- Edith Wharton and the Visual Arts, and: The Architectural Imagination of Edith Wharton: Gender, Class, and Power in the Progressive Era
Recent publicity surrounding the fate of the Mount, Edith Wharton's self-designed home in the Berkshires, has contributed to a renaissance among academics and casual readers alike of the work of an author well known for her perceptive insights into society, class, and gender in turn-of-the-century New York. Articles in the New York Times and Slate.com about Wharton's personal aesthetic in architecture and interior design have coincided with reassessments of her life and writings by Hermione Lee and others who are attempting to present a more complete picture of Wharton's interests and intellectual circles. For a woman whose most celebrated literary achievements came relatively late in life, we have the sense that the impact of her passions for houses, art, gardens, travel, museums, and philanthropy have not yet been adequately assessed and that there is much left to explore biographically and textually. Two recent books, Emily J. Orlando's Edith Wharton and the Visual Arts and Annette Benert's The Architectural Imagination of Edith Wharton: Gender, Class, and Power in the Progressive Era, present rigorous, sustained attempts to situate the author's texts within cultural, political, and historical milieus. In their own ways, Orlando and Benert marshal evidence of Wharton's wide-ranging artistic sensibilities to shed light on plots and characters whose depictions are anything but straightforward. Their interdisciplinary approaches produce nuanced representations of women and culture in Wharton's books and short stories, but they also point toward the work that remains to be done.
Both Orlando's and Benert's books progress chronologically and thematically to demonstrate that Wharton's investment in the visual and tactile arts impacted her writing and that an in-depth treatment of her biography in relation to those concerns offers productive new ways to read her works, especially lesser-known texts. In their respective studies of Wharton's aesthetics, both scholars assess the legacy of the Progressive Era more generally. While Orlando places the period [End Page 179] designation in quotation marks and argues that Wharton questioned the legitimacy of the term itself, especially in her later writings, Benert views Wharton as an embodiment of the era's contradictions and complexities. Intriguingly, the way each scholar positions the author in relation to turn-of-the-century politics and culture largely determines the shape of her critical narrative and, ultimately, what each sees as the fate of Wharton's career.
The interdisciplinary efforts to analyze Wharton's life and work are illuminated by a detailed discussion of paintings by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (in Orlando's case) and Neoclassical architecture and the City Beautiful movement (in Benert's case). Benert tracks Wharton's architectural and literary interests through the lens of class and employs a psychoanalytic approach, drawing from details of Wharton's life (from her experiences living at the Mount and in New York to her travel through Italy, France, and Morocco) to explore textual representations of characters and their surroundings. Asserting the author's lifelong interest in links between architecture and power, Benert argues that "[p]hysical structures . . . in [Wharton's] architectural and auto-biographical works," most notably The Decoration of Houses at the beginning of her literary career and A Backward Glance at the end, "serve to maintain her own culture and class and to reify their ideals." By contrast, however, architectural structures often operate as "agents of social domination, of injustice and tyranny" (58). Performing close readings and referring to a wide array of criticism, Benert claims that in Wharton's most successful fictions, The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country, the author found a way to access architecture's possibilities and limitations at the same time, to embody the tension between...