This recent essay on Wharton's House of Mirth is disquieting. Methodologically, I find no fault. It delves into the archives in order to demonstrate that
Wharton's contemporaneous, striving, middle-class readers would have noted not just Lily's charm but also its instrumentality. Her liminal position in her social set would not have escaped them; indeed, it would have been crucial for their identification with her. Although Lily does not have the wealth or position required for full membership in high society, her accomplishments make her an indispensable member of her set. By arguing that the choices she makes, which in the rhetoric of the novel ostensibly speak to her free will, are in fact constrained by an unaccountably sadistic author, the readers of The House of Mirth who want to identify with Lily while maintaining social ambitions can overlook Wharton's criticism of those who already occupy the heights.
This conclusion smartly reconciles the problems dogging anyone who would account for the novel's popularity. Still, there's a problem: the author draws this conclusion from the "regrettably meager existing documentary evidence of reader reactions to the novel." What evidence does exist—largely from the "Reader's Forum" of The New York Times—doesn't necessarily support the conclusions the author draws from it. Before I plunge into minutiae, indulge me this one meta-point:
Always check the sources of your sources, lest you be brought up on charges of conspiring to commit felony misprision.
Meta-point concluded. Onward:
The early editorial letters address The House of Mirth as it's being serialized in Scribner's Magazine from January to November 1905. Far from being sympathetic, the first letter I can find is positively Veblenian:
Lily Bart, who seems to be the heroine of Mrs. Wharton's story, is apparently capable of better things, but she is one of those young women, like so many others of our time, who are brought up in the lap of luxury, and who can see no possible good in the lives of the great middle class; people of moderate means, whose incomes do not allow them to play bridge for large stakes, and go rattling about the country killing people in big automobiles. If the people in Mrs. Wharton's story are real people (and they certainly give one that impression) it is about time that the so-called "Four Hundred" should e deprived of their prestige as leaders. Their one idea seems to be to spend money and make a display, and they are apparently utterly selfish and indifferent to the things that some of us, who were taught to value the New England conscience, care for, even in these degenerate days. Certainly this story is about as scathing a revelation of "society" as one might wish to read.
—Florence Montgomery, Glen Ridge, N.J. April 5, 1905
In April, the "meager existing documentary evidence" points to a sharp criticism of the "Four Hundred" and all associated with them, including Lily Bart. The next response scolds Montgomery's invocation of "the New England conscience," not because he disagrees with it, but because it prevents the type of exposure which, the writer believes, "titillated" Montgomery in the first place:
Let us, I protest, pack the outgrown and ossified New England conscience in cotton and gently consign it to the skeleton closet, only showing it at rare intervals, as a bugaboo to scare young writers, as the thing that caused the writing of more untruths in literature, more weak half-truths, and more full-fledged wishy-washy tom-rot than any other bogey that, for fifty years, has kept other Mrs. Whartons from writing other such excellent, because true, novels as "The House of Mirth."
—James K. Hana, Flushing, New York City, April 15, 1905
Hana notes, earlier, that the Four Hundred are "doubtless justly" portrayed, which contradicts the author's claim that "writers initially took sides based on whether they believed the smart set of Wharton's novel accurately mirrored contemporaneous New York society." From what I can tell, writers initially expressed outrage without sympathy, both at the Four Hundred and their fictional counterparts. The question is what has prevented "other Mrs. Whartons" from exposing high society sooner, to which Hana answers "the New England conscience." Come October, the author's argument proves true (even if "initially" is somewhat misleading). Before I quote the important section of this letter, I want to share its opening:
As usual, Mrs. Edith Wharton has written an interesting book—interesting in story and in style. She has also given it a good title. The milieu in which she has placed her dramatis personae is fascinating.
What teacher can't anticipate the quality of what follows?
Her heroine, Lily Bart, is presented with all the art to the reader's interest to which Mrs. Wharton is mistress, and in spite of her weakness and errors hold his sympathy to the tragic end, and this, too, in spite of the fact that her position in the story is from first to last a degrading one, and every step she takes, and takes deliberately, is downward to her inevitable doom.
This accords with the author's account of Lily as someone with whom the reader identifies with despite Wharton's condemnation. Or would, but for the rest:
Consciously or unconsciously, [Wharton] has written a sermon that thunders in the index, and reveals to the eyes of the innocent and ignorant, who mistake the white light that beats upon the pampered rich for the sun, the hideous skeleton beneath the gilded trappings. The question arises to those who are only the surface of fashionable life, Is it impossible for the hereditary rich, who hold the world in a sling and have time by the forelock, to be other than brutal and vulgar? ... In a word, "The House of Mirth," with its spacious halls, barren of all nobleness, empty of all high ideals, might truly be called "The House of Dearth."
—M.L. Livingston, Fort Hamilton, October 30, 1905
Livingston's letter is 1) complimentary of the novel, 2) assumes it intends to debase the Four Hundred lifestyle and 3) does so successfully. Although somewhat sympathetic to Lily, Livingston betrays no defense of social ambition. The first outright defense of high society comes, unsurprisingly, from a member of it. Penned by the pseudonymous "Newport"—named for the seasonal stomping ground mentioned on the first page of The House of Mirth—this letter claims:
The motive of the book is low. Instead of a portrayal of society, it is an inaccurate caricature, with the most loathsome qualities always in evidence. I fail to see that the book serves any purpose except to mislead those who are outsiders. One naturally does not look for much moral tone in a novel, but "The House of Mirth" lacks it so completely that it is not pleasant to regard it as the product of a woman's pen. Lily Bart must be slightly blamed and greatly pitied. She pays an impossibly high price for her not ill-intentioned lapses from the convenances. Her career reminds me of the thoroughbred race horse which, after winning the Derby, dies in the shafts of a knacker's cart, through no fault of his own ... I think the whole story produces a bad taste in the mouth, points no moral, and as to the title, it should be changed to "The House of Lies."
—NEWPORT, New York, November 15, 1905
Newport, the Times' editors later clarify, is a man of stature and validates his claim to insider statues ("the book serves [no] purpose except to mislead those who are outsiders"). At issue, then, is the accuracy of Wharton's depiction. Responding to Newport is "Lenox," whose name calls Wharton herself to mind, as it is in Lenox, MA that she built The Mount, where she lived from 1902 until 1911. Lenox first (incorrectly) claims Newport to be a woman, then takes up the insider mantle herself. She knows what the Four Hundred are like, and Wharton's depiction is accurate. The author of the article deftly works through the implications of this argument, both in terms of gender and representation; but left untouched is the fact that this argument occurs not between members of the middle class with pretensions of upward mobility (as did the April exchange), but between two members of the upper-class vying to out-credential the other.
The article's author pitches her analysis on Newport's later claim that "it seems to the plain American that, as Lily and Selden often met for years, and as frequent reference is made to the power of comprehension, they might have 'become known to each other' without waiting until she was dead." Even though the author then admits Newport's idea of "plain" might not correspond to the actual response of members of the middle-class, it's still the evidence on which she pins her theory. This is not to say said theory isn't clever, or even that it's incorrect; it's only to point out that the "meager" evidence doesn't support it, inasmuch as the upper-class can only imagine what the middle-class desires, and given its limited imagination—a source of much contention between Lily and Selden in the novel—I wonder why the author chose it as her keystone.
Moreover, in light of his second letter, I wonder how the author trusted Newport to depict anything at all accurately:
I assume that the purposes of a novel are manifest and manifold. It should have plot enough to enable one nobly to resist the impulse to read the last chapter first; it should mirror with precision the manners, motives, and morals of the dramatis personae of its set, (using that word in the theatrical sense) but, as the good outnumbers the bad in all societies outside of Sing Sing, it should not present only the wicked and the weak, unless the author deliberately desires to convey a wrong impression; it should be constructed with that fine art which detaches the reader from the writer and which saturates the former with interest in the fortunes of the characters between the covers. Here lies, to my mind, one o the inherent and irremediable defects in "The House of Mirth" ... Mrs. Wharton sees the worst side and exploits only that. Confessing that society has its spotted sheep, its scandals, its divorces, why not leave its skeleton in the closet when addressing a larger audience? Society embraces but a very small portion of the American people. Why mislead the masses by bearing before them only the soiled linen of the Four Hundred? ... In society, we regale ourselves with the latest scandal about Mrs. X., but we don't shout it out in a Subway car. It is a case of "noblesse oblige."
—NEWPORT, New York, December 7, 1905
Newport's an aggrieved member of the Four Hundred richest and most powerful people in America, and in these letters he defends his compatriots with stunning unselfconsciousness. For example, he denies the accuracy of Wharton's depiction of their behavior, then admits that "we regale ourselves with the latest scandal about Mrs. X.," which as any disinterested reader of The House of Mirth knows, is precisely what leads to Lily's death. He confesses, then, to engaging in the very behavior he denies exists; chastises Wharton for depicting it on the grounds that it doesn't exist; then claims as noble the fact that he doesn't share with the general public that which doesn't exist, except amongst "society." Get all that?
I can't untangle it either, but I can say that it disinclines me to trust his notion of how the "plain" American responds to Wharton's novel. The author of the article then (rightly) indicts another of the Four Hundred for his response; however, in doing so slips up in a way that further shakes my confidence:
In a similar vein, Joseph Holmes writes from on board the S. S. Crette: "[W]e are not told till nearly the last chapter that Lily was 'heir expectant' to about four hundred thousand dollars. Given this fact earlier, Lily had married Selden and spoiled the story. (Better so.)" It is impossible to fathom where Holmes gets this amount (Lily's total settlement from her aunt's estate was only ten thousand dollars, and we are aware of this amount during the whole of Lily's post–Monte Carlo decline), but the wishful imposition of this plot twist, and the righteous indignation with which Holmes protests its perceived omission, aptly illustrates the degree to which some readers were ready to fault Wharton for arbitrary cruelty.
It's not impossible to fathom where Holmes came up with $400,000, as it comes straight from the novel. Lily thought she was to inherit the sum of her aunt's estate:
"Well, it's only about four hundred thousand," Mrs. [Grace] Stepney rejoined with a yawn."
Then, after "the lawyer droned on through a labyrinth of legacies," Lily
heard her own name—"to my niece Lily Bart ten thousand dollars—" and after that the lawyer again lost himself in a coil of unintelligible periods, from which the concluding phrase flashed out with startling distinctness: "and the residue of my estate to my dear cousin and namesake, Grace Julia Stepney."
Since her disinheritance is of such importance, I can't help but wonder how the author (and her readers) punted that one. It's of no actual consequence to her argument—which, my reservations notwithstanding, I think correct, if inadequately documented—but such mistakes dog my waking hours and haunt my nights. Will I, too, punt the obvious?
So long as I have you fact-checking folk around, I think not. More on that theme later, but for now, I'll bring this post to a close and reward you with the most entertaining letter of the lot in the next.