Wednesday, May 18, 2016

And then the book’s so full of tenderness – there are such lovely things in it about flowers and children : Wharton criticizes an age of festering pessimism and decadent depravity

Two more Edith Wharton stories from The Descent of Man (1904).  That ought to do it.  They are a pleasure to revisit.

Two New York stories, both comic stories about writers.  Wharton had been publishing almost a book a year since 1899; five years on is about the right time to start mocking writers.

“The Descent of Man” is practically relevant.  An entomologist – “the distinguished microscopist” – has become disgusted by pop science books, particularly their specious ethical arguments and palliative attempts to prove that God is not dead and so on.  He writes his own, but as a parody, a hoax.  It becomes a best-seller. 

“Why you fit in everywhere – science, theology, natural history – and then the all-for-the-best element which is so popular right now.  Why, you come right in with the How-to-Relax series, and they sell way up in the millions.  And then the book’s so full of tenderness – there are such lovely things in it about flowers and children.”  (26)

Wharton perhaps expresses some contempt for the reading public in this passage.

The microscopist begins “’a series of “Scientific Sermons” for the Round-the-Gas-Log column of The Woman’s World.” He gives “hundred-dollar interviews on every subject.”  He does product endorsements – “his head passed in due course from the magazine and the newspaper to the biscuit-tin and the chocolate-box.”  Only the last move seems outlandish, from a different world.  Richard Dawkins does not have a line of snacks (he doesn’t, does he?).

The man of reason is ruined by his success, poisoned by money.  The descent Wharton saw in Charles Darwin’s title is entirely ethical.

“Expiation” gives us a lady novelist, her first book just published.  It has a racy title, Fast and Loose, and “’handle[s] the subject without gloves’” whatever the daring subject might be (she “show[s] up the hollowness of social conventions”).  Mrs. Fetherel fears that her book will be “’denounced by the press,’” by which she means she hopes it will be a scandal, and therefore a success.  The first obstacle comes with the first review:

“’In this age of festering pessimism and decadent depravity, it is no surprise to the nauseated reviewer to open one more volume saturated with the fetid emanations of the sewer ---“’

Fetherel, who was not in the habit of reading aloud, paused with a gasp…

‘”Of the sewer,”’ her husband resumed; ‘”but his wonder is proportionately greater when he lights on a novel as sweetly inoffensive as Paula Fetherel’s ‘Fast and Loose’…  Let no one be induced by its distinctly misleading title to forego the enjoyment of this pleasant picture of domestic life, which, in spite of a total lack of force in character-drawing and of consecutiveness in incident, may be described as a distinctly pretty story.”’  (97-8)

Poor Mrs. Fetherel!  Earlier, she had been “so afraid of being misunderstood,” since she was “in advance of my time… like poor Flaubert” (83, ellipses in original), like “Ibsen or Tolstoi.”  But things will work out all right with the help of her uncle the Bishop, who is also an author (“’The Wail of Jonah’ (twenty cantos in blank verse)” – Wharton has so much fun in this story that she is not averse to hideous puns and other jokes.

The Bishop was very fond of his niece Mrs. Fetherel, and one of the traits he most valued in her was the possession of a butler who knew how to announce a bishop.  (86) 

At this point, comic Wharton is my favorite Wharton mode, and writers are endlessly mockable.


  1. "The wail of Jonah" - groan - pretty paronomastic!

  2. If Dawkins doesn't have a line of snacks, he ought to. They could sell them at Trader Joe's as "Dawkins' Scientifically Sound Treats" or something....

  3. The pun is terrible! Much of my judgment of the Bishop character is based on that pun. He never redeems it, I'll tell you that.

    The line about scientist-endorsed snacks sounded ridiculous when I thought it, but plausible once I wrote it.

  4. Beckett's bitter and tart brownies
    Kafka's insect and oats protein bars
    Faulkner's rye glazed cornbread cookies
    E. L. James's pheromone laced ladyfingers
    Murakami's cheese and miso puffs

  5. Brutal, the Murakami is brutal. Or not - how I love cheese.

  6. Is "Expiation" the one where the novelist gets the Bishop to condemn her book, helping it become a best seller? That one's hilarious. Because it's true. I need someone well-known to call my fiction wicked.

    I agree about comic Wharton. It's sharp, biting comedy, and it sure is funny. Hard to believe she also wrote Ethan Frome. I haven't been brave enough to try any of her other novels yet.

  7. That's right. And there's also the cousin who writes books about birds and thinks everyone else is crazy.

    I'll try House of Mirth soon and see how that goes. It'd better be funny!

    1. Rodney Dangerfield in a shirtwaist and a Derby-day hat! Plus romance! Is my prediction.

  8. "Where's the mirth? I was promised mirth! Mirth me!"