Sunday, February 28, 2016

the cedar-chest of indifference, the grace of artificiality - some early Edith Wharton stories

Early Edith Wharton short stories, those are things I have read recently.  I went so far as to read an entire book of them, in non-book form, the 1899 The Greater Inclination.   It is Wharton’s first book, and contains most, not all, of the stories she published during the 1890s, commercial magazine fiction of the time, of the better sort, although that is an easy judgment, since I have an idea of what is to come later.

But no, these stories are good.  One dud in The Greater Inclination, a two scene play about a man who asks his wife to rekindle an old love affair to help him get a political favor.  She is offended – enter old flame – she changes her mind.  French twaddle.  A bit where the characters flirt via metaphor is excruciating although hilarious:

Isabel:  If one has only one cloak [cloak is metaphorical] one must wear it in all weathers.

Oberville:  Unless it is so beautiful and precious that one prefers to go cold and keep it under lock and key.

Isabel:  In the cedar-chest of indifference – the key of which is usually lost.  (“The Twilight of the God”)

That “cedar-chest of indifference” is transcendently bad.  Two lines later there is “an auction sale of fallacies.”  All dialogue, please remember.  A parody of French twaddle, perhaps.  Let’s assume that.  And I remind myself, the sole dud.

More typical is the kickoff of the next story, “A Cup of Cold Water”:

It was three o’clock in the morning, and the cotillion was at its height, when Woburn left the over-heated splendor of the Gildermere ballroom, and after a delay caused by the determination of the drowsy footman to give him a ready-made overcoat with an imitation astrachan collar in place of his own unimpeachable Poole garment, found himself breasting the icy solitude of the Fifth Avenue.

So efficient – name, place, social status via a small but meaningful confusion.  As much as commercial magazine fiction has changed, mostly by becoming much less commercial, there is plenty that does not sound so different.  Well, no one would write “the Fifth Avenue.”

“A Cup of Cold Water” turns out to be a noir.  I mean, “In the unventilated coffee-room they found a waiter who had the melancholy air of being the last survivor of an exterminated race, and who reluctantly brought them some tea made with water which had not boiled,” Raymond Chandler might be okay with that one.  Desperate to marry a woman in the cotillion set, wearing much too nice of a coat for a bank clerk, Woburn has gambled heavily and embezzled a bundle from his bank.  He needs to be on an ocean liner to Europe, but spends the night finding excuses to not skip out quite yet.  The psychology of the character is quite good. 

Later in the night, he meets a dame in distress, and the story suddenly fills up with noir clichés, which were all I know were not yet clichés.  Perhaps they are inexorably generated by the form.  I prefer this description of the rich woman who does poor Woburn in:

Miss Talcott’s opinions had no connection with the actual; her very materialism had the grace of artificiality.  Woburn had been enchanted once by seeing her helpless before a smoking lamp: she had been obliged to ring for a servant because she did not know how to put it out.

This is closer to the Wharton her best readers know, right?  It should be assumed that I am an ignoramus about Edith Wharton.


  1. "A Cup of Cold Water" is one of the stories I read a couple of months ago in the NYRB collection The New York Stories of Edith Wharton! It's one of the better stories in that collection; Woburn's mental state as the night goes on was believable, and it's impressive that (as I recall) Wharton doesn't point out for the reader that all of Woburn's embezzlement and upward-slumming was pointless and empty. Her later stories grew increasingly moralizing, and reading twenty or so in a row put me in a bad mood with the constant harping to become enlightened; the message was too heavy an anchor for the boat of the art (or some less clumsy metaphor). I assume most magazine fiction from that era had a strong "improvement" element, but what do I know.

    I haven't read any of Wharton's novels except that vile Ethan Frome. I hear Age of Innocence is pretty good.

  2. Looking through Wharton story collections, including New York Stories, I saw a heavy tilt towards her later stories. (Because they're better? More confidently Whartonish?) These early ones are not particularly moralizing. Ironic, as you noted with "A Cup of Cold Water."

    Maybe you would find these earlier stories less irritating. I would find calls to enlightenment irritating. I will find etc., because some day I will read some of those later stories.

    The sled story is the only other Wharton I have read, too.

    1. "More confidently Whartonish" is a good guess. The later stories are technically very good. The language is crisp, the characterizations sharp, etc. The humor is quite biting. But I was aware that I was being taught a lesson and in too many of the stories, the hand of the teacher was awfully heavy.

      I'm not sure why I object so much to Wharton's moralizing in these stories. Certainly I believe a writer has a right to her opinion, and can voice that opinion in her art. There's something about the way the moralizing was done that bothered me. As if Wharton was certain I was in need of improvement, as if she was pointing her finger at me, rather than at her characters. It's not the same way the Chekhov wrote about the shortcomings of people. I'll have to look at them again and see just what bugged me.

      Maybe it's like when Tolstoy (always a moralizer) actively tips his hand and says, "Look, you: I am teaching you a lesson here" and he becomes intolerable (e.g. in "The Kreutzer Sonata"). The force of the story drains away and all you're left with is a sermon. That's tiresome.

    2. I read "Kreutzer" recently. I did not really want to write about it, perhaps for reasons like what you mention.

  3. The only Wharton stories I've read are ghost stories. Say what you like about ghost stories, but there's none of your damned morality to them!

  4. A lot of practical advice - leave the strange artifact at the archaeological site, please - but not so much moral teaching.

  5. I do not understand the linkage between Edith Wharton and Citizen Kane. What am I missing?

  6. Maybe I am thinking of a different story about a sled.

    1. My question was intended for your most recent posting, and I apologize for the error and confusion; so, okay, _Ethan Frome_ is the key/connection. If I were smarter I would have understood it immediately. But . . .

    2. How many stories about sleds can there be? It's crazy. Honestly, two examples of sled fiction seems like a lot to me.