Sunday, 08 July 2007

Argument? Check. Evidence? Check. Then What, Exactly, Is The Problem? 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...
Henry James & Fletcherism; or, "The Gospel of Much Chewing" Reading through Wharton's correspondence with Henry James, I came across a passage in which he extols the virtues of "the Fletcher diet." According to L.F. Barker in The New York Times (8 March 1907), its inventor, Horace Fletcher, was refused a few years ago on applying for life insurance because of stomach trouble. That frightened him, and he began to think over the question of what he ate and should eat. He came to the conclusion that food swallowed before it is dissolved is very much in the situation of clinkers in a furnace—likely to cause trouble and the loss of a great deal of energy in getting rid of it ... So he decided to chew everything he ate until it had thoroughly dissolved in his mouth. "The Gospel of Much Chewing," according to the Massachusetts Ploughman and New England Journal of Agriculture (27 February 1904), came to Fletcher when he realized that the malassimilation which causes ["most, if, indeed, not all, of the ills to which humanity is supposed to be heir"] must arise from some voluntary violation of nature's laws, since subconscious action is of necessity in accord with them. As the action of the stomach and lower digestive tract is involuntary, he reasoned that the difficulty must be in the mouth ... and he began at once to study its office in connection with digestion. He soon discovered, among other untabulated physiological facts, that, after he had formed the habit of so thoroughly insalivating his food, both liquids and solids, that it became tasteless, he swallowed it without voluntary effort, and also that he experienced a curious inability to swallow food not so thoroughly masticated; finding that the throat through no act of will closed against that which had not been reduced to the consistency of cream. While making these experiments Mr. Fletcher found that a young garden onion required 722 bites before it disappeared by involuntary swallowing, but that when this was accomplished it left no odor. Simply put, Mr. Fletcher's contention is that the office of the teeth is so to reduce food that each particle can be acted upon by the saliva, which is freed by the action of the mouth for this purpose. By practicing this thorough insalivating of his food, Dr. van Someren ["a practicing physician in Venice"] says that he has been cured of inherited gout and of eczema, frequent boils and severe headaches when all remedies known to the medical profession failed to give him relief ... In fact, he declares that most diseases would disappear if this method of eating was a universal habit. In sum: Henry James praises a method of eating which entails sitting down to a delicious dinner and chewing, chewing, chewing, chewing, chewing until the food loses all flavor and is the consistency of cream. Can you resist the temptation to analogize his post-1900 diet and his post-1900 prose style? I, for one, cannot.

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