- Invisible Blackness in Edith Wharton’s Old New York
Clem Spender’s child—growing up on charity in a Negro hovel, or herded in one of the plague-houses they called Asylums. No: the child came first—she felt it in every fibre of her body.—Edith Wharton, “The Old Maid” (1924)
I hate to be photographed because results are so trying to my vanity; but I would do anything to obliterate the Creole lady who has been masquerading in the papers under my name for the last year.—Edith Wharton, in a letter to William Crary Brownell (1902)
The Children: “Tina lives with niggers! Tina lives with niggers!”
A Boy: “Shame on you living with Niggers!”
Another Boy: “Nigger! Nigger!”
Tina: “I’m not!”—Edith Wharton, The Old Maid, stage adaptation by Zoë Akins (1935)
"The Old Maid” is a novella brimming with racial angst—about being racially misconstrued, revealed, contaminated, diseased, and obliterated. In this tale about “illegitimacy,” in which the author looks back on the Old New York of the 1850s, Edith Wharton finally explores the racial foundations of the world she had described in her earlier novels, moving from its surface to its anxious roots. What simmered in The House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence on the back burner boils on the front flame in “The Old Maid.” Here Wharton not only confronts slavery, America’s racial past, and its continuing racial anxieties, but she also secretly destabilizes her own racial identity as “white.” Perhaps because Wharton invisibly implicates herself in this text, its racial politics, despite being central and unrelenting, are also somewhat hidden and have escaped critical attention.1 This is all the more surprising as Wharton scholars have become increasingly interested in Wharton’s racial politics and the role race plays in her writing.
This essay will reveal the centrality of race in the “The Old Maid” and hopefully contribute to this ongoing critical conversation by destabilizing some of its most fundamental assumptions. In combining racial issues of 1850s New York with those of the 1920s, Wharton creates a sophisticated text that links her writing both to mid-nineteenth-century writing about slavery and to 1920s writing about race. Through this double nature of the text, Wharton is able to reflect upon the various functions of “race” in New York and in American culture in these eras. These reflections are by no means those of a distanced “white” writer; by linking the novella’s plot to her own autobiography, Wharton claims the “nonwhite” characters of her tale as her possible ancestors and thus invisibly destabilizes her own whiteness. In doing so, she suggests racial politics quite different from the conservative white stance most critics have attributed to her as she depicts the enforced homogeneity of Old New York as stifling and unsustainable. In tracing the slow demise of the ruling class, Wharton ends her plot with a love match—an exceedingly rare event in Wharton’s fiction—that depicts racial hybridity as being more fulfilling than an engineered, monitored whiteness. At the same time, Wharton also clearly traces the racial anxieties of the New York of both eras, leaving no doubt about the considerable challenges her mixed couple will face. [End Page 49]
Edith Wharton as Race Writer
Over the last fifteen years or so, Wharton critics have slowly begun to tackle Wharton’s view on race, a task met with difficulty from its inception. On the one hand, there was Wharton’s rather overt anti-Semitism, visible in her letters and her fiction, which many critics had avoided.2 On the other, there seemed to be little mention in Wharton’s fiction of African Americans and America’s slaveholding past. These poles marked the difficult critical territory of determining Wharton’s racial politics. Slowly, however, a body of work did emerge.3 In 1994 Dale Bauer published Edith Wharton’s Brave New Politics, which examined the cultural politics of Wharton’s later fiction, and particularly her interest in eugenics; in the same year, my article “ ‘The Impossible Rosedale’: Race and the Reading of The House of Mirth” discussed both the historical context of Wharton’s portrayal of...