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Edith Wharton Revisited

Month

January 2015

Happy — Yes, Happy — 153rd Birthday, Edith Wharton

“The very good people did not convince me; I felt they had never been tempted. But you knew; you understood; you felt the world outside tugging at one with all its golden hands – and you hated the things it asked of one; you hated happiness bought by disloyalty and cruelty and indifference. That was what I’d never known before – and it’s better than anything I’ve known.” —The Age of Innocence

“Do you remember what you said to me once? That you could help me only by loving me? Well — you did love me for a moment; and it helped me. It has always helped me.” —The House of Mirth

“The turnings of life seldom show a sign-post; or rather, though the sign is always there, it is usually placed some distance back, like the notices that give warning of a bad hill or a level railway crossing.” —The Custom of the Country

“They seemed to come suddenly upon happiness as if they had surprised a butterfly in the winter woods.”Ethan Frome

… “The silence which is not solitude, but compassion holding its breath.” …

~Edith Wharton, b. January 24, 1862

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Fables and Fiction: Wharton and “The Age of … Relevance”

“Fiction is the chief intellectual stimulus of our time […] It is ninety-nine chances out of one hundred that the book which, at any given moment, is making the world talk, and making the world think, is a novel.”

–Novel Writing, and Novel Reading (1899), lecture by William Dean Howells

Recently, I have begun to notice something interesting in the things that are “trending” across social media, the web, and (it appears) contemporary literary circles. On my Facebook feed, someone had shared a link to an article titled “Science Shows Something Surprising About People Who Still Read Fiction.” Google’s Zeitgeist commemorative video of the “Year in Search” (2014) revealed that people had searched for “science more than fiction.” And a newly published essay by Roger Grenier in The American Scholar magazine is aptly dubbed “Last Works: Is There Anything Left to Say?”

I loved fiction growing up, and mostly, that was the only kind of reading I did … (I think that’s the only kind of reading most pre-adolescent kids do if there isn’t something more interesting on television, or as a last-resort alternative to spending a weekend or summer away from having to read for homework, and the like) … But I think that it is safer to assume that everyone learns about the world, and themselves, through storytelling. The oral tradition, before the advent of the printing press, had handed down the epic fables, the chronological, biblical tales recorded in story format that were eventually compiled into the Old and New Testaments of the Holy Bible, the text that most everyone already knows is the single most reproduced collection of “stories” ever published … and at the turn of the previous century, the novel had become the premier, ultimate reflection of society’s ability to not just tell and write their own stories, but to turn storytelling, in novel form, into art:

“… The place occupied in the world by the prolonged prose fable has become, in our time, among the incidents of literature, the most surprising example to be named of swift and extravagant growth, a development beyond the measure of every early appearance […] It arrived in truth, the novel, late at self-consciousness, but it has done it’s utmost ever since to make up for lost opportunities. The flood at present swells and swells, threatening the whole field of letters […] The book, in the Anglo-Saxon world, is almost everywhere, and it is in the form of the voluminous prose fable that we see it penetrate easiest and furthest.”

–The Future of the Novel (1900), Henry James, essay

Wharton, encouraged by Henry James, took every advantage of the contemporary trend of the “prolonged prose fable,” and used not only her talent and foresight to populate the imaginations of her readers, but her understanding of the power of the fable.

The fable is, by meager definition: “a short story … conveying a moral.” A few of Wharton’s more successful works are, if measured by their length, technically considered fables (or novellas — Ethan Frome, Summer), but her three most distinctive, novel-length works — The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, and The Age of Innocence — would more appropriately fall under James’ heading of the “prolonged prose fable.” It was these novels that mirrored the “zeitgeist” of Edwardian New York society. If there were any hashtags placed before words in private, written correspondence, they would have probably gone before the titles of novels such as Wharton’s.

Perhaps the novel form that Wharton perfected is truly not as relevant or as popular a force today as it was then, nor as singular an indicator of the spirit, tone, and interests of contemporary American society. Since the turn of the previous century, more modes of expression have emerged to conduct the electricity of storytelling, and the power that it brings to individual life. And perhaps also, the use of the novel as a conductor of storytelling is not as favored or as preferred by artists as it once was by Wharton and James.

Yet the story itself remains. The fable remains. And even if everyone across the globe were robbed in an instant of their ability to read and to write, the need to tell stories would remain, to turn stories (events) into fables (lessons). A return to the oral tradition, in an ironic way.

In this sense, I believe that there is no “Age of Relevance” for the story and the fable. Turning one into the other — whether in a novel, on television, on YouTube, in the theater, in graffiti color on a wall of a neglected underpass, in a journal or a notebook or a time capsule that no one may ever see — is a kind of expression, a kind of fiction, that will never die with time, and that telling our own cultural and personal stories, whether in more direct ways, or using fiction as a filter, is a priority that cannot be ignored.

It seems apparent that Wharton, and other American writers who followed, were conscious that the novel would become a sort of “dying breed” of written expression. But there is no doubt (in my mind) that most of these writers, including Wharton, would not be so scathing enough to entirely disapprove of the different modes of media and expression and communication that most everyone is familiar with today …

Distracting? Yes. Detracting? Perhaps. But irrelevant? Far from it.

But At Sunset the Clouds Gathered Again…

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