Andrew Delbanco is director of American Studies at ColumbiaUniversity and the author, most recently, of Melville: His World andWork (Knopf).
By Hermione Lee
(Alfred A. Knopf, 869 pp., $35)
This past spring, Hermione Lee delivered the Lionel Trilling Seminarat Columbia University on the subject of literary biography ingeneral and the life of Edith Wharton in particular. Such an eventwould not have taken place when I came to the university twodecades ago. In those days, literary theory was all the rage, andbiography was condescended to as an "undertheorized" and thereforeunserious genre--a higher form of gossip that belonged on thebeach- house bookshelf with bodice-rippers and barbecue cookbooks.If a young scholar thought of submitting a biography as his "tenurebook," some more seasoned colleague would have told him what MadameMerle tells Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady: "That is verycrude of you....What do you call [the] self? Where does it begin?Where does it end?"
That was long ago. We are all theorists now, at least in therudimentary sense of conceding that facts do not add up by sheeraccumulation to truth, and that motives are often unknowable, andthat the mysterious force we call the market may be as muchresponsible as the will of the artist for the production andconsumption of works of art. None of these notions is the least bitnew, but their resurgence means that the idea of a "definitive"biography--once a standard term of praise--has been pretty muchdiscarded.
And yet biography is booming again, even in the academy, all themethodological and epistemological skepticism notwithstanding.Hermione Lee is arguably its leading practitioner. A few years ago,in the brief opening sentence of Virginia Woolf's Nose: Essays onBiography, she summed up nicely why the form will always be withus: "We all want stories." And of all the forms of literarycriticism, biography is most likely to deliver what we want:
History, politics, sociology, gossip, fiction, literary criticism,psychoanalysis, documentary, journalism, ethics, and philosophy areall scrambled up inside the genre. But the target of all theseapproaches is a living person in a body ... through all thedocuments and letters and witnesses, the conflicting opinions andpartial memories and fictionalized versions, we keep catching sightof a real body, a physical life: the young Dickens coming quicklyinto a room, sprightly, long-haired, bright-eyed, dandyish, in acrimson velvet waistcoat or tartan trousers .... Rimbaud,dust-covered and scrawny and dressed in baggy grey khaki trousers,leading a caravan of camels across the desert sands of Abyssynia.... Edith Wharton and Henry James, veiled and hatted, tucked upcomfortably in the back of the Panhard behind the chauffeur,exchanging impressions as they zoom along the empty French roads.
It was that last pair with whom Lee was traveling when she wrotethose lines, and now, ten years after the appearance of hermagisterial life of Virginia Woolf, she has delivered a vast lifeof Edith Wharton. It is a post-theory biography--authoritative andtentative at the same time.
The authority is earned. Although Lee once confessed (in her life ofWoolf) to "periodic attacks of archive-faintness," she shows nofaint-heartedness here. She has examined every scrap of writing,private and public, in the Wharton archive, and regrets that thereis not more. (Wharton's letters to Henry James, for instance, wentup in a bonfire at Lamb House, James's home, in 1915.) Theresulting book is an amazingly informed account of friendships,flirtations, marriages, estrangements, divorces, collaborations,jealousies, and generosities mainly among well-to-do Americans who,from the late nineteenth century through the first third of thetwentieth century, journeyed and sojourned with European andEurophile friends, zigzagging across the Continent via holidayresorts, health spas, the estates of friends, and their ownmultiple residences. Along the way, we learn about everything fromWharton's marriage and her compensatory flirtations to her parquetfloors (the pattern was diagonal), the furnishings in her vestibule(there was a blue urn on a pedestal), and the breeds (Pekingese,Pomeranian, Papillon, among others) and names (Mimi, Miza, Jules,and so on) of her dogs.
Over her lifetime of seventy-five years, Edith Wharton, born EdithNewbold Jones in 1862 to a moderately wealthy New York family,spent less and less time in her native city. When she was there,she generally wished to be somewhere else. According to James, shewas a "poor dear goaded wanderer"--beginning with childhood travelsin tow to her parents, later hopping from friend to friend atestates with portentous names like Qu'Acre and Hill Hall, or forcolloquies with James at Lamb House, or with Bernard Berenson at ITatti--sometimes accompanied by her occasionally "violent & scenic"(James's words) husband Teddy, more often without him as he wentoff on his own to such exotic places as India, where the "obsessiveIndian consumption of whiskey and soda" earned hisdisapproval--mainly, one suspects, because of the diluting effect ofthe soda.
Like James, Wharton wrote especially well about Americans in Europe.She knew the subject from within. She kept homes in London and,most happily, in Paris, at No. 53, later No. 58, Rue de Varenne,until the end of World War I, when she moved to the quieterdistrict of Saint-Brice-sous-Foret, where she lived until her deathin 1937. Paris, as she says of a character in a late novel, was her"great traceried window opening on the universe."
The corner of the universe that Wharton knew best was where oldsociety and new money converged. Sometimes the new money belongedto an industrialist from the west, such as Abner Spragg in TheCustom of the Country (1913), whose daughter, Undine, makes herassault first on the society of New York, then of Paris. Sometimesit belonged to an arriviste from the east, such as the Jewishspeculator Simon Rosedale (modeled on August Belmont) in The Houseof Mirth (1905), who lurks around the edges of Old New York lookingfor a point of entry. Wharton wrote about this dance of mutualinspection from the perspective of insiders looking out andoutsiders looking in. All her life she felt a deep distaste for theinvaders, but there was a part of her that welcomed them fordestroying, by adopting for themselves, her natal world.
Early in Lee's biography, she writes of young Edith that she was"held in her world and a watchful stranger to it." And thoughcareful not to identify her in some simplistic way with thefinancially fallen Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, who cannotbring herself to act ruthlessly enough to secure her place in NewYork society, Lee says of Lily something that may be justly said ofWharton: she experienced "movements of spontaneous revulsion fromwhat wraps her round." This simultaneous feeling of coziness andconstraint in the familiar is the keynote of both Lee's biographyand Wharton's fiction--the impulse to savor what we know because itis a part of who we are, while at the same time feeling closed offfrom the possibilities of life because of the suffocating effect ofthe normal and the known.
In telling the story of how Wharton lived with and wrote about thisproblem, Lee sometimes gives too much, at some cost to the flow ofthe narrative. But mostly she spares us the dross and treats us tothe gold. She quotes, for instance, a delicious fragment from 1913,the year of Wharton's divorce from Teddy, who, when he was notviolent and scenic, was, according to James, "pleading, suffering,clinging, helpless." It is a note for a story that Wharton nevergot around to writing:
"Did you know that John and Susan committed suicide together onTuesday?"
"They got married."
The author of this bitter three-liner was known among family andfriends by the hazardous (today, anyway) nickname Puss or Pussy,and a few pages later Lee gives us a letter that Teddy wrote to afriend in which the poor fellow confirms what everyone knew: "I amno good on Puss's high plain [sic] of thought." Evidently, on theevidence of the sexual failure of their marriage, he was no good onthe low plane either--at least not from Puss's point of view.
In this respect, Lee complicates the story told by previousbiographers. In his life of Wharton, published in 1975, R.W.B.Lewis presented her as a sexually starved woman who expressed hersensual nature exclusively in her writing, until--as Lewis was thefirst scholar to discover--she began at the age of forty-six apassionate affair with the bisexually promiscuous Morton Fullerton.Lee agrees with Lewis that Wharton's marriage to Teddy had been, astheir "nosy" (Lee's word) friend the architect Ogden Codmandescribed it, a mariage blanc, and that Fullerton, whom Lee calls"thoroughly Frenchified," was the man who awakened her to sexualpleasure. But Lee also cites a diary, missing for decades until itturned up in a French library in 1991, in which Edith gives a happypicture of a Mediterranean cruise with her husband early in theirmarriage.
This book, in other words, has the courage to be tentative. It doesnot follow other recent biographies--the best-known case is StephenGreenblatt's recent life of Shakespeare--whose authors take licensefrom the demise of the old positivism in order to make up more anddocument less. In the absence of evidence, Lee does not invent.Greenblatt's book is filled with subjunctive constructions like"may have," "could have," and even "must have," as he speculateswithout much warrant about Shakespeare doing this, going there,feeling that. Lee allows herself such formulations only now andthen, and only on minor matters--as when she surmises that, afterJames's death, Wharton "must have felt the loss very acutely" sinceher old friend could no longer praise her for her promotion fromchevalier to officier of the Legion of Honor. In this case, theguess seems a good bet.
Writing with imaginative latitude but within the limits of theevidence, Lee is able to convey a sense of intimacy with Wharton'sinner life. She declines to read backward from a telegram sent whenthey were both in their sixties to Wharton by Walter Berry, anAmerican lawyer and diplomat whom she had known since theirtwenties and who later became her neighbor in Paris. "I've never'wondered' about anyone else," he wrote to her, "and there wouldn'tbe much of me if you were cut out of it." Other biographers haveassumed that Berry preceded Fullerton as Edith's lover, but Leeturns biographical restraint into biographical opportunity:
The lost dream; the missed chance, and the "long run" ofdisappointment and compromise that follows it; the by-passing ofthe one true intimacy; the stifled lifelong longing: these areWharton's subjects, and Walter may have inspired them. But wecannot assume from this one tender (if self-preserving) note froman old friend in his mid-sixties, or from her fiction, that EdithWharton spent the years of her marriage, and the rest of her life,wishing she had been married to Walter Berry. What she felt abouthim changed over the years. And much of what she felt is hiddenfrom us.
The effect of this finely poised prose is to suspend Wharton andBerry between plausible alternatives and, despite our not knowingexactly what they said or felt or meant, to make them vividlypresent.
Lee has an exquisite ear for nuance. When Henry James describes theMount as "a delicate French chateau mirrored in a Massachusettspond," she allows opposing possibilities to co-exist: he was eitherpraising Wharton for importing a work of European refinement intothe American context or mocking her for her provincialism--or morelikely, being James, he was doing both. When Wharton's friend TeddyRoosevelt suffered a carriage accident, Lee reports that somewitnesses heard him call out, with manly fortitude, "I am not hurt,"while others recalled his exclaiming, with petulance and profanity,"This is a damnable outrage." Which was it? Who knows? When Whartonwrote to Fullerton, "You hurt me--you disillusioned me--& when youleft me I was more deeply yours, " what exactly had he done or saidto hurt her? Was it, Lee wonders, "a too obvious sexual approach? acynical remark?" And when, in the aftermath of whatever it was,Wharton writes to James, who writes back with unusual bluntness, "Imove in darkness; I rack my brain," what, Lee asks, had she writtenhim to elicit such a response? The answer went up with her letterin the smoke of the bonfire.
Sometimes the gaps in the record can be maddening. We will neverknow if Edith was within earshot when her friend Robert Norton,strolling with Berenson in Wharton's garden in the south of France,recited a popular postwar English verse: "Here's to the French/Thenoblest of races/Who talk with their hands/And fuck with theirfaces." Alas, some things are irretrievable.
For nearly half a century, Edith Wharton kept a servant who wrote,after his employer's death, that "for forty-nine years it was myprivilege to save her and protect her from household cares, [so]that she could carry on her work in peace." Lee's book is as muchabout the work as it is about the life that made the work possible.In this respect she departs from Lewis, who put his own criticaltalent on hold in his biography, confining himself mostly tosummaries of Wharton's writing and sometimes even seeming a littlebored with it.
Lee, by contrast, gives substantial readings of every major noveland most of the minor ones. From Wharton's first book, TheDecoration of Houses (1897), co-authored with Codman, to herposthumously published memoir, A Backward Glance, and herunfinished novel, The Buccaneers, virtually everything isdiscussed. Lee pays sustained attention to Wharton's undervaluedshort stories, and cites also her seldom-read poetry. She makes avaliant effort to recoup Wharton's wartime writings--not only thosedirectly connected to World War I, such as her novels The Marne(1920) and A Son at the Front (1923), but also such apparentlydisconnected works as the travel book In Morocco (1919) and thenovella Summer (1917), which takes place back in New England, farfrom the killing fields. Written during the years when Whartonthrew herself into relief work on behalf of the orphans, widows,and wounded of France, these books may seem "deviations," but they"carried her wartime concerns" and are "shadowed by violence anddeath."
With great dexterity, Lee moves back and forth between life andwork. She identifies a "sharp in-joke for Fullerton" in The Reef,when two lovers carry on their affair in the Hotel Terminus--acoded reference to Wharton's "bold, agitatedly sexy" poem"Terminus" about sex in a hotel, which she wrote in the aftermathof a secret night with her lover. In "The Last Asset," the oafishAmerican with restaurant French--"Gassong! L'addition, silverplay"--seems a nasty portrait of Teddy. As the novels and thestories scroll by, many such correlations come into view betweenfictional and factual events or between invented characters andactual persons.
But in tying Wharton's writings to her life, Lee is careful not toconstrue them as merely memoir or confession. Thus, althoughWharton "poured her feelings about Fullerton" into The Reef (1912),the novel is revealed in Lee's discussion as an intricately craftedpiece of literary architecture in which "right and wrong areequivocally handled." And sometimes Lee deliberately blurs thedistinction between experience and writing, as in her brilliantaccount of how Wharton conducted the affair with Fullerton as ifshe were experimentally living a story, watching with a writer'seye the ebb and flow of passion even as she experienced it.
Any literary biography is inevitably an act of advocacy, although insome cases--perhaps the best known is Lawrance Thompson's life ofRobert Frost--the book can metamorphose from hagiography todemonology as it moves along. That does not happen here. And anyliterary biographer runs the risk of construing every utterance-- aletter, a diary entry, a reported conversation, or a literary workitself-- as a datum of equal value for reconstructing the subject'slife. If this happens too often, a certain leveling effect can setin and undermine the biographer's critical judgment.
By and large, Lee escapes this risk. Nor does she deny that Whartonwas, to many who knew her, singularly unattractive. W. SomersetMaugham (no bargain himself) found her quick to show "frigiddispleasure" at anything she deemed beneath her. When Maugham daredto ask if she liked to read thrillers, she behaved, in his words,like "a woman to whom a man has made proposals offensive to hermodesty, but which her good breeding tells her it will be moredignified to ignore than to make a scene about." (Is that, perhaps,what happened when Fullerton "hurt" and "disillusioned" her?)Though he wanted her approval, F. Scott Fitzgerald regarded Whartonas a retrograde writer who tried to fight "the good fight withstone-age weapons." As for her own judgment, Wharton regardedUlysses as "a turgid welter of schoolboy pornography" and dismissedSons and Lovers as "botched and bungled." She admired Mussolini, ifnot for making the trains run on time, then for improving postaldelivery between Italy and France. Her anti-Semitism, whileconventional in her social set, was particularly zesty--as in theportraits of Baron Schenkelderff in "The Last Asset" or Mr.Fleischauer in The Custom of the Country, or when she remarked ofAndre Maurois that he was "a very bright little Jew ... about aswell fitted for lecturing on English poetry to the English as oneof my Pekes."
So Lee has not written a sanitized biography. Instead she hassubmitted a brief for Wharton as a writer who transcended her casteeven as she represented it. This is convincing, up to a point.Wharton knew the limits of her world. She wrote with indignation atits exhibitionistic wastefulness (she had read Veblen onconspicuous consumption), as when she observes in a story how "afire sparkled with that effect of luxury which fires produce whenthe weather is not cold enough to justify them." She had a sense ofliving among enervated people whose males have declined from strongforebears into vaguely androgynous "lounging golfstockinged youngmen," as she calls them in "Autres Temps," and whose females (LilyBart is a vivid instance) have become as weak and vulnerable asthey are decorative and slender. Wharton's writing is poisedsomewhere between aggrieved solidarity with these people and acertain gleeful schadenfreude as, from her literary perch, shewatches them sink.
Lee has made a strong case that Wharton was a writer of exceptionalalertness to the suppressed anxieties that flow below the surface ofpolite society. But Wharton tends to write from a spectatorialdistance, and rarely gives the sort of tour of a character'sconsciousness that her friend Henry James provides--sometimes atwearying length but often with incandescent insight. Lee wants tocorrect the traditional view of Wharton as a follower of James (sodid Wharton, who grew exasperated with "the continued cry that I aman echo of Mr. James"), but she strains when she proposes that theinfluence might also have gone the other way--that "she might haveinfluenced him: that Italian Backgrounds, for instance, had aneffect on Italian Hours, or that their exchanges on George Sand fedinto his long essay on Sand in Notes on Novelists." Wharton was awriter of uncommon subtlety, but if one compares her account ofJohn Durham in Madame de Treymes trying to pry the woman he lovesaway from a scheming French family, or of Undine Spragg in TheCustom of the Country failing to master the apparatus of Parissociety, with, say, James's rendition in The Portrait of a Lady ofIsabel Archer awakening through a series of small shocks to thetrue nature of her husband, or Lambert Strether slowly grasping inThe Ambassadors the painful austerity of his own life, the contrastdoes not work to Wharton's advantage.
Lee opens her biography by calling it "the story of an Americancitizen in France ... a European on a grand scale who left her oldhome and made new ones for herself ... but who could never be donewith the subject of America and Americans." But finally, howAmerican was Edith Wharton? Lee shows her responsiveness to otherAmerican writers, notably Hawthorne: "Ethan Brand" stands in thebackground of Ethan Frome (1911), and The House of the Seven Gablesfeels present in "Bunner Sisters" (written in 1892 but notpublished until 1916), and Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter isreprised in the icy lawyer Royall in Summer. But if Wharton was anAmerican writer in lineage and themes, she was also a writer whorecoiled from America. She felt a haughty detachment from hercountry--much more so than did James, who famously wrote to her,"Profit, be warned, by my awful example of exile and ignorance....Do New York! The first-hand account is precious."
When he returned in 1904 to New York after a long absence, James wascaught up despite himself (as described in The American Scene) inthe jostling, roiling, sublimely vulgar city. Uncomfortablyastonished, he shuddered at "the great swarming" of New York'sJews, likening the immigrant in relation to his new country to "thedog who sniffs round the freshly-acquired bone, giving it a pushand a lick, betraying a sense of its possibilities," though not yetready to pounce. Yet James also found the immigrant tumult aninvigorating spectacle full of promise, and he sounded at timesalmost like Whitman. Excited by the amalgamation of the old Americawith the new, he wondered if "the accent of the very ultimatefuture, in the States, may be destined to become the most beautifulon the globe and the very music of humanity."
Wharton, who described her visit to New York in 1913 as "asoul-destroying experience," had no such receptivity. In books suchas The Bostonians and The Princess Casamassima, both published in1886, James explored reform and radical politics, trying tounderstand from within the minds of desperate or determined peoplewho craved a new world to be built on some version of democracy.Wharton had no such curiosity. Around the time that James wasmeditating on the new human landscape of America, she wasdismissing it. "The American landscape has no foreground," shewrote in 1906, "and the American mind no background." This had beenJames's view some thirty years earlier when he went into exile, butby his sixties he was rethinking what he had once thought he knew.
"In recording the present moment," Lee rightly says, Wharton "isalways conscious of how quickly it becomes the unrecapturablepast." With all her clear-eyed sense of the brutality and thenarrowness of the pseudo-aristocratic society into which she wasborn, Wharton was loath to let it go. "I am steeping myself in thenineteenth century," she wrote to a friend while working on The Ageof Innocence, "which is such a blessed refuge from the turmoil andmediocrity of today--like taking sanctuary in a mighty temple." Thattemple, as we learn from Lee's book, was a place in which girlsfrom good families were forbidden to read novels until they weremarried. It was a place in which daughters could not draw down theprincipal of their trust funds; and, if they "died without issue,"the balance reverted to a surviving brother. It was a worldpopulated by people who campaigned to have drinking bowls for theirdogs placed at strategic spots in the streets of New York, and forwhom successful travel depended on persuading "the deck steward toput your chair in a sheltered position every morning."
What, finally, did Edith Wharton make of these people? Can she becounted a great writer-- a writer, that is, much larger than heraccustomed world? Lee first uses the word "great" (she uses suchwords sparingly) on page 158; some two hundred pages later, writingagainst the biographical reductionists, she elaborates:
The qualities that make Wharton a great writer--her mixture ofharshly detached, meticulously perceptive, disabused realism, witha language of poignant feeling and deep passion, and her setting ofthe most confined of private lives in a thick, complex network ofsocial forces--were the product of years of observation, reading,practice and refinement, not of a love affair.
Yet even here, Lee does not quite rise to the eloquent advocacy thatwe find in her biography of Virginia Woolf, of whom she wrote that"she seems to us, now, both a contemporary and a historical figure.This peculiar transitional position, at present occupied by thegreat early-twentieth-century writers of the modernist movement,makes her seem both close and far. She speaks to us of issues andconcerns which are vital to us and are not yet resolved." Lee takesa stab now and then at making comparable claims about Wharton, aswhen she calls The Custom of the Country (which she ranks asWharton's best novel) "truly a tale for our times." This seems alittle forced. The dual terms "contemporary and historical" do notquite fit Wharton, whom Woolf regarded as a writer preoccupied"with English good manners" and "obsessed with surfacedistinction."
This book is a powerful rebuttal to that view. It builds on the workof previous scholars--on Lewis's biography, on Blake Nevius's studyof Wharton's methods of revision, on Cynthia Griffin Wolff'spsychological insights, and many more. And it comes at aninteresting moment in the history of Wharton's reputation, whichwas highest in the 1920s, when she was selling well and winningprizes. By the 1930s, her stock was falling, as the claims ofmodernism took hold and the Depression made her characters andthemes seem precious and indulgent. In 1939, not long after herdeath, Clifton Fadiman, then the books editor at The New Yorker,could write that those who continued to read her did so for reasonsof "class fidelity." In the postwar years, Wharton held her own asa literary worthy--though often paired with James as a lesserdisciple--but it was really not until the 1970s, with the surge ofinterest in women's studies, that she became a major writer again.This time she came back as an unexpected "Do Me" feminist. Theaffair with Fullerton and the discovery of "Beatrice Palmato," afragment of erotic writing with an incest theme (probably writtenaround 1919), intensified interest in her as a writer about womenabused by inattention or exploitation, who are sexual furnaceswaiting to be stoked. By the 1990s, helped by Martin Scorsese'sfine film of The Age of Innocence--which, as Scorsese discovered,is about high-society people as merciless as any gangster--Whartonhad become a popular writer of lush period pieces.
With all these versions of Wharton now behind us, the question iswhether interest in her work will now be renewed again, and if so,for what reasons. She is a writer who flatters the self-satisfiedrich even as she anatomizes them, by granting them theirmaterialist premise: that the acquisition, the display, and thetransmission of money are the primary activities of life. Onlyrarely does an alternative way of living come into view in her work.In our age of twentysomething i-bankers, when fortunes are quicklymade and quickly lost, Wharton may well find a new audience--butwill it be more interested in her views of the interior life or ofinterior decoration? Is she finally a writer who points beyondgetting and spending, or a writer nostalgic for the first GildedAge who shows us, in luscious detail, how it once was done? HermioneLee has presented the best possible case for the former. The juryin our own gilded age is still out.
By Andrew Delbanco