Monday, February 29, 2016

the lines have the value of color - a Wharton short story rummage

I  had thought that  the only Edith Wharton I had read until now was Citizen Kane, but no, I had read but forgotten the story that leads off The Greater Inclination, Wharton’s first book.  The story is “The Muse’s Tragedy” (1899), and it is notable as, from the title on to the end, as a commentary on or parody of Henry James.  A young poet meets the still young muse of a great old, deceased poet.  What effect will she have on him?  Poems, a book about the older poet?  Instead they fall into a love affair, in Italy, where else.  “The Aspern Papers” meets “The Author of ‘Beltraffio’” meets a number of other James tales.

The story is written like James, too, early James, not like the contemporary What Maisie Knew or The Turn of the Screw but James from twenty years earlier.  The first line:

Danyers afterward liked to fancy that he had recognized Mrs. Anerton at once; but that, of course, was absurd, since he had seen no portrait of her – she affected a strict anonymity, refusing even her photograph to the most privileged – and from Mrs. Memorall, whom he revered and cultivated as her friend, he had extracted but the one impressionist phrase: “Oh, well, she’s like one of those old prints where the lines have the value of color.”

It is also the first paragraph, though, which is not so Jamesian.  Wharton’s Jamesianism is simplified, or is the right word clarified, not just in style but character, theme.  The muse’s tragedy is that her story is not her own, so Wharton gives her a story of her own.  Although, strictly speaking, it is also an invention.

“Souls Belated” is a divorce story, one of several I have come across recently.  A couple is vacationing in Italy, traveling as husband and wife, not married yet, but waiting for a divorce to be finalized.  Even in 1899, Wharton does not treat this situation as especially shocking.    More shocking is the person in their train compartment, “a courtly person who ate garlic out of a carpet-bag” – not at all Jamesian.  Sometimes Wharton sounds more like Oscar Wilde:

“That’s the worst of it.  She’s too handsome.”

“Well, after all, she can’t help that.”

“Other people manage to,” said Miss Pinsent skeptically.

How about “Eleanor  is porous, and I knew that sooner or later the unnecessary truth would exude through the loose texture of her dissimulation”?  That is from “The Rembrandt,” a preposterous story about a museum curator who overpays for a painting out of cowardice and guilt.  I jotted the line down purely for its odd poetic qualities, its vowels sounds, all of those “u”s, ooh ooh ooh.

There’s some of this, there’s some of that.  “The Rembrandt” is from Wharton’s second collection, Crucial Instances (1901), which I sampled but did not read as a whole.  No, the titles of her story collections are not so good.  Reading Wharton’s short stories as a whole seems like a good project for someone else, as much as I enjoyed the ones I tried.


  1. "The Rembrandt" is pretty good, though it has almost an O. Henry ending. A lot of Wharton's stories seem to have a twist ending, which I guess as a modern reader I see coming from too far away. I'm being awfully hard on Wharton, but there is plenty of good stuff in her stories (at least the ones I've read). Her beginnings are--as you point out--very propulsive and direct, and her middles are often just great. I'll have to find "The Muse’s Tragedy." That one looks pretty fine.

    I think American fiction was going through an awkward stage around the turn of the century. Growing up fast but not really knowing what to do with itself. Lagging behind European fiction, maybe. Certainly not as good as Russian fiction of the time.

  2. Yes, there is a Europe-absorption phase in American literature at that time, more obvious - much more obvious and fast-moving - in poetry but present in fiction, too.

    Stephen Crane was an exception, more original. Charles Chesnutt's "Uncle Julius" stories - published as a book in this same year, 1899 - were exceptions. Not that I am complaining. Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899!) is Americanized Flaubert, and my only criticism is to ask what took American writers so long.

    The end of "The Rembrandt" is ridiculous, but it has plenty of good bits along the way. "The Muse's Tragedy" is better. I read it long ago in a Norton Anthology of the Short Story, without enough knowledge of James to see what she was doing with him.

  3. Haven't read this book but wanted to say hello! I just wondered if you'd seen my Brooding about the Brontes event which is happening in April, it would be great if you could participate!

  4. I have been needing a goad to read Wildfell Hall. I will see what I can do. There will be no brooding, though. No brooding at Wuthering Expectations, just jolly laughter.

    Good luck with the event, regardless.

  5. Aside: I think short stories from the golden age of short story publication offer readers some of the best reading pleasures, especially for "short attention span" old goats like me; for example, I would rather skip the novels and read the short stories of such diverse writers as Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Crane, James, Cather, Wharton, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and others.

  6. Yes, the run of great American story writers, from oh let's say Washington Irving through John Keene, who I will bet wrote the best American book of short stories published in 2015, is absolutely amazing.

  7. Why do I sense that I've just been patronized and/or insulted? Hmmm. But it could be simply my inability to accurately "read" tone and intent in Blogger comments.

  8. What? You sense wrong. I'm agreeing with you! The history of American short story writing is incredible.