Friday, 06 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...

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