restricted access Edith Wharton and the Ethnography of Old New York
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EDITH WHARTON AND THE ETHNOGRAPHY OF OLD NEW YORK Mary Ellis Gibson* "What I could not guess," Edith Wharton said of her girlhood, "was that this little low-studded rectangular New York, . . . hide-bound in its deadly uniformity of mean ugliness, would fifty years later be as much a vanished city as Atlantis or the lowest layer of Schliemann's Troy, or that the social organization which that prosaic setting had slowly secreted would have been swept to oblivion with the rest."1 Characteristically, Wharton balances the sweep to oblivion against deadly uniformity, irrevocable change against the slow "secretion" of social organization. In her autobiography and her fiction, she juxtaposes a traditional, if stifling, order against chaos or oblivion. Despite her dislike of the "mean ugliness" of old New York, Wharton deeply valued continuity and tradition for strengthening moral character. At the same time, as Mary Suzanne Schriber has pointed out, Wharton had a clear sense of the ways the conventions of social interaction could blind or restrict people, especially women. A similar ambivalence toward convention and change was manifest, as Cynthia Griffin Wolff observes, in Wharton's concern with social thresholds or bodily boundaries.2 This simultaneous respect for tradition and distrust of convention gave rise to the special poignancy of Wharton's Trojan metaphor and of all the other archaeological or evolutionary motifs Wharton chose to measure social rupture. A focus on Wharton's ambivalence toward change and on the language she used to describe it reveals the complexities and the distinctiveness of each of Wharton's three detailed treatments of New York society. In these novels, particularly The Custom of the Country, Wharton repeatedly characterizes herself as an "ethnologist," and this stance leads her at once to a vocabulary and a series of metaphors suited to the society she describes and reflects her own complex attitude toward social change. In her two New York novels written before World War I—The House of Mirth (1905) and The Custom of the Country (1913)— Wharton opposes "promiscuity" to "fastidiousness" and invokes motifs of disease, pollution, and taboo. She shows social change to be a total *Mary Ellis Gibson is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She has published articles in Victorian Poetry, Language and Style, Southern Literary Journal, and English Literature in Transition. She is currently working on a book on Robert Browning. 58Mary Ellis Gibson and radical rupture in cosmology as final as the obliteration of Troy. In The Age of Innocence (1920) Wharton shifts her ground, largely giving up this vocabulary as she describes a challenge to the old order that comes not from without but from within, from men and women who share the dominant values of the old society. Her treatment of promiscuity , fastidiousness, and pollution shifts accordingly. The consistency of Wharton's vocabulary for social change comes out of a rather sophisticated "ethnography" of New York culture which is all the more striking in the context of recent anthropological theory. Wharton's understanding of social symbolism reveals its consistency and its inherent ambivalences in light of Mary Douglas' analysis of natural symbols and of pollution and taboo. Wharton's ease in assuming the "ethnologist's" role owed much to her self-education in science, ethnography, sociology, and anthropology. In her autobiography Wharton characterizes her early reading of Darwin , Spencer, T. H. Huxley, Haeckel, Romanes, and Westermark as creating "an overwhelming sense of cosmic vastnesses" inundating her "little geocentric universe."3 R. W. B. Lewis speaks of Wharton's "addiction " to anthropology, describes her acquaintance with Aldous Huxley and Bronislaw Malinowski, and argues that she drew explicitly on James Frazer's The Golden Bough when she described the "tribal" customs of old New York in The Age of Innocence.4 It is important to see that Wharton's fictions reflect the turn-of-the-century fascination with evolutionary models of social change (progressive or pessimistic) and the beginnings of anthropological and ethnological studies of magic, ritual, and social conflict. Wharton's casting herself as ethnologist in The Custom of the Country goes beyond mere metaphor; it evidences her attempt in this novel, as in The House of Mirth and...