MLA ROUNDTABLE: Edith Wharton and the Fin de Siècle
Allied Organization: The Edith Wharton Society
7 January 2016, 1:45 pm
Chair/Organizer: Emily Orlando, PhD
Associate Professor of English, Fairfield University
President, Edith Wharton Society
1) “Aborigines, Aristocrats and Apex: Narratives of Culture(s) in Wharton’s Custom of the Country”
Eric Aronoff, PhD
Associate Professor of English, Michigan State University
In Custom of the Country, Ralph Marvell famously contemplates the difference between the moral and aesthetic order represented by Old New York families like his, and the flamboyant tastes of the newly wealthy class whose fortunes are made through Wall Street speculation: designating his parents’ generation “the Aborigines,” after “those vanishing denizens of the American continent doomed to rapid extinction with the advance of the invading race,” he concludes that “the ideals of aboriginal New York…were singularly coherent and respectable as contrasted with the chaos of indiscriminate appetites which made up its modern tendencies.”
While Ralph here articulates a nostalgic narrative of cultural decline, in which cultural and aesthetic “coherence” is replaced by “chaos,” what Wharton’s language here really suggests is the “chaos” of the concept of culture itself in the fine de siècle. Here, Wharton intertwines at least two of the dominant conceptions of culture at the turn of the century, together capturing both the specter of degeneration and the hope of progress — Matthew Arnold and E.B. Tylor: on the one hand, Ralph draws on an Arnoldian model of “culture” as a universal hierarchy of taste and refinement, in relation to which (in this case) modernity represents aesthetic “anarchy.” At the same time, Arnold would not have recognized “Aborigines” as having “culture” in his sense of the term. That expansion of the term, to cover a “whole way of life” of any group, emerged most influentially from the ethological work of Tylor, Primitive Culture (1871), which extended the idea of culture to (as the title suggests) “primitive” societies. In doing so, however, Tylor articulates an evolutionary, progressive theory of “culture,” counter to Arnold’s romantic theory of cultural decline. Arnold would not have recognized “aboriginal culture,” but Tylor would certainly not recognized the move from “aboriginal” to modern “culture” as a narrative of decline. In combining the two, Ralph indexes the shifting sense of culture as such, a shift that is part and parcel of the shifting aesthetic and social values in fine de siècle America that he – and Wharton — wrestle with.
In this paper, then, I will argue that, far from being a nostalgic narrative of cultural decline, the novel is itself a contemplation of competing narratives of culture itself, from the humanistic Arnoldian conceptions of culture, to evolutionary ethnology, to ideas of culture relativism emerging in American anthropology in precisely this period . Wharton was writing in a period in which, as historians of anthropology have argued, the idea of culture itself was undergoing intense debate and transformation, as 19th Century conception of culture as an evolutionary process of technical sophistication, or of “the best that has been thought and said,” competed with new conceptions of culture as plural, relative “whole” systems of meaning, developed most influentially by anthropologist Franz Boas and his work on precisely the “Aboriginals” to whom Ralph refers. Wharton’s novel, I will suggest, is an extended contemplation of the different narratives these competing conceptions of culture make available. Wharton, I will argue, ultimately substitutes that nostalgic narrative with a narrative of cultural pluralism and difference, with at least the possibility, by the end of the novel, that Apex represents not merely the absence of “culture,” but its own “culture,” as a coherent system of values and manners. Wharton’s narrative moves from a narrative of decline in the first phase of the novel, where Ralph’s “refinement” is nostalgically contrasted to the new, anarchic behavior of Undine and her fellow nouveau riche, to an narrative of cultural pluralism, where Undine can imitate, but never fully inhabit, the self-enclosed traditions of French aristocracy, whose rules and traditions are cast as a “whole way of life.” The final phase of the novel moves from the contrast between French aristocratic “way of life” and the absence of a corresponding “American” culture, to the emergence of Apex as its own “culture” in this model of cultural pluralism, with Elmer Moffett—the millionaire art collector who collects both out of acquisitiveness and a sense of aesthetic appreciation, and defender of Apex as a “way of life” (“we’re differently made out in Apex”)—as its herald.
2) “Flirting with Naturalism: The Undecidable Temporality of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth”
Myrto Drizou, PhD
Assistant Professor of English, Valdosta State University
In The House of Mirth, Lily Bart describes her relation to society as an “intricate dance” that asks her to “calculate and contrive, and retreat and advance,” measuring her intentions against her impulses, so as not to fall “out of time” (38). Although critics have analyzed the failure of Lily’s management between intentions and impulses as a result of her commodification on the marriage market, they have not fully developed what remains a rather understudied aspect of the novel, namely, the narrative connections between time and fate that emphasize the impossibility of managing the social tempo. A careful analysis of the temporal dynamic that orchestrates Lily’s attempt to negotiate the urgency of her impulses against the caution of her intentions yields valuable insight into Wharton’s engagement with naturalism. While naturalist tropes, such as fate and chance, evoke evolutionary paradigms—a major topos in Wharton criticism—they allow a negotiation between urgency and deferral that helps Wharton challenge the teleology of the naturalist plot of decline: The House of Mirth imputes an undecidable temporality to fate that Wharton uses metonymically for the impossibility to capture the present moment and delimit future possibilities. Whereas this impossibility makes Lily vulnerable to the vicissitudes of chance, it helps her reflect on a question she would have been unable to ask, that is, why she has failed to fulfill the social fate of the lady of leisure. Wharton keeps this question open, affirming Lily’s death as the embodiment of a dynamic inquiry that echoes her own engagement with naturalism: instead of taking determinism for granted, Wharton turns it into a chance to redefine agency as the decision to “go on living” (251) beyond the predictable future of class and gender roles.
3) “‘I Can’t See Through Any Eyes But His’: The Queer Affiliations of Wharton’s ‘The Spark’”
Meredith Goldsmith, PhD
Associate Professor of English, Ursinus College
This paper argues for a reading of The Spark, the third novella in Wharton’s Old New York collection (1924), in light of fin-de-siècle representations of Walt Whitman. Enjoying a strange relation to the other texts in the Old New York collection, The Spark is ostensibly linked to the 1860s, the period during which the novella’s protagonist, Hayley Delane, served in the Civil War. As the novella reveals, Delane was nursed by Walt Whitman during his tenure in the Washington Convalescent Hospitals, an unusual subject matter and historical moment in Wharton’s corpus. Despite its retrospective material, the story is set in the 1890s and narrated from a later period, estranging it chronologically from the mostly antebellum material of the Old New York collection.
Yet, as I will argue, the turn-of-the-century context offers new insight into this underappreciated novella. The story turns on not only a revelation of Whitman’s role in Delane’s life, but in a scene of homosocial reading, in which the bachelor protagonist and Delane bond over the text of Leaves of Grass. I contextualize the story against not only Wharton’s reading of Whitman, but in relation to a series of texts that circulated shortly after Whitman’s death that attempted to address the poet’s sexuality, some of which Wharton owned. Through a reading of Delane’s memories of Whitman in wartime, the protagonist’s veneration of Whitman in the story’s 1890s present, and Wharton’s own engagement with Whitman, as evident in her published writing and personal library, I argue that Wharton samples the critical conversation that repositioned Whitman as a gay cultural icon. While the 1890s might be seen as a conventional site for the questioning of male normativity, The Spark points backward from the 1890s to the 1860s, revealing a homoerotic dimension within the homosocial culture of the Civil War. Wharton’s depiction of Whitman allows her to bridge the novella’s multiple moments, revealing the fin-de-siecle as an important and underappreciated cultural moment for the novella and for the Old New York collection more generally.
4) “Feeling ‘Beyond!’: Affective Perversity and the Map of Utopia”
Shannon Brennan, PhD
Lecturer, UCLA Writing Programs
“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at…”
-Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”
“‘Oh, my dear—where is that country? Have you ever been there?’”
-Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
The fin-de-siécle was a period shot-through with utopian imaginings. Readers of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, dabblers in H.P. Blavatsky’s Theosophy, visitors to the World’s Columbian Exhibition: all gazed upon a prospective world at whose perfection they might marvel, and in whose promise they might dare to believe. Such belief was not affectively neutral. It demanded that most stereotypically American of attitudes, optimism. Ironically, this is the same cultural moment that saw the publication of scores of articles dedicated to explaining the dominance of pessimism, an attitude frequently ascribed to literary naturalism, and, in particular, to the work of Edith Wharton.
Drawing on recent critical theory by José Esteban Muñoz, Lauren Berlant, and Sara Ahmed, I suggest that Edith Wharton’s work challenges these affective and aesthetic couplings. Wharton’s “map of the world” frequently has a place for utopia – whether in the “Beyond!” of Lily Barth’s seal, the West of Ethan Frome’s imagination, or the ship Utopia that Mrs. Lidcote of “Autre Temps” laments “was a slow steamer.” In her novels, gothic fictions, and pedagogies of design, Wharton suggests that productive visions of elsewhere might be elaborated through perverse affects like terror and foreboding as much as hope – even as short stories like “The Descent of Man” evince a surprising sanguineness to meet metaphysical disappointments. Resisting readings that emphasize Wharton’s irony and her pessimism, then, this paper makes a case for what we might call Wharton’s affective perversity: her transformation of the emotional, formal, and ideational models through which were produced the fin-de-siécle “utopia” and its opposites.
 See, for instance, James A. MacArthur’s reference to Wharton’s “salutary pessimism” in Harper’s Weekly (2 December 1905), John Updike’s discussion of her “moral poise and cosmic pessimism” in The New Yorker (4 October 1993), Elizabeth Ammons’s discussion of her “pessimism about American women’s lives” in Conflicting Stories (1992) and Margot K. Louis’s extended discussion of pessimism, Wharton, and the Persephone myth in Persephone Rises (2009).
5) “Against Aestheticism: Wharton’s Sentimental Artists”
Madeleine Vala, PhD
Associate Professor, University of Puerto Rico
Edith Wharton’s representations of the artistic world and her personal connections to artists and writers have been well documented by critics, but her connection to Oscar Wilde remains unknown. Hermione Lee mentions that the mother of Wharton’s fiancé, Henry Stevens, entertained Wilde at dinners parties in his 1882 visit to America, which Donna Campbell mentions as strengthening the possibility that Wharton may have met Wilde in 1882. While there is no definitive trace of Wharton having ever met Wilde, she would have been cognizant of his works. Indeed, Walter Berry gave her a copy of Wilde’s poems; Morton Fullerton knew Wilde before his affair with Wharton; and, with many friends of her circle knowing and responding to Wilde’s work, it seems plausible that she would have been aware of his aesthetic beliefs.
This paper examines the ways that Wharton’s short stories champion the sentimental value of paintings over their aesthetic values, and how this value of portraiture challenges the aesthetic philosophy presented in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). In texts such as “The Portrait,” “The Moving Finger,” and “The Rembrandt,” paintings secure sentimental bonds, even at the expense of aesthetic merit. Rather than expose an unpleasant truth about the sitter (as often occurs in Henry James’ tales), Wharton’s portrait painters are moral agents who consciously sabotage their masterpieces in order to protect their sitters or patrons. While Wilde’s famous preface to his novel reads, “No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style,” Wharton’s short stories condone the fake painting and the “bad” portrait as markers of ethical sympathy. This essay concludes by exploring the extent to which Wharton’s representations of art consciously separate her aesthetic ideals from the art for art’s sake doctrine of aestheticism.