Friday, 06 July 2007

Simple Question: Do I Knock the Wind from You? I need to know whether this graph works: Paulina Anson, the protagonist of Edith Wharton’s “The Angel at the Grave” (1901), sits in “throbbing silence” as the publisher of her grandfather Orestes’ philosophical treatises rejects the biography she had spent ten years writing. “It has been a long time for the public to wait,” she admits. “They haven’t waited,” the gentleman replies, “they’ve gone off, taken another train” (261). Which train they took becomes apparent when a young man, George Corby, later arrives at Anson House and informs Paulina he “had the deuce of a time finding out where [Orestes] lived” (266). Orestes’ name had once been of equal stature to men who biographies only mention him in passing as “the friend of Emerson” or “the correspondent of Hawthorne” (262). His house had once been “The House,” a “place of worship” (256) a man whose thought scaled “the cloudy heights of metaphysic” (255). Public desire for “the rarified air of the abstract” (257) had flagged in the years since Orestes’ death, as Paulina learned when she pitched his biography. When Corby declares his intent to write an article, she chokes on her words: “Then you believe in him?” “Believe in him,” Corby cries, “Why, I believe he’s simply the greatest—the most stupendous—the most phenomenal figure we’ve got!” (266). Paulina sees in Corby a chance to redeem the reputation of her grandfather’s “Titanic cosmogony” (257). Scanning the yellowing tomes on the shelf before her, she tells Corby that no one has spoken of her grandfather thus since she was young. “When you were young?” he asks, clearly confused, “But how did they know [when] his pamphlet—the pamphlet—the one thing that counts, that survives, that makes him what he is” was never published. Paulina sees the shelves packed with things that count, that survive, that make her grandfather what he is, and echoes Corby’s confusion: “I don’t think I understand what you mean” (266). “Why, his account of the amphioxus [in which] he actually anticipated Saint Hilaire’s theory of the universal type, and supported the hypothesis by describing the notochord of the amphioxus as a cartilaginous vertebral column.” Paulina falters, “It’s an animal, isn’t it—a fish?” (267). My introduction depends on capturing the effect of Wharton's sucker punch, as I want to emphasize the shift from the metaphysical American Renaissance lot to the scientific-minded Spencerians and Darwinians. I've tinkered endlessly, but I don't think the eruption of scientific jargon above carries quite the same weight as it does in the story—not that it could, mind you, but I ought to be able to muster a decent enough simulacrum.

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