- A Historical Guide to Edith Wharton
Over the past thirty years Edith Wharton's career has been so thoroughly resurrected and her work so extensively reissued that one need no longer speak merely of a "Wharton revival" in American literary culture. In a further sign of this enshrinement, Oxford University Press devotes the latest of its "Historical Guides to American Authors" to the novelist, whose multifaceted accomplishment is examined in half a dozen new essays flanked by a sketch of Wharton's life and an informative bibliographical appendix. Expertly assembled and introduced by Carol J. Singley, the Oxford volume amply verifies what one of its contributors calls the "recuperation of Wharton's reputation" and "the thriving state of Wharton scholarship today" (261).
What emerges as a leading theme of the collection is the extent to which Wharton's fiction revolves around a series of dialectically interrelated polarities generating much of its substance and drama. As carefully articulated by Singley, the tension in Wharton's awareness between tradition and iconoclasm, between "professional" and "fashionable," and between convention and sexual liberation initiates an emphasis that other contributors pursue in numerous fruitful directions. Martha Banta's treatment, for example, of the operation of both "Time and History" and "seamless Time" in Wharton's imagination (56), reflected in her attentiveness to shifts in "fashion" as markers of social and historical change, yields a freshly illuminating perspective on the novelist's concern with the status of women in her era. Similarly, Cecelia Tichi's intertwining of Wharton's responses to such traditionally antithetical figures as Emerson and Darwin results in a cogent, penetrating reconsideration of The Custom of the Country.
In perhaps the volume's most original and satisfying essay, Nancy Bentley examines the dichotomy of speed or mobility versus stillness in Wharton's work and situates her in relation to a modernity defined by captivating yet uncommonly harmful new modes of transit. Bentley incisively analyzes the trope of the "crash" or accident in the novelist's work and the globetrotting-induced disruptions of traditional kinship patterns in her characters' lives.
The Oxford volume moves to an altogether different level with Eleanor Dwight's "Wharton [End Page 105] and Art." Dwight characterizes Wharton's fiction as "brilliantly pictorial and carefully structured with balanced architectural forms" and argues that "Wharton's knowledge of European art and architecture ... influenced the structure of her novels, which are architectural in form" (182, 209 n.16). However, Dwight's essay does not go very far in illuminating these subjects. Instead she underscores the obvious ("Throughout her writing, Wharton carefully highlights the physical appearance of her female characters and the importance that their society places on female beauty" ; "Wharton's travels ... provided rich material for her writing" ) or relies on impressionistic criticism, such as when she observes that "Wharton uses words to paint many revealing portraits of Lily [Bart]" in The House of Mirth (195). It is regrettable that an essay on such an important subject was not contributed by a scholar with a more sophisticated understanding of aesthetics or of the interrelations of literature with the visual arts.
The contrast between Dwight's essay and the caliber of most of the others raises some questions of readership. To whom is such a collection principally addressed? The college sophomore whom Dwight's essay appears to have in mind is likely to be lost when attempting several of the others, while any reader critically
or intellectually equipped to appreciate the strengths and nuances of Banta's, Tichi's, or Bentley's will surely not require Shari Benstock's assistance in identifying "French writer André Gide" or "French novelist Honoré de Balzac and English writer George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)" (37, 35).
Such problems may be associated not so much with this particular volume as with Oxford's conception of the series in which it appears. A historical emphasis, in Singley's words, certainly "gives scope and pattern to Edith Wharton's accomplishments" (16), but no more than half of the essays can...