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  • Wharton and Cather
  • Elsa Nettels

This year marked a record for Wharton and Cather scholarship. Five books and four collections of essays, devoted all or in part to Wharton or Cather, were published in addition to more than 40 articles and chapters in books. Almost all critics now place Edith Wharton and Willa Cather in historical contexts, showing how their aesthetic principles and their representations of social reality were shaped by their responses to defining events and issues such as immigration, war, class conflict, and commercialization. Unresolved questions pertaining to race, national identity, constructions of gender, and definitions of feminism continue to preoccupy critics. A marked trend in Wharton scholarship is the growing interest in her nonfiction, particularly her travel writings as they illuminate her attitudes toward World War I, colonialism, and the values of cultural tradition. Books by John Anders and Marilee Lindemann assume the general acceptance of Cather as a lesbian, but they shift the emphasis from biography to literary tradition and cultural ideology embedded in the texts. At the same time, publication of several major biographies of Wharton and Cather within the past 15 years has prompted critics to analyze the ways in which each writer created her public image and to trace in their biographies those developments that have shaped American literary criticism over the past two decades.

i Edith Wharton

a. Critical Books and Collections

In the year's most comprehensive work, Edith Wharton in Context: Essays on Intertextuality (Alabama), Adeline R. Tintner begins to do for Wharton what she has done in eight volumes for Henry James. In 29 essays (21 previously published) she examines Wharton's influence on and literary debts to writers of her own [End Page 139] era; she also documents Wharton's importance to later novelists who have taken her life and art as models for their fiction. Seven essays devoted to Henry James show how the two writers used fiction to respond to each other's work, thus engaging in a "private correspondence," a complex literary relationship that Tintner sees represented in all five stories in James's The Finer Grain (1910). Four essays by Tintner on Louis Auchincloss establish him as the most important exponent of Wharton's legacy. The power of Wharton's example in the 1990s is affirmed in brief discussions of novels by Carol DeChellis Hill, Daniel Magida, Lev Raphael, and Cathleen Schine. Of the eight new essays, the most substantial, "Madame de Treymes Corrects Bourget's Un Divorce," emphasizes Wharton's rejection of Bourget's position in defense of the divorce laws of the Roman Catholic Church. Other source studies discover parallels between F. Marion Crawford's novel The Heart of Rome (1903) and The House of Mirth and between Hugh Walpole's "The Silver Mask" in his All Souls' Night (1933) and Wharton's last story "All Souls." Tintner's work will lead even the best-informed readers to a fuller knowledge of Wharton's fiction and its influence on her contemporaries and successors.

In Solitude and Society in the Works of Melville and Wharton Linda Costanza Cahir establishes the grounds for comparison of these New York writers of Anglo-Dutch ancestry in their portrayal of characters whose spiritual isolation calls into question the relative values of "self-reliance vs. social compliance." To develop her thesis that Wharton and Melville "share a way of seeing, a system of beliefs," Cahir juxtaposes their portraits of several types of characters: the selfish egoist who uses others for his or her own purposes; the "self-imposed exile" who harbors secrets that others try to discover; the "sociable isolato" who seeks relationships with others but is essentially alone; and the "sexual transgressor" who violates a weaker, more vulnerable person. The strength of the book, however, lies not in demonstrating a "direct literary influence of Melville upon Wharton," but in the discerning analyses of individual works, including The Fruit of the Tree, Ethan Frome, Summer, The Age of Innocence, "The Old Maid," and "The Spark."

Based on papers presented at the Wharton conference at Yale in 1995, A Forward Glance: New Essays on Edith Wharton, ed. Clare Colquitt, Susan Goodman, and Candace Waid (Delaware), covers a wide range...


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