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  • Forms of Ambivalence to “Tabloid Culture” in Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country
  • Paul Ohler (bio)

Like the pages of a progressive-era tabloid newspaper, which collate society news, sensationalistic stories of finance and politics, and advertisements for corsets and books, Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country (1913) juxtaposes different print messages. The novel, however, thematizes a profusion of print forms beyond tabloids as it arrays for fictional analysis new “formats that swamped the marketplace” (Gillies 16). It isolates what, for Wharton, were influential communication forms, dissecting the effects of what she called “cinema obviousness […] and tabloid culture” (“Permanent Values in Fiction” 179) on her characters and her own situation as a writer of serious popular fiction. Central to the novel’s consideration of print is an assessment of tabloid culture’s impact on Undine Spragg, the novel’s energetic main figure, and a polity comprised of media consumers. Wharton also engages with print media by exploring the effect of its transformation on ideas of high and low culture and a causally related undermining of the once authoritative forms of poetry, literature, drama, and the visual arts. These forms, increasingly obscured by tradition-blackening newsprint, undergird the threatened Washington Square “reservation” (Custom 77) characterized as such by the aspiring writer Ralph Marvell, a member of the gentry and father to [End Page 33] Undine’s son Paul. Unlike the willingness of Undine to be guided in her social aspirations by ever-new pronouncements of newspapers and their Sunday supplements, gossips sheets, and melodramatic novels, Wharton felt deep ambivalence to “the increasing speed of cultural production” in the twentieth century (Bauer quoted in Bentley, “Wharton in Her Time” 148). This essay suggests that the novel registers accelerating changes to print culture, including those affecting Wharton’s practice as a novelist.1 I examine her depiction of a simultaneous democratization of print and the undermining of what seemed, to her, a public dialogue inclusive of literature vital to the evolution of culture. I demonstrate that in a significant theme that had a decade-old precedent in Wharton’s short fiction, the novel considers the relationship between author, publisher, and reader but also moves beyond the trope of the print market’s disinterest in substantive ideas to register marginalization that stems from media manipulation.

Wharton’s non-fiction writing frequently mentions the leveling effects of a mass print culture of cheap newspapers targeting immigrants and workers, the manufacture of public opinion, advertising, and the technologies that facilitate what she configures as an unprecedented and numbing cultural loudness, an opinion echoed by her friend Henry James. The Custom of the Country reflects on the forms, content, and effects of mass print culture, including fiction at odds with Wharton’s conservative theory of literary value, as it identifies relays between media and Undine Spragg’s subjectivity. Crucially, the novel is also a hybrid of the sensational news story, the popular romance, and highbrow literature, advancing a concern with print in many sections even as it engages in melodrama and hyperbole about the excesses of Gilded-Age materialism and trends such as divorce. It exemplifies Amy Kaplan’s observation that “[t]he power of Wharton’s social criticism stems not from the external perspective of a writer who resisted an incipient consumer culture, but from one whose identity as an author and whose narrative forms were shaped by her immersion in this very modern culture” (“Edith Wharton’s Profession of Authorship” 453). Its satire regarding the pollution of a shared linguistic commons engages the breakdown of what Delaney calls the “stratification that established a [End Page 34] stable division between high and low literary culture” (quoted in Gillies 25), and it leverages the possibilities for a culturally panoramic fictional chronicle enabled by this shift by making low culture and its readers a subject.

Wharton’s 1906 letter to the novelist Robert Grant regarding a dramatization of The House of Mirth asserted that, “[a]ll the masterpieces of fiction have been pot-boilers, & I think the name a very honourable one” (Letters 103). Given the scale of her commercial success and reputation as a literary writer, Wharton’s ambivalence toward modern media and...


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