Sunday, 08 July 2007

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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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Referred to the Department of Committees on Departmental Committees and Welsh Rabbit Fiction Statistics As promised, the best of the editorial responses to The House of Mirth controversy: This is to answer the reader "Lenox," who wrote the answer to the reader "Newport," in which he accused her of being feminine, (but not a lady,) and followed this gallantry by taking up a "cudgel"—evidently then himself not altogether a "gentle"-man. "Uncalled for remarks," is good. If "Newport's" remarks on "The House of Mirth" were "uncalled for," who called for the remarks of "Lenox" on the remarks of "Newport"? (Referred to Committee on Public Literary Privileges.) If "Newport's" frank comments on "The House of Mirth" constitute a "torrent of ill-merited abuse," (a "stick"—printer's parlance,) what is the general public to consider the comment of "Lenox" on the comment of "Newport" (two "sticks" of noisy personal assault, opening with a "cudgel"?) (Referred to Committee on Torrents and Misconduct in the "Muse's Bower.") If the "large majority" voice the sentiments of "Lenox" in regard to "The House of Mirth," who says so besides "Lenox"—and how can he prove it? (Referred to Committee on Literary Mysteries and Welsh Rabbit Fiction Statistics.) If "Newport" hash never moved in real Newport circles, what difference does it make, and who worries about what "Lenox" suspects in regard to "Newport's" position as concerns wealth and the exhibition thereof? (Referred to Philip Burne-Jones, who found the ladies of Newport elegant, but unindividual.) If "Lenox," by his own modest implication, does belong to the "inner circle of society," where is his "hall-mark" of poise and courtesy which is supposed to be the attainment of the highly cultured—surely not worn on the lapel. (Referred to Committee on Literary Heraldry.) If the "extravagant phrases of an army of reviewers" is strong proof of the merits of "The House of Mirth," what becomes of Matthew Arnold's theory that the minority verdict is logically the true one? (Referred to Committee on the Value of Literary Opinions from People Who Can Read Everything.) If "women are not apt to spare each other," what should be done to the men who do not spare the women? (Referred to Board of Literary Etiquette and Arbitration Between Critics Who Get Too Much Worked Up.) N.B. (Uncalled-for Remark)—If Mrs. Edith Wharton has a "Henry Jamesy style," that style exists—as do all imitations—in a weaker degree which does not impress or mislead those who enjoy and appreciate Mr. Henry James in his "better sorts." The elegant tables and chairs of Mr. Henry James grow, so to speak, on his stage. The elegant tables and chairs, and the Newport personages of Mrs. Wharton's conceptions, seem to be introduced with the nouveau riche air of an exhibitor. "See what elegant tables and chairs I am showing you. My characters are all born to the First Circles. Their conduct and morals may not be always above criticism, but they are all men and women of high breeding, I do assure you." (Referred to the Committee on Protecting Rash Remarks of the American Literary Female from the Cudgels...

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