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166 / misreading the house of mirth reader desiring upward mobility, I would argue that the reader trained in the school of reading up would see Lily’s career as a lesson by negative example. Even before approaching the regrettably meager existing documentary evidence of reader reactions to the novel, it is easy to see how Lily would be a particularly compelling figure of identification for an aspiring middle-class reader. Joan Lidoff argues that Lily’s story is charming because it is a story of failed identity, that “Lily charms the reader as she does the other characters in the novel (and as she has her creator). . . . Irrationally , we wish with her for a prince to transport her from her troubled poverty to the paradise she craves; we concur in her yearning to live happily ever after.” Lidoff locates the sympathy readers feel with Lily in her appeal to “those sustained remnants of narcissism in adults.”42 While I favor a historical approach over Lidoff’s psychoanalytic model, many of Lidoff’s sensitive readings speak to the identificatory dynamic of reading up. Contrary to Lidoff’s analysis, which tends to see Lily as a static model of narcissistic and libidinal pleasure, however, Wharton’s contemporaneous , striving, middle-class readers would have noted not just Lily’s charm but also its instrumentality. Her liminal position in her social set would not have escaped them; indeed, it would have been crucial for their identification with her. Although Lily does not have the wealth or position required for full membership in high society, her accomplishments make her an indispensable member of her set. By arguing that the choices she makes, which in the rhetoric of the novel ostensibly speak to her free will, are in fact constrained by an unaccountably sadistic author, the readers of The House of Mirth who want to identify with Lily while maintaining social ambitions can overlook Wharton’s criticism of those who already occupy the heights. Lily asks herself: “What debt did she owe to a social order which had condemned and banished her without trial?” (HM, 300). But the reader who reads up replaces “social order” with “pessimistic author,” weeps for Lily’s waste, and continues to cultivate an upwardly mobile lifestyle. From Lily Bart to Ethan Frome Mabie in his November 1911 column “Are the Best-Sellers Worth Reading?”—a column written near the end of his Journal tenure that reads at all points like a capstone—works hard to distinguish the “quality” best seller, or “steady seller,” from the “manufactured fiction” that is generally thought of when one talks about best sellers. He notes misreading the house of mirth / 167 that Scott, Dickens, and Thackeray, among others, were best sellers in their own day, and that they are now thought of as “classics.” Indeed, it seems that Scott is better appreciated in 1911 because this “new generation of readers” does not “hang breathless on the plots, as did the young readers of the third decade of the last century,” but rather recognizes that Scott’s novels are “rich in human interest” (November 1911, 30). This is the column in which Mabie dismisses Charlotte Temple, The Lamplighter, and The Wide, Wide World as unfortunate missteps in taste, while celebrating the brisk sales of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Mabie wants to suggest that most of the “classics” were best sellers at the time of publication and to suggest by extension that the most exemplary “best sellers” of the first decade of the twentieth century might be likewise destined for such esteem. Mabie lists the “best sellers” of the previous six years, to see what kinds of conclusions he and his readers might draw from the collection. Of his list, only The House of Mirth and The Jungle are immediately recognizable in the twenty-first century; Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman is there, but holds current significance largely insofar as it was the source text for D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. And while Mabie signals in other columns his opinion that Conquest of Canaan, Beverly of Graustark, and The Garden of Allah are destined for spots in the pantheon, they are of course waiting in oblivion for the moment when they become the subjects of a recuperation project for middlebrow literature. Mabie recognizes that the list is a mixed bag; while “perhaps six” will endure, “there are four or five stories of no lasting value, but of a pleasant flavor, a passing charm; and there...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781439906699
Related ISBN
9781439906682
MARC Record
OCLC
794700744
Pages
256
Launched on MUSE
2012-02-08
Language
English
Open Access
No
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