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DALE M. BAUER Twilight Sleep: Edith Wharton's Brave New Politics ENERATiONS of critics have claimed that Edith Wharton liked both her gardens and her society well-pruned. In her late fictions, however, Wharton addresses the politics of intimate experience in the context of social debates. To that end, her characters often echo social policy, transformed as it is by Wharton's own bias against legislation of private morality. Although her late fictions have been read conservatively, they are not written in isolation from larger political issues. Instead, they insist on the relation between private and public rather than on a divorce between the two. In challenging her class's (as well as her culture's) gender ideology, Wharton manipulates the conventions of the realist novel to reconcile popular fiction with cultural criticism. My aim is not to reduce the ambivalence with which Wharton writes about anti-Semitism, nor her hatred of black culture, especially as Carl van Vechten describes it in his 1926 Nigger Heaven. I do, however, want to show how writing literature and writing culture, for Wharton, draws on a cultural unconscious , one associated for her with fascism. In Nancy Armstrong's terms, "individual works and kinds of writing gather force, not as they exemplify [an] individual imagination, genre, or tradition of ideas, but as they enter into an unwitting conspiracy that extends throughout the figurative operations of cultural production to shape the lives of real people" (357). I do not so much want to place Wharton's Twilight Sleep in the "context" of history, thereby writing a new historicism, as Arizona Quarterly Volume 45 Number 1, Spring 1989 Copyright © 1989 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 004-1610 50Dale M. Bauer to show how the cultural codes Wharton discusses are the same ones employed in eugenic tracts, medical discourse (of the twilight sleep movement) , and debates about women's rights. In my reading of Wharton's Twilight Sleep, I want to defend it (and Wharton) against the charge of political quietism and collaboration with reactionary politics. I will argue that Wharton redefines the nature of political writing: she rejects a reflectionist political literature for what we might call feminist politics of writing. That is, Wharton's novel suggests that the contradictions in women's lives do not allow them an unambivalent political position. Her politics leave room, then, for the ambiguity and contradictions implicit in women's ascribed role. I: THE QUESTION OF EUGENICS-OR, THE INQUISITION Our upper middle class is similarly annihilating the lower middle class by evoking its envy and teaching it habits of dress, living and amusement which can only be maintained by dispensing with children. —R. B. Cattell, The Fight for Our National Intelligence In the twenties, Edith Wharton's letters no longer concern her war work, but instead cast a critical eye upon politics. For example, she encloses three documents to Gaillard Lapsley (her close friend and Cambridge don) in her letter of August 13, 1925. These documents concern "The Library League" and its "Creed of CHRISTIAN Citizenship "; the League distinguishes itself from the Klan Kraft, an alternate name for the Ku Klux Klan, although its goal of racial purity is similar to the Klan's. With a heavy pencil line, Wharton marks the following paragraph from the advertisement for the League: The European spirit of Marxian Materialism is slowly but surely undermining constitutional government—an inheritance received from our Anglo-Saxon ancestry whose traditions were based not partly but wholly on the fundamental faith of the Christian religion. The proposed goal of the creed—drafted by George Whitefield Mead— is to unite theology and biology: "eugenic in practice, théologie in principle" is their motto. "The outstanding objective thereof is christian educational work along theological lines. But, in so far as we know, Twilight Sleep5 1 there is no existing organization the outstanding objective of which is christian educational work along biological lines." The group hopes to follow in the lines of "the Christian Endeavor movement founded by Dr. Francis E. Clark or the Boy Scout movement founded by Colin H. Livingston." Along with this advertisement, Wharton sends a copy of another letter from Riverda H. Jordan, Professor of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 49-71
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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