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  • 7 Wharton and Cather
  • Elsa Nettels

Highlights of the year's scholarship are Janis Stout's fine literary biography of Cather and comprehensive books on Wharton by Hildegarde Hoeller and Claire Preston. Regularly scheduled conferences sponsored by the Wharton and Cather organizations continue to initiate scholarly projects, resulting this year in two collections of essays on Cather. Ongoing efforts to relate Wharton and Cather to the literary movements of realism, sentimentalism, and modernism accompany studies of their relation to their literary predecessors and contemporaries. The impact of cultural studies remains strong, as seen in critics' interest in the novelists' attitudes toward popular culture and the mass media; in their dealings with agents, publishers, and magazine editors; and in the political and social implications of their literary art. A number of the novels, notably The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, The Professor's House, and Sapphira and the Slave Girl, stimulate controversy centering on the meaning of the protagonists' acts and relationships.

i Edith Wharton

a. Books, Letters, Bibliography

Hildegard Hoeller's Edith Wharton's Dialogue with Realism and Sentimental Fiction (Florida) proposes that Wharton's fiction, throughout her career, draws upon and also critiques "two competing traditions": realism, championed by male critics such as Howells and James, and sentimentalism, identified with women's domestic fiction and customarily dismissed as inferior to realism. Challenging the prevailing view, Hoeller argues that sentimentalism in Wharton's fiction is not an artistic flaw, as many reviewers and critics have claimed, but an essential element deriving from the literary tradition best able to express "female passion and love" and evoke sympathy for the oppressed. [End Page 123] Chapters on Wharton's juvenile novelette Fast and Loose, The House of Mirth, The Glimpses of the Moon, The Mother's Recompense, and several stories and novellas over illuminating insights. The analysis of the "sentimental subtext" in The House of Mirth is particularly impressive. Hoeller's definitions of "sentimental," however, are not always consistent. This treacherous term occasionally shifts from the descriptive to the pejorative, and Hoeller herself appears to value realism over sentimentality, as when she refers to the "sentimental fictions" and the "sentimental delusions" of the Lansings in The Glimpses of the Moon.

Many critics have analyzed Wharton's portrayals of New York society, but Claire Preston's stimulating book, Edith Wharton's Social Register (Macmillan), goes beyond earlier studies in showing how Wharton transformed social codes and conventions into narrative strategies for the construction of character and plot. Incisive analyses of The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, and The Age of Innocence reveal the innumerable ways by which societies reinforce a "binary system" that creates boundaries or "tribal enclosures" separating insiders from outsiders, the acceptable from the unacceptable. Some of Preston's statements about individual characters are questionable, e.g., her dismissal of May Welland in The Age of Innocence as "vacuous" and of "minimal complexity," comparable in her vacancy to Undine Spragg. But blind spots are rare and do not invalidate the central insight of the book, that the "restrictions and inhibitions" of the society that Wharton escaped gave her a "a coherent design," a framework in which to demonstrate the effects of conformity and rebellion.

An attractive picture of Wharton's friendship with a younger writer emerges in Yrs Ever Affy: The Correspondence of Edith Wharton and Louis Bromfield, ed. Daniel Bratton (Mich. State), which publishes 33 letters exchanged by the two novelists between 1931 and 1937. As Bratton notes in his introduction, the strongest bonds between them were their love of France and French culture and their passion for gardening. In her letters Wharton also offered critical appreciation of Bromfield's work and sought his advice in negotiating with magazine editors about the sale of her fiction. The volume also publishes for the first time an extended tribute to Wharton by Bromfield and an unfinished essay by Wharton on "Gardening in France."

Another letter by Wharton, written in 1935 to her cousin LeRoy King in reply to his letter of sympathy on the death of her sister-in-law, Mary Cadwalader Jones, is published for the first time in David H. Porter's "'O [End Page 124...


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