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Edith Wharton Revisited

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American Values

May I? — A Poem on War, Unrest, and a Centenary of Change

May is not always just a month of change, it is a month of reflection, revival, and growth.

Not just in seasonal and allegorical ways, either, but in historical, individual ways.

On May 1, 1915, the RMS Lusitania set out from her American port en route to Liverpool. She was a ship of wonder, the equivalent of The White Star Line’s Titanic, famously lost three years earlier, a rival of the Cunard line’s crowning glory, and icon of Edwardian engineering and maritime pride.

She never made it back home through the ‘war zones’ of Britain, and fell in spectacle on May 7, 1915, to the bottom of the sea, seven miles off the southern coast of Ireland, in vantage point from the lighthouse that caps the cliff of ‘The Old Head of Kinsale’; with 1,198 souls lost, many of them Americans, the murder of the Lusitania outraged the American public, and set off a spark of American involvement in the growing war in Europe. Sailing through hostile German naval territory, the Lusitania was torpedoed on her starboard side by a German U-boat, and sunk in eighteen minutes. Not only a catastrophe in it’s own right, a turning point that would herald the first ever global war, ‘An End of Innocence’, a catharsis of ideals, and an American cultural revolution, but the bringing to life of new ideas, and the sobering rethinking of mankind’s expressions of ingenuity, ones that would shift from technological marvels like the Lusitania to other modes of individual, literary, and artistic ‘expression’ that would emerge through and beyond ‘The Roaring Twenties.’

Of course, I cannot help (again) to make parallels with the currents of protest now running through the nation. The uprising in Baltimore, though in a sense drastically ‘different’ from the chain of events, the loss of the Lusitania being one of them, that initiated a global crisis, is also in another sense remarkably similar — it is another distinctly ‘American’ opportunity to embrace change.

Did Wharton see the sinking of the Lusitania as the end of her ‘beloved’ (sarcasm, of course) Gilded Age ideals? Her purpose for her writing? The transformation of tragedy and unrest into a rethinking of ‘American’ values? I really have no clue, and I’m not sure that the opinions of a rich, privileged, dead white woman at this point could really lend much value towards a conversation about chronic, race-based inequality and unrest in 21st-Century America. ­čÖé But it is certain that the Great War that followed catapulted her desire into assisting directly on the front lines and in the relief effort. And, I will speculate, that May 1915 may have been the month, the year, the ‘turning point’, the true wake-up-call for not just America and the world on the heels of war, but for the cynical, the brusk, the inert, the snobbish Edith Wharton, to leave her pen and paper, her failed marriage, her elaborate estate, behind, and spread the light that she had once so brashly and mercilessly denied all of her characters — and to some extent, herself — into the lives of real people, other people, people caught up in the turmoil of World War One.

May 1915. This, not all but just Wharton could likely see, was a, if not the, definitive moment of the century, the ultimate uprising and unrest of a generation, the spark of change that would, perhaps, ‘make all else clear’ …

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~ May I?

 Remembering the Lusitania ~

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May 2015 … bring forth fruit.

May 2015 … bring back light.

May 2015 … tear down hearts of stone.

May 2015 … raise up spirits of truth.

May 2015 … uproot the weeds of fear.

May 2015 … plant the seeds of love.

May 2015 … be not month, year, but purpose.

May 2015 … revive, restore, souls, bound by time.

May 2015 … renew polluted minds.

May 2015 … release the ties that bind.

May 1915 … bring us through these wars.

May 1915 … bring our nation hope, color, glory, again.

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~ Lusitania! She is not dead! She has been sailing with us all along. ~

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Edith Wharton and Margaret Mitchell: Would-be rivals? Or fellow bedfellows?

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A portrait of Margaret Mitchell stares me down every time I hop off the elevator to the floor housing my current workplace. It’s one of those it-doesn’t-matter-where-you-are-in-the-room gazes, (what portraits are not?), and it can be creepy as she wildly projects the dominion of her vision over her typewriter, her premiere editions of Gone With the Wind, and her Pulitzer, all displayed in glass casings that reflect the obnoxious glare of the florescent rectangles of light overhead. It is a shrine to a woman and writer I’ve known so little about, and frankly, until now haven’t had the least bit of interest in. The ‘sensation’ of GWTW, both the novel and the film, though unrivaled in popular American culture, just never seemed palatable to me, a kid who attended most of grade school only miles from ‘The Road to Tara’, a kid still, who even now doesn’t fully have a grasp on the romanticization of ‘The Old South’ and the lament of its destruction.

Instead of regurgitating what is already stated in academic acknowledgements of Wharton being an ‘influence’ on Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, I will just consider what I can imagine Wharton’s opinions or views may have been regarding GWTW, and the sentiment of ‘lost ideals’ so loudly and blatantly apparent in Mitchell’s unforgettable story.

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Gone With the Wind was published in 1936, the year before Wharton died of a stroke outside of Paris, an ocean away from the literary ‘currents’ of not just modernity, but the still permeating, and increasing influence of ‘popular fiction’ on American culture. What Wharton would not have known, then, was the way in which Margaret Mitchell ‘composed’ her novel. After reading essentially every single book from The Carnegie Library, Atlanta’s original city library, and after injuring her ankle after leaving her job as a journalist for the Atlanta Journal, her husband, John Marsh, in so many sarcastic terms, ‘encouraged’ her to write her own story instead of devouring others’ by her husband’s arm-fulls — and so she did, writing about a city she knew so well, her home, Atlanta, set in a period that had all but vanished.

For those who know Wharton and her perspective, this, of course would sound much too familiar.

But Margaret Mitchell, despite her own ‘popular’ approach and mastery of storytelling that has so mythologized Gone With the Wind, did not seem to have the same ‘respect’ for the novel as an art form that Wharton did. In fact, she has been quoted as saying regarding the completion of GWTW — “I just want to finish this damn thing.” While Wharton herself was likely unamused with the rigorous physicality of the writing process, and the lengthy depths of thought involved (she was of course, unamused with most things in life), she would have also likely disdained the way in which Mitchell saw no purpose in her work. Another compelling ‘fact’ was that Margaret had demanded the original manuscript of GWTW returned to her after being mocked and subsequently irritated by an acquaintance, and after having already submitted it to the publisher. She did not even believe herself that the novel would bring her or the public any form of commercialized success. [http://mentalfloss.com/article/30591/10-things-you-might-not-know-about-gone-wind] Though Wharton’s temperament was in some ways practically identical to Mitchell’s, I believe she would have frowned upon and even disdained Mitchell’s nonchalant and indifferent attitude towards the role of the contribution of her novel and her work, Gone With the Wind, to the American cultural imagination, whether considered ‘literary’ or ‘popular’. Wharton’s aims and vision for her novels were far more broad-reaching and polemical in comparison to Mitchell’s, even though Mitchell’s one-hit-wonder (though not singular) work of fiction, Gone With the Wind, cannot be disputed as having far exceeded any single work of Wharton’s in not just national, but worldwide popularity.

I can’t help but not forget, however, the kinship of sentiment and subject matter shared by both Wharton and Mitchell concerning ‘things lost’ — Gone With the Wind both sponging and proclaiming the maudlin reaction to the burning of Atlanta, the end of The Civil War, and the dissolution of the agrarian South, while Wharton’s ‘Novel(s) of Manners’ pierce and bite the rigid, self-serving tactics of ‘Old New York’, lamenting not the loss of a romanticized ‘way of life’, but individual life, individual lives, casualties of an intangible milieu that would, ironically, just like the tangible roads and byways from Atlanta to Savannah along ‘Sherman’s March to the Sea’ consumed in flame, also completely disappear into history. In not just a literal sense could Wharton and Mitchell be considered ‘bedfellows’ — they both wrote in bed and often flung written pages of their work onto the floor — but that both cultures from which they wrote, North and South, so polarized in ideals, in an allegorical sense, ‘made their own beds’ and slept in them, meaning, that both the idealized, slave-based plantation systems of the 19th-century South, and the unforgiving social rungs of 19th-century aristocratic New York, would equally dismantle these now only and forever archived ways of life, the fleeting ‘securities’ and comforts that they had brought to the privileged, with their ignorant disregard of inequality, the soulful, and the passionate, forever securing, with the help of both Mitchell and Wharton, the myths of a nation once — or still? — divided.

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