Reading Edith Wharton: On the Cusp of the Modern
Born into the apex of Gilded Age New York, Edith Wharton subverted the conventions of upper-class womanhood to fashion herself into one New York society’s most subtle and skillful chroniclers—and critics. Beyond her fine eye for interiors and social manners, Wharton was also, in Edmund Wilson’s words, a “passionate social prophet,” employing an acute ironic sensibility to fillet the urban haute bourgeoisie as it stood astride industrial America. Wharton showed herself to be both a pointed satirist and an ambivalent critic of culture and modernity. And yet, as critical as she was of the social structures against which she struggled, her novels never lose sight of the yearning and suffering that her characters undergo in pursuit of moral and aesthetic freedom. What can we learn from reading Edith Wharton—about class, gender, individuality, and the way we live now?
In this course, we will read in their entirety Wharton’s two great novels of New York City: The House of Mirth (1903) and The Age of Innocence (1920). Drawing on historical accounts of the period as well as recent academic scholarship, we’ll seek to understand Wharton’s elegant yet ironic representations of New York society from within its midst (Mirth) as well as after she had expatriated to Paris (Innocence). Was Wharton an exemplary advocate for the “new woman” in her depictions of the social and economic predicament of middle- and upper-class women, or a fatalist whose personal liberation could be seen as exceptional on her own terms? Where does class figure into Wharton’s social criticism, specifically the laboring classes who were the focus of literary naturalism but often marginal to her narratives of elite society? How might we assess Wharton as a novelist of “whiteness,” whose explicit anti-semitism and silence on questions of race, arguably helped to construct the normative American white liberal subject? Finally, how did Wharton’s career serve as a bridge between the late Victorian authors who influenced her, such as James, Hardy, and Eliot, and the modernists who succeeded her, whether Fitzgerald, Woolf, or Proust? Writing on the cusp of the modern, Wharton trenchantly portrayed one world dying even as she was dismayed at the new one being born; for her, freedom perhaps came at the price of anomie, in form as well as content.
Course ScheduleThursday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
September 17 — October 08, 2020