- Of Publicity, Prizes, and Prestige:The Middle-Zone of the Marketplace in Hudson River Bracketed
Hudson River Bracketed (1929) and The Gods Arrive (1932), Edith Wharton’s last two complete novels, explore one of her most enduring preoccupations: the status of the novelist in the literary marketplace.1 Tales of the novelist Vance Weston’s education as an artist, his efforts to achieve economic and professional success, and his failed marriage and subsequent affair, these novels have traditionally occupied a problematic place in Wharton’s corpus. Recuperated less frequently than Wharton’s other 1920s works, these two works are typically viewed as either portraits of artistic development or as satire of a number of 1920s cultural institutions, from little magazine to the growing culture of prizes to literary bohemia. The generic hybridity of both texts has led critics to separate the novel’s psychological concerns with Weston’s artistic development from its sociocultural ones, his efforts to instantiate himself in the marketplace. Whatever approach is taken, both novels tend to be read as part of Wharton’s increasingly cynical attitude toward American culture as it evolved into modernity.2
The sheer capaciousness of the Vance Weston novels makes them stubbornly resistant to synopsis. However, in both works, the romantic and professional plots—heterosocial and homosocial, Bildungsroman and social satire—operate both in tandem and in tension with one another. Even as Hudson River Bracketed depicts Vance’s literary education at the hands of the highbrow Halo Tarrant and his marriage to the doomed Laura Lou Tracy, it simultaneously charts Vance’s efforts to navigate a complex world of editors, publishers, promoters, tastemakers, and philanthropists as he endeavors to develop an independent, mature style and satisfy market demands. [End Page 232]
This essay focuses on Hudson River Bracketed, exploring Wharton’s account of the publishing industry. Reading this aspect of the novel carefully, I wish to suggest that one can discern previously unappreciated connecting points between the novel’s psychological and cultural preoccupations. In Hudson River Bracketed, Wharton’s novelist protagonist fails not simply because of shifting modern literary taste, but because of his failure to understand what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls the “game of culture,” in which artists, editors, publishers, and other culture brokers position themselves in similar ways to consumers, as suggested above.3 For all these players, the business of books would assist in efforts to either retain or attain symbolic capital and cultural authority. Wharton’s experience with the publishing industry and her witnessing of conflicts over literary prizes throughout the 1920s suggest her awareness of the construction of cultural prestige through the publishing industry, especially through literary prizes and their attendant scandals. Hudson River Bracketed helps recast Wharton’s understanding of what Amy Kaplan has called the author’s “profession of authorship”4 as a multi-faceted negotiation between numerous parties, each with different stakes in the success of a literary work.
Bourdieu’s classic work on cultural capital affords a more nuanced approach to culturally and economically influenced reading habits and taste than the traditionally employed binary of art and commerce would imply. Such an approach has encouraged critics to focus on cultural brokers as necessary mediators between artist and consumer. Janice Radway, for example, in her analysis of the rise of the Book-of-the-Month Club in the 1920s, focuses on the conflict between the publishers who promoted books through the Club, the Club judges who characterized the Club as a democratization of culture, and progressive critics who inveighed against the Club’s middlebrow approach to literature. In Radway’s account, the debates over the legitimacy of the Book-of-the-Club constituted debates over literary authority, in which all participants tried to stake out a position in the “game of culture” but failed to make transparent their own efforts to angle for cultural authority.5 James English, in his reading of the rise of literary and artistic prizes, argues for a complex interaction between all members of prize culture—authors, judges, administrators, journalists, and critics, among others. English aims to avoid the “sweeping narrative of art and money to which phenomena like prizes have normally been subjected (mainly narratives of...