Thursday, September 6, 2018

reading some best sellers (from a hundred years ago) - "I want to get a general view of the whole problem"

Strange sensations reading American fiction lately.  Positive and negative.  The negative is that I am having a bit of an allergic reaction to The Custom of the Country (1913), both to its subject and style.  First, some impatience with the problems of shallow rich people, and second some with the best-sellerishness of the novel, although I do not know how much of a best seller it really was.  It was not a smash like The House of Mirth (1905).

The list of the best sellers of 1913 is a glimpse of an unknown world.  I have heard of maybe six of the books from the decade's best sellers, and read none.  What am I talking about?

I mean scenes like the one that begins Chapter XV, where two minor characters discuss the Problem of Divorce for four pages, in dialogue worthy of the future Hollywood films that presumably use quality authors like Wharton as their models:

“Are there sides already?  If so, I want to look down on them impartially from the heights of pure speculation.  I want to get a general view of the whole problem of American marriages.”

Or see an earlier scene, in Chapter X, in which two (other) minor characters discuss some financial scandal that presumably affects the plot later – I’m only halfway through the book – I hope everything works out well for everyone.  Wharton is vague about the financial details, understanding them about as well as I do.  The dialogue is pretty much screenplay-ready.

None of this has much to do with most of the novel, the good part, Undine Spragg’s rung by rung climb up the society ladder, at whatever the cost (to others).  All of this is terrific, and fiction is often at its best discovering the inner lives of shallow people, but I am enjoying it from a distance.

The Custom of the Country is the eighth Wharton book I have read within the last year or so.  Most of them have been short story collections.  Perfect commercial American magazine fiction of the first decade of the 20th century.  I enjoy it quite a lot, but I should probably take a break from it once I finish this novel.  Although the next thing Wharton does, chronologically, is to become a great French war hero.  Here I am whining about books about shallow people.

The commercial ideal, come to think of it, was also visible in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first collection of stories, Flappers and Philosophers (1920), where it was immediately obvious why he scored such a hit (This Side of Paradise, his first book, is from the same year).  These stories pop with energy.  They are zingy.  Specifically, the young women, the flappers, are enormous sparkly fun even if the story is fundamentally idiotic.  “The Offshore Pirate,” as an example, in which the flapper is captured by a pirate, ready for an actress to be dropped into the role.    Some kind of parable about Scott wooing Zelda probably.  Anyways, nonsense.  But I can see how readers of the Saturday Evening Post would be pleased to see that the new issue had a Fitzgerald story, just like the Scribner’s readers would feel when they say a Wharton story in the table of contents.  Yes, here’s the good stuff.


  1. Last year, or maybe the year before that, I read a bunch of Wharton and a couple of short collections of Fitzgerald stories. I remember being surprised at how mannered all of the writing was. Active certainly, almost breathless in the Wharton. Another surprise was how heavy-handed the moral lesson was in each story, though maybe that was due to the editor of the NYRB "New York Stories of Edith Wharton" collection and not really representative of the author. I haven't read any of her novels except Ethan Frome, which is awful. She claimed that her formal influence for EF was Browning's The Ring and the Book. Frankly I don't see it, but inspiration is a funny thing.

    Of the authors on the best seller list, I have heard of Frances Hodgson Burnett, but only because meine Frau read The Secret Garden again last year.

    That Winston Churchill apparently sold millions of books in his day, like one book for every 20 people in America. A huge number, everybody knew who he was. I'm almost interested enough to read something of his.

  2. Mannered, yes. The high-end commercial creative prose of the time. Whether Wharton or Fitzgerald were adapting to that mode or it was adapting to them, I don't know.

    The NYRB collection looks pretty representative to me. It omits her ghost stories, I guess. Those are not so different from her regular stories. I have read basically the earliest half of Wharton's stories, so I don't know what happens after 1913, except that she writes some of her most famous stories.

    I don't mind Ethan Frome just for the reason you mention. If the character of interest is the narrator, the engineer who comes across this story and decides to write his own version of it, then the questions are all about why he writes it the way he does. It's a story about the creation of the text, not the contents of the text. Almost no one, in practice, reads the story this way. It is a tale of timeless passion etc. Even read in the Browningish manner, I don't find it that good.

    House of Mirth and Custom of the Country are completely different. Funny and insightful about women in social and family roles. Terrific central characters.

    I realize, looking at what I wrote, that I meant I have heard of maybe six books from the decade of best sellers, not just from 1913. I think I will fix that.

    Winston Churchill, that one, must have at least a little historical interest?

  3. For a couple of years I've actually been working on a novel about America in 1913, and I think Churchill's The Inside of the Cup would be a good thing for me to read. Yes, quite interesting now.

    I don't remember what specifically about Frome I found so irritating, but I was pretty well annoyed with Wharton by the time I finished the book. And it's not a long book, either. Possibly I just wasn't in the mood at that time for something so clearly in the realm of moral fable. I don't remember the narrative frame at all.

  4. There are many possible reasons to find Ethan Frome irritating.

    Winston Churchill, I mean really, that must have been so odd for people later.