“The Age of Innocence: How a US classic defined its era” by Cameron Laux
In the first of BBC Culture’s series The American Century, Cameron Laux looks at how The Age of Innocence – published 100 years ago – marked a pivotal moment in US history.A
A funny story. Edith Wharton was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Age of Innocence in 1921 (it was published in 1920), but the jury had originally chosen to award it to Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street. The trustees, the actual powers-that-be within the organisation, to whom it falls to make the final decision based on the advice of the jury, balked at the choice because they thought Main Street was unwholesome. Back then, the prize was to be awarded to a novel “which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life”, and Main Street, a trenchant satire on narrow-mindedness in a small midwestern town, ruffled some self-important feathers. In the book, a married man perhaps has an affair with a neighbour, while his wife contemplates an affair with a younger man, but does nothing about it – these are the only morally racy bits I can come up with. No, the problem was actually political: then, as now, the rural Midwest was considered to be the sacred beating heart of America (Mom and apple pie and all that), and it wouldn’t do to question that myth.
Some of this belief that literature should mind its manners survives to this day. For example, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, universally acclaimed as masters of the 20th-Century US novel, and both of whom mercilessly target the American dream, have been passed over for Pulitzers. When the 1974 jury unanimously recommended Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (probably among the most important novels ever written), the trustees chose to give no award rather than to give it to him.
If Scorsese takes an interest in something, it must have become part of America’s DNA
But back to Lewis. Another of his books was then awarded the Pulitzer in 1926; supremely annoyed by his first go-around with them, he gave the award back. Then in 1930 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature – surely, one might think, establishing him as a global force in writing. Yet how many people today have even heard of Sinclair Lewis, let alone read one of his books? He has, for the most part, been swallowed by time (as have many of the Pulitzer laureates from that era: Ernest Poole, Margaret Wilson, Edna Ferber, Louis Bromfield, Julia Peterkin…), while Wharton flourishes. She has left him in her dust. In recent decades, two cinematic auteurs have even adapted her books into films stuffed with bankable stars: Martin Scorsese with The Age of Innocence (1993) and Terence Davies with The House of Mirth (2000). If Scorsese takes an interest in something, it must have become part of America’s DNA.
Thanks to EWS member John Tamburello for the link.