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  • Wharton and Cather
  • Carol J. Singley and Robert Thacker

Production of Edith Wharton scholarship continues at an impressive rate, with 3 monographs and 18 articles on topics ranging from Darwin to the Gothic. Among the novels The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome, and The Age of Innocence generate significant attention, with commentary also appearing on The Reef, The Custom of the Country, Glimpses of the Moon, and The Children. Interest in Wharton's ghost fiction shows no signs of diminishing; a variety of essays demonstrate Wharton's skill at updating and expanding the boundaries of the Gothic tradition. Also of note are essays on Wharton's relation to writers other than Henry James, from Jane Austen to Hamlin Garland. Wharton's relationship with middle-class readers through popular magazines continues to garner critical attention, as does her engagement with literary modernism and its attendant questions of alienated selfhood, ethnic and racial bias, and World War I. An important addition to the criticism is Noel Sloboda's comparative analysis of Wharton's autobiography, A Backward Glance, and Gertrude Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. The first such full-length study of Wharton's life writing, it goes beyond the usual interpretation of Wharton's memoir as the work of a reticent, genteel writer.

Much of the Cather scholarship this year offers interpretations based on new information. Extending his work on Cather's self-promotion throughout her early career, David Porter produced the year's single monograph. A collection of essays by various hands offers abundant evidence that the ongoing scholarly interest in Cather ensures that new [End Page 133] documents continue to be sought and found. Two essays are of special note: the first, by Melissa J. Homestead and Anne L. Kaufman, examines Cather and her work in relation to Edith Lewis; the second, by Janis P. Stout, theorizes and continues her work on material culture in a lively discussion of Cather's relation to her times.

The Wharton section of the chapter is contributed by Carol J. Singley, the Cather section by Robert Thacker.

i Edith Wharton

a. Books

Four very different monographs demonstrate the breadth of critical interest in Wharton. Judith P. Saunders's well-researched Reading Edith Wharton Through a Darwinian Lens: Evolutionary Biological Issues in Her Fiction (McFarland) asks whether Wharton's "characters' behavior is adaptive, that is, whether it promotes the passing on of genes" (italics in original). Saunders is concerned not with Wharton's interpretation of Darwin or Darwinian social theory, the subject of past criticism, but the field of evolutionary biology and a "biopoetic" investigation of literary texts. Pointing to an impressive array of titles she demonstrates Wharton's "evolutionary psychological acuity." In The House of Mirth, for example, Lily Bart fails because she overemphasizes wealth and physical beauty, neglects kinship connections, and does not observe her community's rules. Her behavior is as maladaptive and disappointing from a Darwinian perspective as it is from an emotional one. The Reef illustrates the different and sometimes conflicting sexual and reproductive strategies of men and women. George Darrow, "the ardent male," contrasts with Anna Leath, "the choosy female"; Sophy Viner renounces Darrow after their affair to salvage what she can from circumstances over which she is powerless. Like The Reef, The Age of Innocence explores the female strategy of sexual reserve but in the context of highly prescriptive social mores as well as nepotistic loyalties that link members with one another and function to promote Newland Archer's fitness and long-term genetic welfare. Saunders lucidly explains why May Welland's virginal innocence and suitability as a mate outweigh Ellen Olenska's erotic appeal and probable infertility and adds that depictions of both women illustrate Wharton's critique of social codes that impose sexual ignorance on all women. Saunders also discusses The Glimpses of the Moon, The Old Maid, and "Roman Fever." [End Page 134]

Another fine contribution is Jennifer Haytock's Edith Wharton and the Conversations of Literary Modernism (Palgrave). Haytock asks not whether Wharton is technically a modernist but rather how she participates in literary and cultural conventions associated with a movement that historically excludes women because it is "built around a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2125
Print ISSN
0065-9142
Pages
pp. 133-152
Launched on MUSE
2010-11-20
Open Access
No
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