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  • 7 Wharton and Cather
  • Elsa Nettels

The year's scholarship includes six substantial books, chapters about Wharton or Cather or both writers in 13 books on American literature, and two collections of essays on Cather. The shift from formalist analysis to historicist and cultural criticism is well established, as critics continue to place the fiction of both novelists in the context of social and political issues and to document the influence of their reading in works of anthropology, philosophy, biology, and evolutionary science on their fiction. Ecocriticism is becoming prominent in Cather studies. Interest in Wharton's business acumen and knowledge of the literary marketplace remains strong. The combination of high artistic standards and popular success makes both writers good subjects for the study of connections between literary art and middlebrow culture. Critical interest in The House of Mirth (Wharton's most popular novel) and The Professor's House (favored by Cather's critics) shows no signs of diminishing.

i Edith Wharton

a. Critical Books

Janet Beer's Edith Wharton (Northcote House) in the British Council series on Writers and Their Work is a well-informed, well-designed survey of Wharton's entire professional career. In chapters on the New York fiction, the shorter fiction, the international scene, American subjects, and Wharton's reading Beer identifies the themes and concerns connecting works spanning nearly half a century: the conflicts between old and new cultures, the repressive effects of social convention, the price of rebellion, incestuous relationships in the later works as a motif or sign of "confusions of the age." The book develops salient connections between Wharton's life and fiction and gives fresh readings of the best-known works—The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome, and [End Page 119] Summer—as well as the lesser known Valley of Decision and A Son at the Front.

Two engrossing books bring Wharton and Henry James into relation once again. In The Figure of Consciousness: William James, Henry James, and Edith Wharton Jill M. Kress takes her starting point in William James's idea of identity divided between an inner autonomous self and consciousness shaped by the world surrounding it. Although Henry James and Wharton both strove to represent consciousness in their fiction, Kress argues that Wharton, to a greater extent than either William or Henry James, questioned the existence of an "authentic core" of the self, apart from the social conditions that mold consciousness. To demonstrate Wharton's "deep anxiety" about the stability of a private inward self, Kress analyzes the representation of the interior lives of Lily Bart in The House of Mirth and Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence, showing how both novels dramatize the impossibility of separating the inner self from its "cultural furnishings"—clothes, houses, social position. Lily Bart's "real self " remains indefinable, beyond a series of "socially constructed identities." No "protected mental space" exists for Newland Archer when his most private fantasies become known to his family.

Another widely perceptive study, Jessica Levine's Delicate Pursuit: Discretion in Henry James and Edith Wharton (Routledge), shows how both novelists developed "European themes," notably adultery, while respecting the restrictions of the genteel literary establishment. Levine argues persuasively that both James and Wharton turned the "literary decorum" imposed on them to "stylistic advantage," evoking the power of the unspoken and the unseen in dealing with forbidden subjects. In good analyses of Wharton's The Reef, The Age of Innocence, and The Old Maid Levine sees analogies between characters' accommodation to social codes and Wharton's acceptance of restrictions still imposed on writers in the 1920s. Levine gives particular attention to Newland Archer's reading of European books, which intensify his sense of entrapment and encourage escape through fantasy. Observing parallels between scenes in The Age of Innocence and Flaubert's L'Éducation sentimentale and Madame Bovary, she defines Wharton's novel as a critique of the European novel of adultery. She does not claim that either James or Wharton influenced the other (nor does Kress), but she points out important similarities: in their early fiction both novelists placed innocent characters (Daisy Miller, Lily [End Page 120] Bart) in the foreground; in later work they moved "the plot...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2125
Print ISSN
0065-9142
Pages
pp. 119-135
Launched on MUSE
2004-06-24
Open Access
No
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