- Edith Wharton and Cosmopolitanism, ed. by Meredith L. Goldsmith and Emily J. Orlando
Edith Wharton lived to travel. This much is clear from the number of times that she is reported to have crossed the Atlantic Ocean during her lifetime. Editors Meredith L. Goldsmith and Emily J. Orlando, in their new volume Edith Wharton and Cosmopolitanism, total Wharton's Atlantic crossings at sixty-six (4), while other Wharton scholars, like Sarah Bird Wright, have previously argued that it was even higher. What all this tallying of Wharton's voyages collectively points to, though, are themes of ambiguous attachment: as an early twentieth-century cosmopolitan figure, Wharton was, as Goldsmith and Orlando explain, "capable of reaching out across difference to those in whom she sensed commonality," but she was also capable of exhibiting levels of "dismay" where otherness and difference might [End Page 81] be concerned (6). And it is therefore because of these contradictions, and not in spite of them, that the editors see Wharton's work as an "ideal site through which to contemplate the power and limitations of the ideal cosmopolitan citizen" (5).
Edith Wharton and Cosmopolitanism brings together a range of essays on the subject of Wharton's understandings of her cosmopolitan identity, the bulk of which were first conceived as conference presentations and delivered at the 2012 meeting of the Edith Wharton Society that took place in Italy. That history accounts for the close-knit quality of the collection, wherein we see the various authors speaking to and with one another even as they offer differing interpretations of the term cosmopolitanism. Indeed, all of the essays appear united by a set of anxieties—anxieties for which the idea of cosmopolitanism serves as an aggregator, if not necessarily as an antidote. After all, one problem with canonical figures like Wharton, in the eyes of contemporary culture and critique, is necessarily the problem of privilege and therefore also of race: as a white writer who was likewise a member of the upper-class, Wharton's canonical status has never been in doubt, but her contemporaneity may yet be if we allow ourselves to view her work as existing outside of questions of race, otherness, and identity. To this end, Edith Wharton and Cosmopolitanism usefully places Wharton's writing in the context of these very questions since, as Maureen E. Montgomery points out with reference to the work of Kwame Anthony Appiah, "cosmopolitanism implies a respect for otherness" (126). The concept of cosmopolitanism thus functions in this volume as an entrée to considerations of race and otherness but also as a staging ground for the multiple avenues of critique that stem from these topics.
Several of the essays, for instance, assess Wharton's awareness of and reactions to race and discernible markers of otherness. June Howard, in her essay on Wharton's Old New York novellas, sees Wharton's fixation on "family history" as related to a set of linked preoccupations with regard to biology and breeding. Wharton's "The Old Maid," Howard argues, "can be read as a passing narrative … that is full of racial anxiety" insofar as Tina's efforts to obtain a husband appear hampered by questions regarding her "uncertain ancestry" (176). As Howard sees it, the key to Wharton's "pitiless ethnographic gaze" (177), as she puts it, lies in an assessment of the era's thoughts and feelings on the subjects of breeding and belonging, which include race as well. Meanwhile, other authors in the collection are more directly critical of Wharton's own attitudes regarding race: Sharon Kim gestures towards a reading of violence in Wharton's gaze when she points out that certain forms of seeing "entail a hostile dynamic of power [End Page 82] in which the eye of the Subject conquers the object that it sees" (214). Kim's essay, which connects Wharton's experiences as a tourist in Italy to the style of narration in The Custom of the Country, mounts a claim for the proprietorial nature of "gazing...