Edith Wharton Undergraduate Essay Prize Winner 2014
Edith Wharton and Race: Tracing Race throughout The Custom in the Country
Writing at the cusp of the 20th century, Edith Wharton captures race in a way characteristic of her hieroglyphic New York; race is never spoken outright, but still subtly pervasive within society. In Edith Wharton and the Politics of Race, Jennie A. Kassanoff states: “Wharton’s early fiction articulates a host of early twentieth-century white patrician anxieties: that the ill-bred, the foreign and the poor would overwhelm the native elite…and thereby commit ‘race suicide’” (3). Wharton’s The Custom of the Country (1913) represents these anxieties from the atypical perspective of a New York outsider. As seen throughout the novel, race, for Wharton, was not defined by physical characteristics, but was a naturalist approach including differences of class, region, or custom that risked tainting the upper-crust of New York society. Ultimately, The Custom of the Country reflects Wharton’s personal anxieties as well asembodies her argument on race from the critical perspective of a changing American identity.
A product of Old New York, it is unsurprising that Wharton inherited the politics and mannerisms of her ancestors, particularly her overtly conservative mindset. But besides adopting her class’s idiosyncrasies, Wharton literally inherited the blood of her family—a prominent family thought by New York standards to be among the elite and a benchmark of opulence. However, blood factors dualistically in Wharton’s world; though it signifies relation, it also is a crucial identifier in her early definitions of “race.” Kassanoff states, “Unlike today’s observers, who often narrowly construe race as an exclusive matter of skin color, Wharton’s generation applied the term liberally to a diverse array of possible identifications” (3). Race, Kassanoff says of Wharton’s time, could refer to broad categories from one’s ancestors to one’s geographic location, both of which are critically examined by Wharton in The Custom of the Country. As Kassanoff examines in her book, Wharton observed the factors which influenced her whitewashed New York, which were instrumental in “shap[ing] the larger patterns of American cultural discourse in the early twentieth century” (4). By reflecting the culture of politics that Wharton herself was born into, immersed in, and belonged to, her realistic and naturalistic constructions of race accurately portray a particular group’s thoughts in history, as well as the breadth of definitions the word “race” has. Wharton further extended the actual politics of her time, in which President Theodore Roosevelt presented a platform of “preserving racial purity [as] a kind of national obligation” (Orlando 23). Whereas race today is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “any of the major groupings of mankind, having in common distinct physical features or having a similar ethnic background,” and is more socially constructed, Wharton’s ideas about race signified her beliefs about the importance of inheritance and bloodlines; anything that risked tainting New York blood was considered, as Kassanoff puts it, “racial suicide.”
In The Custom of the Country, Wharton’s New York elitist blood is represented by Ralph Marvell who is of Dagonet lineage. In the opening scene when Undine receives a letter from Mrs. Laura Fairford, Ralph’s sister, Mrs. Heeny’s explanation as to who the Marvell/Fairfords are go right over her head: “Why, Undine Spragg, I’ve told you all about them time and time again! His mother was a Dagonet. They live with old Urban Dagonet down in Washington Square” (Wharton 5). Undine’s naïve question of Ralph’s importance is affirmed by her classing him with society painter Claud Walsingham Popple, and further by her expressed “how queer” at the confusion of why Ralph had not asked Undine out to dine herself. Ingenuous to New York customs, Undine Spragg of Apex is employed by Wharton as a critique to the American identity, given her initials symbolically read USA. The American identity, as demonstrated by Wharton, is that of an attempted reproduction of Europe, but falters to the overpowering mass of races infiltrating society. Raymond de Chelles is particularly critical of Undine’s invasive nature, which he classifies as typical of Americans: “You come from hotels as big as towns, and from towns as flimsy as paper, where the streets haven’t had time to be named, and the buildings are demolished before they’re dry, and the people are as proud of changing as we are of holding to what we have” (354). Ironically, what Raymond classifies as American is precisely the offshoot of race that Wharton is criticizing. Whereas Europeans identify the American race as those like Undine, there are further distinctive racial tensions within America itself. In her fiction, Wharton chronicles “the end to Yankee rule” as a product of “American’s accommodating welcome to immigrants, workers, feminists, and newly minted millionaires” (Kassanoff 10). What was once identifiable as her native land, Wharton’s America became unrecognizable at the influx of new groups of people, which Ralph Marvell labels “invaders.”
Kassanoff’s chapter “Invaders and Aborigines” and subsection “‘Native’ Americans” recounts Wharton’s distinction of race beyond that of complexion. In whitewashed America, race, according to Wharton, was characterized by the foreign “outsiders” of the West and the native, aboriginal New Yorkers, like Ralph Marvell:
Ralph sometimes called his mother and grandfather the Aborigines, and likened them to those vanishing denizens of the American continent doomed to rapid extinction with the advance of the invading race. He was fond of describing Washington Square as the “Reservation,” and of prophesying that before long its inhabitants would be exhibited at ethnological shows, pathetically engaged in the exercise of their primitive industries (45).
Packed in this paragraph of prose is the heart of Wharton’s subtle, yet unconcealed criticism of race in America. As Ralph identifies with the native, original race of Old New York, he is not at all blind to his race’s decline at the advent of the invading race: Kassanoff’s “newly minted millionaires,” the Spraggs. Foreseeing the bleak future for his own race, Ralph’s invocation of Darwinian terminology—extinction—expands on his argument that race has severe biological implications. The blood of his family will be forcibly tainted by the invading classes, simply because there is no one of his own race to mate with: “Ralph smiled at the idea as he sat crouched among his secret treasures. Marry—but whom…the daughters of his own race sold themselves to the Invaders; the daughters of the Invaders bought their husbands as they bought an opera-box” (48). The “invaders,” termed by both Kassanoff and Ralph, are among Ralph’s only prospects left for marriage; the incoming race can literally buy their way to the top by purchasing, instead of inheriting, New York blood. Emily Orlando further supports this notion in her comparison of Wharton’s “Sanctuary,” in which the female protagonist is strained to endure a loveless marriage on behalf of her race. Similarly, Ralph commits a sort of “charity for his race,” where he “invest[s] [his] good blood in his child and thereby avoid[s] ‘race suicide’” (Orlando 18).
Wharton’s attention to the propagation of the bloodline is evident as early as The House of Mirth, in which Lily Bart is not only a symbol of the American identity, but is specifically described as having “evolutionary advantages” that are meant to be passed on to succeeding generations (Kassanoff 44): “Was it possible that she belong to the same race? The dinginess, the crudity of the average section of womanhood made him feel how highly specialized she was” (Wharton 5). The attention to Lily’s physical characteristics by Wharton demonstrates the high demand for Lily to breed, thus protecting the elite race. However, it is because of the changing demographics of American society that puts Lily at risk: “Lily is a hyperevolved specimen whose purity demands a life sheltered from the encroaching dinginess of American democracy” (Kassanoff 44). In a society that is no longer homogenously pure, Lily is considered a rare form of art amongst the heterogeneous, natural society. Therefore, whereas Lily chooses the ultimate sacrifice to protect herself from vulgarity of America, Ralph chooses a different, yet equally sacrificial choice on behalf of his race: to continue it by any means necessary.
In addition, Undine Spragg lacks the bloodlines and hyperevolved beauty of Lily Bart. Though Undine is indeed considered a beauty, her beauty is neither as pure nor as coveted for breeding purposes as Lily’s. Ultimately, Undine’s marking demerit is her geographic lineage, which distinguishes her as an outsider in New York society. Even Ralph identifies himself geographically when he delineates his home, Washington Square, as a “reservation,” which harks back to colonial times when Native American Indians rightly inhabited America. By identifying his own narrative with that of the Indians, Ralph places himself in the tradition of “playing Indian…as a way of claiming a fixed, non-European, and thus geographically specific national identity” (Kassanoff 19). In this sense, Ralph is reclaiming himself as the rightful American in opposition to Undine, who is equivalent to the invading settlers that overtook the Indians’ land. Therefore, race not only refers to biological implications for Ralph to reproduce and continue the family line, but “race,” as it was liberally used by Wharton, also refers to geographical identity. Ultimately, the New York “race” is being directly challenged by the incoming invading race of people from the West.
The Invaders, represented by Undine Spragg, are geographically and ancestrally distinct races from Wharton’s New York. Whereas Ralph Marvell feels he represents an authentic American by aligning himself to the native Indian, Undine is considered the new wave of American identity, one that challenges tradition and evokes change in stagnant New York, but also acts as a chameleon to gain the natives’ trust: “But most of those he met had already been modified by contact with the indigenous: they spoke the same language as his, though on their lips it had so often a different meaning” (Wharton 48). Kassanoff echoes Ralph’s sentiments by noting how Undine is “hollow on the inside, and wholly mimetic on the outside” (21). Because of Undine’s malleable personality, Ralph believes he can mold her to his own liking, thus perpetuating the elitist New York bloodline.
However, Ralph’s Romantic blinders leads him to regrettably misinterpret Undine’s “flexible soul” (Wharton 50). Undine is not the virginal bride Ralph is told she is; her past is tainted by a previous marriage and divorce, both markers of her immoral race. The collapse of moral values distinguishes Undine from classifying as part of the true American race that Ralph belongs to. The “virginal innocence” and plainness to which Ralph ascribes to the incoming Spraggs he learns is simply a façade, hence Undine’s obvious disregard for convention and tradition: “‘I don’t believe an American woman needs to know such a lot about…old rules,’ she flippantly remarks…Derivative and capricious, Undine embodies the racial taint that Wharton associated with ‘pioneer blood’” (Kassanoff 26). “Pioneer blood” refers explicitly to the racial otherness of those who identify from the western region of the United States, but are also considered to be of a different class of mannerisms altogether. Albeit different from Lily Bart who retains an “ancestral memory,” in which she believes she is a product of “hereditary traits ‘in [the] blood,’ passed down from a sybaritic ancestress,” Undine has no regard for past conventions and is chiefly concerned with her future prospects in society (Kassanoff 37). The distinguishing feature between the two races of white women in Wharton’s fiction is birthright; whereas Kassanoff argues that Lily’s disinheritance embodies the importance of the “teleology of blood,” (38) Undine assumes the façade of authenticity under the guise of the new American dream: “the American dream allows [Undine] to have the material trappings of the upper class without those immaterial elements—family, breeding—that are supposed to justify them” (Griffith 84). Therefore, the concrete boundaries of familial relation and blood are skewed by the incoming race. Undine is an offshoot from Old New Yorkers like Ralph Marvell and asserts the new, more fluid boundaries that comprise the American identity. An American woman is no longer simply a product of her ancestors like Lily Bart in The House of Mirth. Instead, protagonists like Undine and Charity Royall challenge the “tight little citadel” that was 1870s New York to create “an incoherent mish-mash of people who have little connection to and little sympathy with each other” (Griffith 74).
One of the foremost trends Wharton examines in her body of fiction is the incoherence between white patricians and the remaining trend New Yorkers who gradually have accepted outsiders. Wharton’s comments on race extend beyond swarthy complexions as depicted in Summer, and instead, examine the transient racial identity of whiteness. Wharton’s primary epitomized white female protagonist is Lily Bart, whose name reflects whiteness and purity: “As a figure for whiteness, class pedigree, western European origin and incipient nativism, Lily articulates a central set of early twentieth-century patrician anxieties…that the country’s oligarchy would fail to reproduce itself and commit ‘race suicide’” (Kassanoff 38). In this sense, Lily is communicative for Wharton’s understanding of race as was characteristic of her socioeconomic class and historical context. Race, at the turn of the century, was considered by Wharton as a necessary precaution of preserving familial bloodlines against intermarriage amongst people of different “races”. However, by the publication of Wharton’s wartime fiction, (The Custom of the Country and Summer), protagonists like Charity Royall represent “a new kind of young white woman…expressing quite different values than had Victorian ladies or even turn-of-the-century New Woman professionals” (Griffith 75).
This new woman is best represented by Undine Spragg, who returns us to Wharton’s main criticism in The Custom of the Country: the new race of American women, “associated with crass materialism, incorporation, commercialization, and a lack of cultivation” is the root cause for Wharton’s own dislike of American culture (Griffith 78). Evidently materialistic, it is of interest to note Griffith’s characterization of the new American woman as one who lacks cultivation, which otherwise can be thought of as a lack of culture. Undine’s indistinct relation to culture leads one to consider if tacking her as the poster-child of the American identity is accurate; in fact, the lack of cultivation described of Undine relates to Ralph’s delineation of the new race as “invaders,” a nomadic class of people who if anything lack clear cultural identities: “Americans seemed a breed of restless wanderers, ever seeking elbow room or speculative profits over the next horizon” (Griffith 79). This statement is particularly true of Moffatt, who is a chief example of the nomadic drifter turned millionaire that characterized the race of invaders: “Yet apparently in those idle Apex days, while he really seemed to be ‘loafing and fooling,’ as her father called it, he had really been sharpening his weapons of aggression” (120). The Western wanderer that had come to represent Wharton’s racial otherness had been a realistic fear of the likes of the van der Luydens and Lawrence Selden. However, it was not so much distinctive physical qualities that caused the upper class to recoil, but the thought of having their dominance in society overtaken and influenced by those races denigrated as lesser.
The principal problem that the New York race confronts is how to distinguish “good” blood: “The language of blood was meant to ground racial identity on some surer biological principle than appearance; on the other hand, the ‘race’ of one’s ‘blood’ was impossible to determine without reference to appearance” (Griffith 88). Inheritance and familial relation were to New York as a clock is to telling time; both are absolute measures to indicate truth. With the influx of a class of people who were also white and therefore similar-looking to Old New Yorkers, the question of race as either biologically or socially constructed became complicated. It was not until Wharton’s publication of Summer (1917), her first postwar work of fiction, that she modifies her definition of race as one chiefly concerned with inheritability, to one that gave consideration to biological differences. For example, Charity’s unknown origins are one point of which her racial lineage is debated: “She had been ‘brought down from the Mountain’…Charity was not very clear about the Mountain; but she knew it was a bad place, and a shame to have come from…” (Wharton 6). In addition to her questionable origins, Wharton’s description of Charity’s complexion is perhaps the delineating factor that places her narrative in contrast to the dominant white narratives spearheaded by prewar female protagonists like Lily Bart or May Welland. Charity’s swarthy face and consistent comparisons to Annabel Balch (the archetypal white woman) demonstrates how Wharton “wrote as a raced writer” (Totten 63). Gary Totten in “‘Inhospitable Splendour’: Spectacles of Consumer Culture and Race in Wharton’s Summer” suggests that by describing Charity as “swarthy,” Wharton is contextualizing her own shifting definition of race: “A word such as ‘swarthy’ invoke[s] connections that were being made between evolutionary progress and race, as well as the belief of Anglo-Saxon origins of American culture” (63). Therefore, in creating a spectacle around Charity’s racial identity, Wharton further suggests personal support of the historically white American identity, which Charity outright challenges when she comes to North Dormer.
By Lawyer Royall “adopting” Charity and bringing her to North Dormer, he completes a cycle that is never truly broken within Wharton’s fiction. Though Wharton’s postwar fiction including Summer and Twilight Sleep explicitly refer to complexion as a delineating factor between races more so than her prewar fiction, Summer’s conclusion follows suit of Wharton’s fear of committing racial suicide by consummating the incestuous relationship between Lawyer Royall and Charity, thus having Charity “renew and regenerate the New England regional family” (Kassanoff 139). In keeping with her arguments on race, Wharton, throughout her fiction, maintains the notion that the continuation of a bloodline trumps other responsibilities as it ensures successive lineal power.
Overall, Edith Wharton invokes class, geographical location, ancestral history, gender, and mannerisms all underneath the umbrella of race. Particularly in The Custom of the Country, Wharton demonstrates how at the turn of the century, the likelihood of Old New York welcoming the changing American identity represented by newcomers like Undine Spragg was tentative; instead, they reverted back to keeping their immediate race thriving by concentrating on propagating the bloodlines. Ultimately, Wharton depicts the anxieties of twentieth–century New Yorkers from a naturalist perspective, in which any and all lengths are taken to ensure the survival of the fittest—upper-class New York.
Griffith, J.C. “‘Lita is-Jazz’: The Harlem Renaissance, Cabaret Culture, and Racial Amalgamation in Edith Wharton’s ‘Twilight Sleep.’” Studies in the Novel 38.1 (2006): 74-94.
Kassanoff, Jennie Ann. Edith Wharton and the Politics of Race. New York; Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press, 2004
Orlando, Emily J. “Irreverent Intimacy: Nella Larsen’s Revisions of Edith Wharton.” Forthcoming in Twentieth-Century Literature.
Totten, Gary. “Inhospitable Splendour”: Spectacles Of Consumer Culture And Race In Wharton’s “Summer.” Twentieth Century Literature 58.1 (2012): 60-89. Literary Reference Center Plus. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.
Wharton, Edith. Summer. Ed. Elizabeth Ammons. New York: Penguin, 1993. Print.
Wharton, Edith. The Custom of the Country. Ed. Linda Wagner-Martin. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.
Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. New York: Penguin, 1993. Print.