doubly difficult. Furthermore, she situates Wharton, driven by a “sense of social desolation and dark moral necessity” at the center of American thought from the turn of the century to the eve of the Second World War. Reading the novelist’s intellectual and religious evolutions as a response to social and cultural changes, she delineates late nineteenth-century debates on Darwinism, aestheticism, and feminism and traces how Wharton both reproduced and transformed the “predominantly male, Christian and Neoplatonic traditions” that she inherited. Individual chapters interpret Wharton’s short fiction and representative novels as well as her fascination with ancient goddesses and Catholicism. In this light, The House of Mirth highlights “the failure of Christian love”; Ethan Frome the Calvinist conscience; and The Reef “the feminine divine.”
Carol Singley’s Matters of Mind and Spirit marks a new trend in Wharton criticism. Previous studies, reflecting, to some extent, Wharton’s own anxiety of authorship, have tended to present her as “the high priestess of a life of reason.” The strength of Singley’s vision lies in its final refusal to categorize Wharton’s thought, thereby losing the dynamic tension that most reflects turn-of-the-century American culture. Wharton, as Singley notes, never pretended to have a unified cosmic vision—an insight which helps to explain our continued fascination with her work. Although Wharton located spirituality in art, history, and past religions, she could not deny the limitations of a secular theology based on either art or culture alone. This paradox impelled the play of Wharton’s mind and the generosity of her spirit.