Edith Wharton: Turn-of-Century Insights on Art

EDITH WHARTON: The Uncollected Critical Writings

Ed. by Frederick Wegener

Princeton U. Press

331 pp., $29.95

Edith Wharton's life was divided almost evenly between two centuries (1862-1937). In reading this collection of her critical essays, what most struck me, as a critic writing near the end of this century, was her Janus-like position looking back on one era and forward to another.

Although a lifelong voracious reader, possessed of an incisive mind and highly cultivated tastes, Wharton wrote surprisingly little literary criticism. She published a handful of essays in her book "The Writing of Fiction" (1925), but most of her other efforts at criticism, which appeared occasionally in journals and the like, remained uncollected until now.

In his introduction to the volume he has compiled and edited, Frederick Wegener ponders the question of why this formidable woman was so reticent about her critical writings. The reason he adduces is that she probably felt inhibited by her gender to assume the mantle of judgment which she (misguidedly) believed to be a male prerogative.

Reading Wegener's relatively persuasive argument, however, I couldn't help thinking how predictable it now is that a modern academician writing about Wharton would focus almost exclusively on so-called "gender issues."

Wharton may have written relatively little criticism, but she always tried to take the largest possible view of culture in general and literature in particular. Her aim was to enunciate as best she could the soundest and most enduring principles for judging the merit of any work of art and to apply them thoroughly and fairly.

Quite a few of Wharton's pronouncements on specific authors may strike modern readers as just plain wrong: She prefers Balzac to Proust and is lukewarm or skeptical about Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf. But the reasons she gives for her judgments are always logical and interesting.

Along with her well-considered, longer essays on fiction, this collection also includes book reviews, prefaces, and eulogies, not to mention brief pieces on "Newport's Old Houses" and the case for "Schoolroom Decoration."

Pleading for schoolroom decoration, she writes that "in surrounding the children with beauty we are also protecting them from ugliness - the ugliness of indifference, the ugliness of disorder, the ugliness of evil...." Later, in a long, heretofore unpublished essay, Wharton explains that the doctrine of "art for art's sake" does not justify immoral art but was formulated in reaction against the tendency of mediocre novelists to use fiction as a vehicle for the delivery of heavy-handed "messages."

Elsewhere, she proclaims: "A novel is good or bad in proportion to the depth of the author's nature, the richness of his imagination, and the extent to which he is able to realize his intention." Wharton found a kindred spirit in Henry James, who was also a close friend: "For him every great novel must first of all be based on a profound sense of moral values ... then constructed with a classical unity and economy of means."

Wharton's belief in the moral value of art harks back to the great Victorian critics, Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin, and beyond them, to the high Romantics, and even the Elizabethan Edmund Spenser. Her understanding of the profound interdependence of an artist's subject and the form that best expresses it draws on the Romantic idea of "organic" art. While she was impatient of narrow rules and strictures, she believed in these enduring and flexible criteria for judging art: the moral value of the subject and the fit between subject and form.

As she looked ahead - and around - at the literature that was being written in the 20th century, she sounded warnings about the dangers of the newfound freedom that writers were embracing.

Released, so to speak, "from the white-washed cell of conventions," modern writers, she warns, may be overwhelmed by the richness of subject matter they have to choose from: " 'Life' has suddenly shaken her immense cornucopia into [their laps]" and they may select randomly and arbitrarily rather than wisely.

Wharton certainly noticed the growing problems of commercialism and mass consumption. But what distressed her more were the new tendencies and theories of the intelligentsia championing experimentation for its own sake. As early as 1896, she presciently observed: "The desire to do differently for the sake of doing differently is puerile.... [A] man who went out with his shoes on his head, simply to distinguish himself from his hat-wearing fellow-citizens, would be called not original but idiotic."

Looking back now on a century in which far too many artists have distinguished themselves by wearing their shoes on their heads, we can't say that Edith Wharton didn't try to warn us.

* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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