Saturday, 16 June 2007

Some Names I Understand, But... Following on the heels of yesterday's inquiry: Almost all these young Americans gave each other pet names or short names. Edith was "Lily," and sometimes "John," as well as Puss or Pussy. (60) "Lily" and "Pussy" I understand, but "John"? Why would she have been nicknamed "John"? This hammers home something I've thought since I started working on Wharton: the rich really are different. I know nothing about their society, and the research I've done on American culture in Wharton's time (as well as the moments she represents in her novels) bears little to no relation to the culture of the circles in which she moved. For example: I have absolutely no idea why every wealthy family in New York aired out their mansions on 15 October. Not a clue. This type of what Wharton will call "tribal" behavior pertains to a tribe about which I know nothing. Another example: Ward McAllister. Seems like I should've run across the name before—and I probably have, but so removed are he and his from the concerns I've been researching, the name never stuck. As for who McAllister was, this note on him from The Musical Times (1 November 1894) captures him nicely: A case of give and take! My. Ward McAllister, autocrat of New York "society": "I like Wagner in a good box at the Opera in New York or Paris, with a house brilliantly lighted up and full of handsome women in opera dress, where one can while away Wagner's long and stupid recitals by whispering pleasant things to charming women."
Pennies from Heaven, Fall into My Lap When I set my new chapter-per-month schedule, I knew I'd socialize less, sleep less, watch less television—but I also knew I'd be unable to produce quality work without some dumb luck. No researching for months and months before finding the best quotation in the history of everything; I'd need critical evidence self-glomerating into compelling arguments at breakneck speed. You can understand, then, why I'm demoralized by my discovery of the isolation of New York "society" from American society at large.* You can also understand why I'm elated that Edith Wharton underlined the following passage in Haeckel's The History of Creation: Individuals can transmit, not only those qualities which they themselves have inherited from their ancestors, but also the peculiar, individual qualities which they have acquired in their own life. Now, underscoring is no more of an endorsement than, say, linking, but it means establishing her familiarity with the neo-Lamarckian strain of evolutionary thought will be a cinch. All I need do now is determine where she stands on these issues, and I'll be set. I'll have this thing done in no time flat. Already half-finished, it will be, sometime soon, I hope. *The upper reaches barely even considered themselves American. Wharton wrote of her friends, "we are none of us Americans, we don't think or feel as the Americans do, we are the wretched exotics produced in a European glass house." The emphasis on "we" and use of the phrase "the Americans" point to future difficulties in establishing her take on social evolution, but as that milk's yet to be spilled, I'll save my tears for now.

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