Misreading The House of Mirth
Evidently the “big public” does not shut the door against strong, earnest, high-class stories if those stories deal with vital subjects in a vital spirit. The crux of the matter lies at this point: No story can be too good in literary quality for popular liking provided it deals with the fundamental passions, relations, and experiences of men, not in a philosophical, scientific or academic manner, but freshly, vitally.
—HAMILTON WRIGHT MABIE, “ARE THE BEST-SELLERS WORTH READING?” (NOVEMBER 1911)
With her first best-selling novel, The House of Mirth (1905), Edith Wharton came face-to-face with a reading public determined to have a happy ending for its upwardly mobile heroines. A story has frequently circulated of one indignant friend who chastised Wharton as she was walking in her adopted hometown of Lenox, Massachusetts: “[I]t was bad enough that you had the heart to kill Lily. But here you are, shamelessly parading the streets in a red hat!”1 For this reader, Wharton’s insufficient grief over the death of her heroine is confirmed by her public appearance and underscored by her preference for red over black. In the ostentatious hat, Wharton may even have appeared complicit in the social and economic structures that created Lily’s painful final days in the milliner’s shop. Wharton’s Lenox neighbor was not alone in her dismay. The death of Lily Bart seems to have fundamentally affronted Wharton’s 1905 readership, and there were many readers to affront. The book sold 30,000 copies during its first three weeks on the market, a figure that doubled to 60,000 within a month. The numbers then increased exponentially: after ten more days, sales had reached 80,000, and after another ten days, 100,000. The book was soon one of the three most requested adult fiction titles at the New York Public Library.2 Such figures would be more than respectable for a literary author today; for Wharton’s time, they were astonishing.
Astonishment at The House of Mirth’s popularity has become a common feature of Wharton criticism, and every critic seems to have a favorite explanation for the novel’s appeal. Why indeed would a vast reading public, attracted primarily to escapist romances and rough-riding adventure stories, feel drawn to the story of a socialite’s disenchantment, marginalization, and eventual suicide? And why would middle-class readers—who made up the bulk of Wharton’s audience—take a critique of high society to heart, given the general culture’s fixation on and idealization of upward mobility?3 The House of Mirth was published during Hamilton Wright Mabie’s tenure at the Ladies’ Home Journal, and he wholeheartedly embraced the novel as a “literary” success that could also translate into popular success. Mabie regularly endorsed Wharton as a serious literary producer, albeit one whose focus on craft sometimes rendered her works more austere than her contemporaries’ (and he rarely mentioned her without offering another author as a foil). Her works, especially The House of Mirth, were tailor-made for his sometimes paradoxical project of simultaneously validating and elevating his audience’s tastes; as Mabie would write in a late column about the relative value of “best sellers,” the commercial success of Wharton’s novels signaled that “the ‘big public’ does not shut the door against strong, earnest, high-class stories if those stories deal with vital subjects in a vital spirit” (November 1911, 30). Wharton’s novels were perfect for Mabie’s audience because they fulfilled both the desire for engaging (even sensational) storylines and the status requirements of an upwardly mobile population.
As we shall see, when those two desires were countermanded by the text, readers were also ready, and willing, to perform acts of interpretive legerdemain. Lily’s tragic fate may well have touched Wharton’s early twentieth-century readers, moving them to tears and eliciting resolutions to thrift. But these readers just as surely imbibed the novel’s lush descriptions of Lily’s surroundings, the details of the lives of her wealthy friends, and the particulars of the elaborate social rituals by which members of the haute bourgeoisie could recognize one another. So one must wonder whether Wharton’s contention that “a frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys” also reflected the attitude of her readers.4 Perhaps for most readers, the novel’s tragedy was not Lily’s destruction itself but her inability to remain in the society in which she nearly had a foothold.
In this light, Lily’s tale may be an admonitory one only insofar as it instructs young social climbers what situations they should avoid—or avoid getting caught in—at all costs. Lily is thus a sacrificial lamb not only in the realm of Wharton’s novel but also in the world projected by the readers who would take its lessons to heart. Although Wharton scorned the reader who focused on “getting the most out of books,” disdaining these “sense-of-duty readers” as a destructive force in American literature (“VR,” 514), Lily’s story became a flashpoint not for critique of high society but for lengthy debates in several newspapers’ editorial pages over Wharton’s cruelty in refusing to imagine a different end for her heroine. Contemporaneous discussions of Lily’s fate were concerned less with descrying the evils of a high society that devoured its margins than with condemning Wharton for refusing to imagine other options for her heroine. The thematics of the novel and the debates it occasioned present a compact, yet complex, portrait of the practice I have been calling “reading up,” which approaches all books as how-to manuals and rewards so-called misreadings that would enable vicarious participation in the lives of wealthy protagonists.
Mechanical Readers and the Reading Habit
By the time Edith Wharton’s scathing essay “The Vice of Reading” appeared in the October 1903 issue of the North American Review, Hamilton Wright Mabie had already expended considerable energy convincing his Ladies’ Home Journal audience that any of them could become true readers if they would take their reading practice more seriously, approach it more systematically, and pursue a more refined reading list. It is tempting to think that Mabie’s columns were in the front of Wharton’s mind when she wrote her piece excoriating “sense of duty” readers, unworthies who had cultivated the “habit of reading” by approaching literariness as an adjunct to “such seasoned virtues as thrift, sobriety, early rising and regular exercise” (“VR,” 513). But even if Mabie was not the specific target of her attack, his readers certainly were, as was the foundational assumption of his column: that anyone, regardless of income or education, could come to a reasonable approximation of erudition through application and diligent attention to approved texts. The rhetorical parallels between Mabie’s columns and Wharton’s essay are extensive; they address the same issues, use the same metaphors, and contest the same key phrase: the “habit of reading.” At every point, they stand opposed on principle. And yet Mabie embraces Wharton’s fiction as a necessary component of his readers’ mental bookshelf, contributing to the production of Wharton as a popular, and financially successful, highbrow author. Reading Mabie’s columns against Wharton’s essay, we can easily see how both constructed the notion of “elite” literacy in ways that served both parties well; Wharton’s elites could appreciate popular highbrow texts without losing their sense of superiority to the masses, and Mabie’s readership could congratulate itself on successfully achieving the precincts of the literati. Wharton’s essay is a moment at which we can see quite clearly the dynamic I discussed in the introduction, in which elite literature is produced as a brand that relies on a perception of tension—or mutual exclusivity—between mass and highbrow culture.
Though she was notoriously fixated on the marketing and sales of her novels, Wharton presents herself in “The Vice of Reading” as an author terribly concerned about the probability of her work being read inaccurately by an increasingly active mass of readers who were not “born readers” but who, under the tutelage of advice-manual authors and columnists, had “renounce[d] their innocuous dalliance with light literature for more strenuous intercourse” (“VR,” 514). Wharton’s abiding concern about the proliferation of “sense-of-duty readers” suggests that self-interested misreading was one of the more likely of available ways for an upwardly mobile, middle-class reader in the first quarter of the twentieth century to have approached any text, particularly the “quality literature” to which he or she was being pointed by Hamilton Wright Mabie and other elite cultural arbiters. Wharton dubs this menace to literature the “mechanical reader,” her vituperative attack suggesting not only that the practice of mechanical reading was widespread but also that she felt her own work vulnerable to readers of this type:
It is when the mechanical reader, armed with this high conception of his duty, invades the domain of letters—discusses, criticizes, condemns, or, worse still, praises—that the vice of reading becomes a menace to literature. Even so, it might seem in questionable taste to resent an intrusion prompted by motives so respectable, were it not that the incorrigible self-sufficiency of the mechanical reader makes him a fair object of attack. The man who grinds the barrel-organ does not challenge comparison with Paderewski, but the mechanical reader never doubts his intellectual competency. As grace gives faith, so zeal for self-improvement is supposed to confer brains. (“VR,” 515)
The “mechanical reader,” Wharton fears, can influence the marketplace and alter the shape of American literary production. Because mechanical readers go about looking for “the book that is being talked about, and [their] sense of its importance is in proportion to the number of editions exhausted before publication,” popular books become potentially more important to publishers, Wharton argues, than “the best in literature” (“VR,” 517, 520).
The “best in literature,” though, was precisely what Mabie was encouraging his middle-class, upwardly mobile audiences to read, even as he vigorously promoted the “habit of reading” as something all of his readers should cultivate assiduously. In his third column for the Journal, appearing in May 1902, Mabie features both Wharton and the “reading habit” in a juxtaposition that might well have left Wharton fuming. In the centerpiece image, a serene Wharton peers off into the distance beside the promising subhead “How to Form the Reading Habit.” Mabie advises his time-strapped readers that “[i]n order to organize odd minutes into fruitful hours one must have a consistent scheme,” while cautioning that “reading ought to be a resource as well as a recreation.” Mabie emphasizes that his readers should be decisive and directed in their reading and that once they have decided on a “scheme” they should be careful at all costs not to “take up with those [extraneous books] which drift in your direction.” He also advises his readers to ease their way into directive reading, because a too-ambitious “scheme” will be discouraging and will probably fail. The key to success lies in beginning with the types of books towards which you are already inclined: “[I]f you are drawn toward fiction,” he writes encouragingly, “plan to read half a dozen novels of the best kind.” And then, organization is the key. “When you have made your plan, keep your book so near that when the odd ten minutes come you need not lose one of them” (May 1902, 17).
In his discussion of the “habit of reading,” Mabie is explicitly addressing readers who have intellectual ambitions but who do not have the leisure or the financial wherewithal for a more formal education. In the description he offers of the moments in which his readers might be able to benefit from an organized plan of reading, we can see precisely the class fragment to which Mabie is addressing his column; these are readers who work, who use public transportation, who are not masters of their own time but who must wait for and on others, and for whom reading may provide a rare moment of self-care in the midst of an other-directed life:
When you have formed the reading habit in the right way the time you spend on the street cars, in ferryboats, on journeys, in waiting for others, will constitute your chance for going to college, or of keeping up the education begun in college. Nine-tenths of those who are bewailing absence of opportunity are simply blind to the opportunities which lie within their reach; for the chief difference between men does not lie in difference of opportunity but in difference of ability to recognize an opportunity when it appears. (May 1902, 17)
There are unmistakable promises of escape in this passage, but it is not escapism of the variety against which the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century moralists railed; in this case, the moment of reading offers the escape, as the book becomes an oasis on a crowded streetcar or ferry. “When you have your book in your hand, forget that there is any world outside its pages, for the educational value of reading depends largely on the habit of attention.” In the midst of a busy life, a book is a means for solitude, the book reader becomes “independent of his surroundings” by virtue of his ability to concentrate on the book.
And while that promise of escape is enticing, even more so is the implicit result of reading. While obliquely referred to as “opportunity,” it is clear from the passage that the reader will, by reading, improve first the self and then the self’s material surroundings. Mabie evokes Gladstone as a master of concentration and insists that the focused individual “can do his work four times as well, and he can do four times as much of it.” More work, better work, more opportunities—all are code words for professional and financial success, for upward mobility of a material sort, which Mabie implies will directly follow the formation of a “reading habit.” He does not come right out and say that one can “read and grow rich,” but the connection is certainly there to be made by the desiring reader; it has been implicit from the column’s opening discussion of “profitable reading,” and the assertion that “the man who knows the value of ten minutes has gone a long way toward making himself rich in mind”—“in mind” sounding here somewhat like an afterthought demanded by propriety. It can be no coincidence that, having written extensively on the opportunities afforded by books, Mabie next turns his attention to two memoirs very much in the “rags-to-riches” mold: Jacob Riis’s Making of an American and Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery. Both men, Mabie argues, “have formed themselves on American models and developed themselves by means of American opportunities”—the same “opportunities,” one imagines, of which Mabie has just been apprising his readership (May 1902, 17).
Wharton also deploys the image of public transportation in discussing aspirational readers in “The Vice of Reading,” but with a dramatically different valence. The “ambitious” reader, she contends, is far too familiar with, and too accepting of, uncouth modes of transportation: “The desire to keep up is apparently the strongest incentive to this class of readers: they seem to regard literature as a cable-car that can be ‘boarded’ only by running; while many a born reader may be found unblushingly loitering in the tea-cup times of stage-coach and posting-chaise, without so much as being aware of the new means of locomotion” (“VR,” 514–15). The “born reader” is genteel, unhurried, and something of a Luddite; the “ambitious” reader is a product of a streetcar culture, which waits for no man. The class differences between “born reader” and “ambitious reader” are quite clearly marked by this image, and Wharton makes no apology for the implication. She finds fault with the practice of reading at a set time every day, likening this to a housekeeper’s practice of scheduling a certain time each day for going to the store, and observes that “he who reads by time often ‘has no time to read’; a plight unknown to the born reader, whose reading forms a continuous undercurrent to all his other occupations” (“VR,” 515). Wharton seems utterly oblivious to the possibility that there might be readers whose “other occupations” are not conducive to an undercurrent of reading, whose schedules may not be so fluid as to accommodate a more ad hoc approach to literature. Of course, this is all rhetorical polemic; Wharton, an astute businesswoman, read and wrote at scheduled times on a regular basis. But the polemic offers comfort for the reader who feels assailed by the encroachment of mass audiences; by ignoring the structures of education and of leisured lives, the self-congratulating “elite” reader can differentiate his or her reading practice from that of the reader in the cars and can presume that his or her reading is more in line with the demands of a highbrow text.
In a May 1905 question-and-answer column, Mabie confronts directly a letter that ventriloquizes the position Wharton staked out in “The Vice of Reading.” “You attach great importance to the reading habit,” a correspondent identified only as “Inquirer” observes, “You have spoken of it many times. Ought not reading to be spontaneous rather than mechanical?” (May 1905, 18). As I have discussed previously, there is no way of confirming or denying the “reality” of this reader letter; the Journal did solicit reader letters actively and frequently editorialized on its superior responsiveness to reader queries, but there is no documentary evidence that a single letter like “Inquirer’s” ever existed. The generic quality of this letter likewise points away from any single source for the query. The most likely scenario is that Mabie was aware of the critique his variety of advice was receiving in the elite literary press; that he had perhaps received a number of letters asking generally the same question about the “reading habit” from the same skeptical, even hostile, perspective; and that he then chose to address the issue in a dialogue format to acknowledge the presence of concerned or opposing readers and critics. The letter-response dynamic functions to signal his openness to the readership and enables him to counter his critics more directly and more decisively. “Certainly,” he answers, “but the value of habit is to lay a better foundation and give a wider range for spontaneity.” After a lengthy detour though false analogies to musicians who must practice in order to improvise, and artists who must learn the characteristics of their materials before attempting innovative techniques, Mabie asserts that only after working to develop a reading habit can a reader turn “spontaneously” to a book: “When you have formed the reading habit you no longer have to plan times and places when you can take up your book; you take up your book automatically. To develop spontaneity you must keep yourself in the mood in which spontaneity is generated” (May 1905, 18). Here Mabie is of course answering the letter, but not the spirit, of the query; he is thinking about a spontaneous decision to read at a particular point in time, not about the spontaneity of one’s general orientation towards reading, which was of course the attitude about which the original letter was asking.
Taken in the aggregate over his tenure at the Journal, Mabie’s comments on the “reading habit” do offer a remarkably consistent philosophy of reading, though it can seem internally contradictory, or at least paradoxical. He repeatedly asserts that careful, studious preparation is the condition of possibility for readerly spontaneity and mastery. He closes his January 1904 column with “six rules for those who read,” rules that encapsulate the points he offers (frequently in piecemeal fashion) throughout the columns:
|I||Do not read at random; select your books in advance.|
|II||Read intelligently and with foresight; make a scheme for the season, not too large to be worked out.|
|III||Read books that interest you; follow the line of your taste unless your taste is wholly untrained; if it is, read good books in different fields until you find out what you care for most.|
|IV||Have a book always within reach and make the most of your spare minutes.|
|V||Read only good books and put your mind on them. To get the best out of books you must be able to remember them.|
|VI||Do not make a task of reading; read for enjoyment. (January 1904, 17)|
Though it seems counterintuitive, Mabie does repeatedly insist that the last rule not only can coexist with all the previous rules but that it also follows from the proper implementation of rules one through five. In his November 1907 column, for example, he offers the cautionary tale of an “intelligent man” who, after being stricken with poor health that left him in a lengthy convalescence, “spoke regretfully of the fact that he could not enjoy books during his enforced illness because he had never formed the habit of reading, and getting through a book was a slow and laborious process for him.” Despite this man’s intelligence, he was not yet a reader because he had not trained himself. Reading, Mabie insists, “does not come by nature as some people imagine” (November 1907, 28)—and this is not just true for some people, it is true for everyone. This insistence directly contradicts the position Wharton takes in “The Vice of Reading” that some readers are just “born readers,” who “read as unconsciously as [they] breathe” (“VR,” 513). Mabie insists that every reader must practice, must allow his or her eyes to become “accustomed to rapid transit across lines of print” (November 1907, 28) and must cultivate the proper capacity for attention and focus. “To enjoy books and gain their friendship a man must form the habit of being frequently with them, and must learn how to keep his mind on the page before him, amid all kinds of distracting sounds and sights, for hours at a time.” Mabie’s approach is adamantly democratic; he gives his audience a sense of enfranchisement by describing the reading habit as something within reach of everyone willing to work at it. Contra Mabie, Wharton does not think that just anyone can become a good reader through practice and application. In “The Vice of Reading,” she does concede that “the gift of reading is no exception to the rule that all natural gifts need to be cultivated by practice and discipline,” but she adds an important caveat that “unless the innate aptitude exist the training will be wasted. It is the delusion of the mechanical reader to think that intentions may take the place of aptitude” (“VR,” 515). Wharton does not deny the right to read to any of this audience; she contends that these folks are fine as long as they stick to the kind of literature that best suits them—“the novel of the day”—and do not try to encroach the precincts of “letters.”
The “mechanical reader” who dares to pick up a belletristic text endangers letters by dumbing down the critical conversation, either through bolstering the careers and visibility of “mechanical critics” or by offering their own assessments of literature to the public discourse. Wharton has unkind words for the critics consulted by, and (she claims) produced by, the mechanical reader. Unlike the born reader, who she disingenuously describes as indifferent to critical assessments of literature, the mechanical reader uses a particular type of critic as a crutch, relying on his thumbnail plot summaries as aids in book selection:
The born reader may or may not wish to hear what the critics have to say of a book; but if he cares for any criticism he wants the only kind worthy of the name—an analysis of subject and manner. He who has no time for such criticism will certainly spare none to the summing-up of the contents of a book: an inventory of its incidents, ending up with the conventional “But we will not spoil the reader’s enjoyment by revealing, etc.” It is the mechanical reader who demands such inventories and calls them criticisms; and it is because the mechanical reader is in the majority that the mechanical plot-extractor is fast superseding the critic. (“VR,” 520)
In this passage, one of the more convoluted in the essay, not only has Wharton created a chicken-and-egg causality paradox (do mechanical readers create mechanical critics, or vice versa?), but she also dances dangerously close to a statement that the purest of “born readers” is and perhaps should be indifferent to even the most sophisticated of critical conversations. Individual readerly interaction with a text is, she has already argued, the chief marker of a “born reader,” and this exemplary individual’s ability to enter into dialogue with a text is in turn a marker of the text’s greatness. Wharton’s discussion of this point is so remarkable for our purposes that it is worth citing at length:
What is reading, in the last analysis, but an interchange of thought between writer and reader? If the book enters the reader’s mind just as it left the writer’s—without any of the additions and modifications inevitably produced by contact with a new body of thought—it has been read to no purpose. In such cases, of course, the reader is not always to blame. There are books that are always the same—incapable of modifying or of being modified—but these do not count as factors in literature. The value of books is proportionate to what may be called their plasticity—their quality of being all things to all men, of being diversely moulded by the impact of fresh forms of thought. Where, from one cause or the other, this reciprocal adaptability is lacking, there can be no real intercourse between book and reader. In this sense it may be said that there is no abstract standard of values in literature: the greatest books ever written are worth to each reader only what he can get out of them. The best books are those from which the best readers have been able to extract the greatest amount of thought of the highest quality; but it is generally from these books that the poor reader gets least. (“VR,” 513–14)
The moment of reception is, then, the moment in which the book happens—Wharton here looks like a proto-Jaussian.5 But to maintain her notion of readerly hierarchies, she tries to claim that the best books will not “work” for the worst readers, and we can then see why she is so concerned about the moment when the mechanical reader “discusses, criticizes, condemns, or, worse still, praises” a text. This reader’s cultural purchase—after all, a whole genre of “plot extraction” has arisen to serve such a reader’s needs—makes it likely that the world of publishing will similarly shift to his or her tastes. En masse, mechanical readers become a daunting social force. Other readers will listen to mechanical readers’ discussion, criticism, condemnation, or praise. Their preferred books will become popular, and will crowd out offerings that have not caught the eye of these improperly responsive readers.
Wharton scorned the impulse to read popular books even as she goaded her publishers to advertise her books more actively: “Here is a book that every one is talking about; the number of its editions is an almost unanswerable proof of its merit; but to the mechanical reader it is cryptic, and he takes refuge in disapproval. He admits the cleverness, of course; but one of the characters is ‘not nice’; ergo, the book is not nice; he is surprised that you should have cared to read it” (“VR,” 517).6 We might bracket for the moment the paradox here—if popularity is predicated upon the support of the uniformly responsive “mechanical reader,” the scenario Wharton paints here of such a reader’s rejection could never take place—to note again that Wharton’s greatest objection to mechanical reading was the possibility that its practitioner would be unable to “discern the ‘fine issues’ of any book. [ . . . ] To those who regard literature as a criticism of society, nothing is more puzzling than this incapacity to distinguish between the general tendency of a book—its technical and imaginative value as a whole—and its merely episodic features” (“VR,” 519). The mechanical reader, in other words, tends to have a tough time appreciating a novel that might run counter to his or her worldview, and tends to reject such novels out of hand.
A contemporary might have reminded Wharton that she had already celebrated the interchange between reader and book as the defining constructive moment of the book’s existence; in retrospect, we might be able to cut through the tangle of paradox by reading “The Vice of Reading” as a drama of Wharton’s ambivalence about publication and popularity. It perhaps reflected her fear that her fictional work might be misread by a large public of new, aspirational readers who would have been following her career because of notices like Hamilton Wright Mabie’s in the same May 1902 column that introduced the “reading habit” to his audience. Praising Wharton as “the accomplished artist, to whom the art of writing is an end in itself,” he is careful to designate her as a writer who “deal[s] with the subtleties of experience rather than with its decisive moments”—in other words, she is not an architect of dramatic plots, and the partisan of the adventure story would not likely be satisfied by her novels, however important they may be. And yet there is an avenue to appreciating Wharton through the acknowledgment of her craftsmanship, a characteristic which Mabie frequently praised as analogous to a reader’s careful application to a reading “program.” Wharton was the authorial equivalent of a dutiful reader, her work important to such a reader’s advancement. Little wonder, then, that such readers might pursue her work and might focus on her “picture of a society polished, urbane, cultivated, and elegant, and, at the same time, frivolous, heartless, corrupt and helpless in the face of the great Revolutionary movement which was filling all Europe with restlessness and which broke like a tempest in France at the close of the eighteenth century” (May 1902, 17). Pulse racing from that description, a reader might well overlook Mabie’s qualifications and go on to ignore anything in Wharton’s novel that veered away from the costume drama he backhandedly promises. Looking, desiring, and burnishing her intellectual credentials, the “reading up” reader could approach any Wharton novel as a window into society, past or present, and could register any critique as a cautionary tale. As we shall see, such readers did also “discuss, criticize, and condemn” Wharton’s text for failing to deliver the vicarious success they desired.
Wharton had the aspiring reader in the forefront of her mind, and she explicitly rendered Lily Bart a surrogate for the upwardly mobile reader throughout The House of Mirth. Lily’s goal is to “fight against [‘dinginess’], dragging herself up again and again above its flood till she gained the bright pinnacles of success which presented such a slippery surface to her clutch” (HM, 34, 39), which is also the goal of the reader who has been taught to idealize the “escape of a human spirit, by sacrifice, toil, and courage, out of narrow into generous conditions of life; out of ignorance and lack of training into knowledge and skill” (March 1904, 16). As Lily looks and desires, so does the reader, as in the scene where Lily peers over the banister into the hall of the Dorsets’ country home, Bellomont:
The hall was arcaded, with a gallery supported on columns of pale yellow marble. Tall clumps of flowering plants were grouped against a background of dark foliage in the angles of the walls. On the crimson carpet a deer-hound and two or three spaniels dozed luxuriously before the fire, and the light from the great central lantern overhead shed a brightness on the women’s hair and struck sparks from their jewels as they moved. There were moments when such scenes delighted Lily, when they gratified her sense of beauty and her craving for the external finish of life; there were others when they gave a sharper edge to the meagreness of her own opportunities. (HM, 24–25)
As a guest at Bellomont, Lily is able to experience the accoutrements of the hallway, to see the dogs on the carpet, in much the same way that a reader can “see” the richly described scene. And while her current mood renders her an outsider, her straitened circumstances brought into relief by the wealth she surveys, in other moods her ability to appreciate such a scene—her aesthetic sensibility—renders her an insider. Lily’s position while peering over the banister is thus very much like that of Michel de Certeau’s “reader as poacher”: “[The reader’s] place is not here or there, one or the other, but neither the one nor the other, simultaneously inside and outside, dissolving both by mixing them together, associating texts like funerary statues that he awakens and hosts, but never owns.”7 Lily, too, “never owns” the scenes she surveys; she is a perpetual guest in other peoples’ houses and purchases her clothing with donated or borrowed funds. Like the intermingled dogs piled on the crimson carpet, Lily and the reader become for a time indistinguishable. Even without the similarities of vulgar financial situations, the aspiring middlebrow reader and Lily, by virtue of the phenomenology of reading, occupy the same position.
In many ways, Certeau’s economic metaphors suggest that the middle-class aspirer is the prototypical reader: somewhere in between entitled and dispossessed, the reader attempts a wish fulfillment very like that of the striver who imitates the actions of higher social classes. But the historically specific valences of reading up cannot be ignored. No one was to enter a text without the expectation of being changed by the experience of reading. When Certeau argues that consumption, and in turn reading, should be understood as “‘making something similar’ to what one is, making it one’s own, appropriating or reappropriating it,” he is translating into contemporary terms the implicit message of Mabie’s Journal columns: that identification with fictional characters could enhance and better the self. Reading up was not a passive activity; only through engagement with the text could a socially aspiring reader hope to achieve his or her goals. And within the value structure of class aspirations, active engagement with a society novel meant making the practices and attitudes of high society “‘similar’ to what one is.”8
Such practices might have been the impetus behind the negative reviews that met The House of Mirth in some circles, particularly in newspapers and journals priding themselves on catering to popular taste. These reviews pointed out that the overwhelming negativity of Wharton’s “smart set” was an exaggeration unworthy of the novel’s technical accomplishment. A critic for the Chicago Daily Tribune who applauded the novel in October 1905 as “clever, piquant, and vastly entertaining” changed her mind by the time she made up her list of holiday book recommendations in December: “Gloomy and pitiless, the tale was a picture of the New York smart set at something worse than its puerile actuality.”9 The novel was clearly not appropriate for gift giving. Wharton’s determination to indict the “smart set” robs the book of its potential “exploding point,” according to the New York Daily Tribune’s reviewer: “It is conceivable, for example, that Gerty Farish might live in a cramped flat and still find wallpapers which were not ‘hideous.’ . . . [A] broadening of the canvas to permit the introduction of some of the more normal phases of our social system would have helped to give the work a richer quality, and would only have served, we believe, to put Miss Bart in a truer perspective.”10 Gerty might have found tasteful wallpaper; Lily might have found a less odious partner, or at least a corner of American society outside the “smart set” in which there was no “dinginess.” Indeed, this reviewer’s concern seems to be that the monochromatic “dinginess” of life outside society only serves to make Lily’s rejection of that life all the more understandable, and by extension, to make the reader all the more awed by the contrasting brilliance of the wealthy. Wharton makes such misreading available by neglecting to show Lily in a “true perspective”; notwithstanding the fact that “Lily’s [high society] associates, as Mrs. Wharton paints them, make appalling company,” the New York Daily Tribune reviewer still expects that “much of [the novel’s] certain popularity will be due to its vivid pictures of the little world of wealth and pleasure.”11
Hamilton Wright Mabie, on the other hand, is happy to recommend Wharton’s novel as an accurate indictment of “fast society everywhere”—missing the point a bit as he strives to assert that it is only a segment of high society that comes in for Wharton’s strongest critique and that the novel is, overall, “true to life.”
Society novels are rarely written by people who know society, and are usually full of exaggeration, misleading characterization and lurid descriptions; they are as far from the truth as the reports of society affairs in the sensational newspapers. “The House of Mirth” is important not only because it is a work of art, but also because it is true to life. It is not a picture of society as a whole, but of one phase of society found in every city in the world. (December 1905, 21)
Mabie cannot condemn all of “high society”—his forum is, after all, dedicated to popularizing reading through suggesting its instrumentality for social advancement. By isolating the “fast set” as the target of Wharton’s criticism, Mabie preserves the greater part of high society as an ideal. The “fast set” is only a subset that has gone overboard, its members the only ones who experience the “decay of character brought about by idleness, love of luxury and pursuit of pleasure as the chief occupation of life.” This group is not the refined society one might still hope to join, but is a “vulgar set” in which “life is pathetically empty of all real interests and true pleasure; and . . . its inevitable drift is toward the tragedy of immorality.” In fact, the “fast set” counts as its members those who have not hewn to the solid, substantial society practices—like reading excellent, morally sound literature—that made high society superior in the first place. Wharton’s novel is a corrective to high society—albeit a scathing one—not a wholesale condemnation of the social hierarchy. Mabie’s final word on the novel drives this point home as it praises Wharton’s technical achievement: “The story is told with very great skill; it is absorbingly interesting and deeply pathetic, and its moral significance, never obtruded, but never blurred, gives it high importance in an age of mushroom social growths and cheap social ambitions.” Reading The House of Mirth, it seems, can work as a corrective to “cheap social ambitions.” While it thematizes the perils of superficiality, the reader is already working against superficiality in his or her own life by reading a “quality” novel.
Mabie thereby deftly avoids the potential pitfall of criticizing the novel too much. With his warnings safely in place, his audience can still appreciate elements of the “vivid pictures of the little world of wealth and pleasure” with the assurance that they have the proper orientation towards the materialism Mabie has already warned them about. One such vivid picture is Lily’s tableau vivant at the Brys’ party, in which she imitates Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of Mrs. R. B. Lloyd. This moment is frequently examined in Wharton scholarship, yielding infinite interpretive possibilities because of the endless regression of interpenetrating images: Lily as Mrs. Lloyd, Mrs. Lloyd as dryad, Lily as socialite, Lily as herself. Lily is not only imitating the painting, however, but also “banishing” it (HM, 134) through her seamless skill at “‘making [it] similar’ to what [she] is.” In her identification with it, she creates something wholly other than the original. Nancy Bentley notes that Wharton’s forte lies in “reproducing on the page the spectacularity of a Nouveau Luxe social world,”12 and it takes little to imagine that a reader predisposed to imitative practice would draw inspiration from Wharton’s lush descriptions of social scenes—the opera, the ball, the society wedding.
That Wharton implicitly condemns the position of the spectator does not mean that her reader, once drawn in by the beauty of her world’s glittering surfaces, would follow her into the realm of critique. But it cannot be denied that Wharton thematizes the improbability (if not impossibility) of acquired cultivation. Even one, like Lily, to the manner born cannot thrive on artifice; the tableau vivant can certainly be read as an emphatic argument about the dangers of self-presentation and the possibility of misappropriation. As Bentley contends, “[R]ather than secure her real identity and value, the staged appearance subjects Lily to the speculations of a group of wealthy men. . . . Lily is eventually caught and framed, as it were, by the forces of social speculation, which are ultimately fatal.”13 This scene marks, for Bentley and others, the pivotal instance of Lily’s publicity, particularly as the painting she “banishes” represents a moment of writing.14
The question before us, however, remains: how might a reader schooled in the practice of reading up, whose reading is dictated by the desire for social and financial success, approach the tableau vivant? This reader is, after all, not likely to be concerned with Wharton’s underlying interest in the possibilities of female authorship. If we read the scene primarily as a moment of reading rather than writing, we can see that Wharton anticipates a reader who is unfamiliar with this kind of amusement. By extension, as tableaux vivants were typical fare at high-society parties in the early part of the century, it also seems likely that she was in fact anticipating a reader who is not of the social set about which she writes. And by noting the ways that Wharton uses the familiar language of the society column (despite the fact that she disdained society journalism), we can see that, regardless of her bluster about the problems of popularity in literature, she actively instructs her audience how to read not only this scene but also the whole of her novel.
Gerty Farish is the most likely candidate for a reader’s guide in the scene of the tableau vivant. As she sits next to the blasé Selden before the beginning of the festival, she displays the awed alertness of one unaccustomed to glamour and intent on taking everything in, “lost in that indiscriminate and uncritical enjoyment so irritating to Miss Bart’s finer perceptions” (HM, 132). Gerty babbles happily to Selden, in part because of her infatuation with him but also because she is fascinated by her surroundings. Although she seems critical of the wasteful expense of Mrs. Dorset’s pearls—“I suppose the smallest of them would pay the rent of our Girl’s club for a year”—she immediately censors herself for thinking uncharitably about these conspicuous consumers: “Not that I ought to complain about the club, everyone has been so wonderfully kind.” She makes no demands on the performers in the social spectacle and is merely grateful when they deign to make contributions to her quiet charity work.
When Wharton notes that Gerty’s attitude would be “irritating to Miss Bart’s finer perceptions,” she is seeing Gerty not through Lily’s eyes (Lily is still offstage) but through Selden’s detached and vaguely cynical perspective. While Selden makes pretence to being above the social whirl, including himself and absenting himself at whim, he excuses his presence at the Brys’ party by noting that it was likely to meet his standards for opulent entertainment: “[H]e enjoyed spectacular effects, and was not insensible to the part money plays in their production: all he asked was that the very rich should live up to their calling as stage-managers, and not spend their money in a dull way” (HM, 131). Though he does not have the means to create his own entertaining tableaux vivants, Selden is not an uncritical and thankful audience like Gerty is; he reserves the right to judge the actions of the wealthy as “dull” and to refuse to spectate if they disappoint. In a world where wealth must signify through conspicuous consumption, then, Selden as the critical observer of society has the power to shut it down: if he refuses the role as audience, there can no longer be a social performance.
The loss of Selden seems on the surface more potentially disruptive than the loss of any other spectator to the social scene. He has refined tastes, he can discriminate, and most important, he is somewhat a part of the thing he watches. He is the informed observer. His ability to comprehend the tableaux echoes his ability to read the society whose borders he has learned so strategically to navigate:
Tableaux vivants depend for their effect not only on the happy disposal of lights and the delusive interposition of layers of gauze, but on a corresponding adjustment of the mental vision. To unfurnished minds they remain, in spite of every enhancement of art, only a superior kind of wax-works; but to the responsive fancy they may give magic glimpses of the boundary world between fact and imagination. Selden’s mind was of this order: he could yield to vision-making influences as completely as a child to the spell of a fairy tale. (HM, 133)
Selden has the “responsive fancy” Wharton extols, and so he can read the tableaux properly, noting the way they play with the “boundary world between fact and imagination,” the fuzzy realm between fiction and nonfiction—in short, he understands the complexities of identification. Wharton’s attempts to describe the qualifications of the ideal readers of the tableau vivant and the mental processes they perform in the act of reading resonate powerfully with the rhetoric of the reading manual. While in one respect constructing a difficult criterion for the reader (one must somehow acquire a “responsive fancy”), Wharton is also delineating the goal of reading, much as Edwin L. Shuman in How to Judge a Book (1910) distinguishes the meaningful from the meaningless experiences of reading a sentimental novel: “The trouble with the uncultivated taste is that it does not distinguish between the false and the true emotional appeal. While reading emotional novels, then, it will be well to pause occasionally, become critical, and see whether we are laughing and weeping over characters and events true to life or merely over wooden puppets dangled on a string.”15 After reading Wharton’s description of the proper reaction to a tableau vivant, her reader might, or should, be able to effect the same kind of self-check that Shuman’s reader is taught to perform when reading an emotional novel: Am I focusing simply on the effect of this tableau, on the accuracy with which the actors approximate the original? Or am I more keenly aware, more fully participant in the spectacle, cognizant of the play between the personalities of the actors and the scenes, of the space between “fact and imagination”?
In this scene, Wharton’s role as a guide to the activities of the upper class and the preferred responses of the cultured runs contrary to her frequent criticism of the society journalists who perform the same function in the gossip pages of newspapers. As Maureen Montgomery notes, Wharton’s assertion of a “privileged gaze”—she is both a writer of “serious fiction” who disdains the popular novelist and a critical chronicler of society who denigrates “the part of [society journalism] that legitimizes the ostentatious display of wealth and mistakes ‘conspicuousness’ for ‘distinction’”—is “to some extent undermined by the discussion of her novels on the society page and the appropriation by the very forces she criticizes.”16 Evoking Pierre Bourdieu’s observation that the attempt to distinguish between authentic and imitation culture masks their ultimate collusion, Montgomery briefly acknowledges the “‘educative’ function of society journalism” albeit without drawing the logical conclusion that Wharton’s fiction performed a similar educative function. Montgomery contends that “in making visible old New York at a time of heightened publicity for those who had millions to spend on leisure and mansions, Wharton contested the new hegemony of the latest class of ‘world-compellers.’”17 And yet because Wharton’s fiction can be seen as, in effect, approximating the instruments of publicity that have produced Lily’s world of “Nouveau Luxe,” The House of Mirth, as it was read by its vast popular audience in 1905, finally functions to validate and perpetuate this machinery. For such validation to be the result, however, readers had to perform a selective misreading of the substance of Wharton’s text, or at least the spirit in which Wharton wrote.
Lenox and Newport
One of the more prolonged published debates over The House of Mirth occurred in the New York Times Saturday Review of Books. Beginning innocuously enough with a letter asking whether “the gentlemen who dwell in Fifth Avenue palaces, own splendid country seats, and wear purple and fine linen every day, [are] truly represented by the Trenors, the Dorsets, and Rosedales of Mrs. Wharton’s story,” the debate became so heated that it hijacked the Times readers’ forum for nearly three months.18 Writers initially took sides based on whether they believed the smart set of Wharton’s novel accurately mirrored contemporaneous New York society, particularly after a reader signing “Newport” wrote, “I never met the prototypes of Mrs. Wharton’s motley crew in society, and can recall a pretty wide experience.” Newport concludes that “[t]he motive of the book is low.”19 For this reader, “inaccuracies” in Wharton’s portrayal of society leave the rest of the novel’s plotting open for critique. Though not identified by name in the column, Newport is also quick to claim “wide experience” from which to speak regarding the true situation of New York society. The source of Newport’s anonymity is perplexing: the letter was sent to the paper signed, but whether the writer was given a pseudonym by request or by the decision of the Times editors is unclear.
Both the substance and the anonymity of Newport’s letter seemed to distress the Times readership. In the following week, a reader objected: “If the book ‘misleads outsiders,’ to which Newport, in spite of . . . ‘pretty wide experience,’ must belong, without a comprehension of the entire scheme and purpose of ‘The House of Mirth,’—the inner circle of society which it portrays will be quick to see and to recognize.” This letter, signed “Lenox,” also denigrates the right of “one unsympathetic critic” to express “harsh, badly-expressed, and uncalled-for” remarks against the praises of “an army of reviewers.”20 Lenox’s choice of pseudonym closely identifies with Wharton’s chosen home, and indeed Lenox’s whole letter works to validate the superior discernment of the insider and the hopeless outsiderness of the outsider. Paradoxically (but logically, for Lenox), only members of society can “see and recognize” the critical nuances of Wharton’s text. Only the insider can recognize the validity of the critique of society, whereas the outsider is forever hopelessly blinded by the performance.21 By criticizing Wharton, Newport has demonstrated outsiderness. Lenox also defends the text against those who, unauthorized, would offer opinions of literature against “an army of reviewers.” The sense-of-duty reader, it seems, is close kin to the social arriviste.
The social and critical posturing takes a sharper turn once the editors of the Times begin to offer comments on the letters in their “Reader’s Forum” exchange. “Topics of the Week,” a regular column usually devoted to reporting the news of the literary world, not the vagaries of their own readers’ letters, becomes a place for the Times to clarify the positions and the identities rhetorically obscured by the letters. On 25 November, the Times editors make the unusual gesture of prefacing Lenox’s letter (published on the page facing “Topics of the Week”) with the assertion that the publication of an unsigned letter was a onetime departure from custom, indulged in on this exceptional occasion because “[the] letter is obviously sincere, and an authentic expression of opinion.” The Times editors also take great pains to identify the genders of these letter writers, asserting that “we may reasonably assume” that the writer they have dubbed Lenox is a woman, and then clarifying that the writer signed Newport is
. . . a mere man, of mature years, who, we doubt not, has “heard the chimes at midnight” and has, off and on, mingled in fairly good society. He is a correspondent from whom we would be glad to hear frequently. So, for that matter, is “Lenox,” whose communication we cheerfully print, although she has neglected to send us her name and address, “not necessarily for publication,” but as a guarantee of good faith.22
Clearly, Lenox did not understand that letters published pseudonymously were not necessarily sent to the paper pseudonymously. While the editors of the Times are ostensibly indulging the “sincere” objections of the feminine Lenox—“for her sake we break a rule, which shall not be broken again”—the Times editors are in fact preempting her letter, which starts out by “attribut[ing] the feminine gender [to ‘Newport’] without hesitation, as women are not apt to spare each other!” But this is not so much about assigning gender to a reading practice as it is about refusing Lenox’s assumption of Newport’s gender as a preliminary to refusing her other more pressing assumptions about Newport. The editors undermine her criticism of Newport as neither an insider nor a credentialed and sanctioned commentator; as it turns out, he is not only a veteran of “fairly good society,” but he has also been invited to contribute literary commentary to the Saturday Review of Books. Even though his letter had been contrary to the official Times critics’ positive reviews, the editors insist that “it, too, was obviously sincere, and ably expressed.”23 After this type of official support, Lenox’s condemnation of Newport’s letter as “harsh, badly-expressed, and uncalled-for” looks simply petty. Even though she writes with a knowledge of current literary debates surpassing Newport’s, chiding his comparison of Wharton and Henry James as “wearisome,” Lenox seems to typify her own stereotype of the woman “not apt to spare” another, her arguments shrill rather than thoughtfully provoked.
The Times editors may well have been encouraging contrarian views like Newport’s in order to foster the sort of lively dialogue that followed and filled the reader’s forum until early in 1906. “Such things,” they write, “increase the gaiety of living and tend to the development of literary culture by stirring up trains of thought where thought has previously been sluggish.”24 The fact that they so thoroughly undercut the stance of insider for a writer like Lenox primarily suggests the importance to the Times of outsiders’ identifications with the heroine. Lenox wants to foreclose such identification, but the literary debate, the Times editors argue, would suffer from such exclusivity. Their intervention seems to have been successful. By 9 December, the discussion had grown so active that the Times gave it a whole section in the Saturday Review of Books, with the headline “The Strong Impression Made by The House of Mirth Shown in the Discussion It Provokes.” In this issue, Newport responds that his critique had been not just that The House of Mirth is an inaccurate portrayal of society but also that Wharton stacks the deck too harshly against Lily. Not only are there too many coincidences in the novel, but “[i]t seems to the plain American that, as Lily and Selden often met for years, and as frequent reference is made to her reliance upon his complete power of comprehension, they might have ‘become known to each other’ without waiting until she was dead.” The writer’s plea to the logic of the “plain American” here is unprovoked by any calls to national identity in previous letters, and his assumption of the designation “plain” seems slightly out of synch with the editors’ previous reference to him as a person not unaccustomed to very good society. “Plainness” and “Americanness” are either not inconsistent with good society or they refer to some other register of identity that has little to do with social standing.
Given the prior discussion of the relationship between insiderness and the capacity to read properly, “plain” may well be a nod to a type of reading practice—perhaps, in conjunction with “American,” a popular one—which decries the machinations of an author who “draws her creations so fine that her own personality shines through,” unlike Henry Harland or Elinor Glyn, whose Three Weeks would become the “most talked about book in America” three years later.25 In a similar vein, Joseph Holmes writes from on board the S. S. Crette: “[W]e are not told till nearly the last chapter that Lily was ‘heir expectant’ to about four hundred thousand dollars. Given this fact earlier, Lily had married Selden and spoiled the story. (Better so.)”26 It is impossible to fathom where Holmes gets this amount (Lily’s total settlement from her aunt’s estate was only ten thousand dollars, and we are aware of this amount during the whole of Lily’s post–Monte Carlo decline), but the wishful imposition of this plot twist, and the righteous indignation with which Holmes protests its perceived omission, aptly illustrates the degree to which some readers were ready to fault Wharton for arbitrary cruelty.
The final scene of the novel, Lily’s deathbed and Selden’s belated discovery of the truth of her relations with Trenor, is heavily contested by the Times readers. Newport’s opening letter complains, “Even the proverbial sanctity of the dead is not regarded [by Mrs. Wharton], for it is unheard of that a man should shut himself up in a room with the dead body of a girl in the bed.” Lenox scoffs at this “blunted vision, which sees only, in this dramatic termination to the tragedy of two souls who have in this last supreme moment become known to each other, a lack of ‘les convenances,’” and calls the last chapter an “artist’s proof.” “New York” writes on 30 December that it is unclear whether Lily “intended” to commit suicide and that “after reading such a very painful story, it seems too bad that she was not allowed to ‘live happily ever after’ as a reward for her virtue,” though such wishes do not keep this reader from being generally complimentary of the novel.27 “Jax” writes, “I have not read Mrs. Wharton’s book, and . . . I have no present intention of reading it—” and then, breaking into verse, observes: “In the work-a-day world—for its needs and woes / There is place and enough for the pains of prose.”28 Jax writes, however, not primarily to take issue with Wharton’s narrative (though it is clear that he or she does not want to read the novel because of the widely revealed tragic ending) but to take issue with a writer who generalized about the state of the “average reader”:
I wish to point out to “E. D.” as courteously as possible . . . that this department of the Saturday Review of Books is sacred to the “average reader.” Here, if anywhere he should be able to say his say without exciting suspicion that he thinks himself a “literary limelight.” He should be courteous, but it is his right and duty to be frank. We most of us want to know what the “average reader” thinks of a book. . . . Upon the “axe-swinging” opinion of the “average reader” depends the fate of every book. According to his verdict it stands or falls, lives or dies, both in the present and in the future.29
Jax’s letter plays into Wharton’s anxiety that the “mechanical reader,” by virtue of collective financial might, would become the single most powerful force in literature. And this aggressive response to a reader who essentially suggested, like Wharton, that criticism should be left to the experts indicates that the advice manuals and popular magazine columns that increasingly permitted their readers to select books that would give them pleasure were prevailing. The last letter about The House of Mirth was published in the Times on 20 January 1906, shutting down the debate with a suggestion that the previous forum participants should “‘hire a hall’ and fight it out by word of mouth and not waste so much valuable space in your excellent paper.”30
Few would deny that misreaders exist. There are no assurances that the same message is accessible to or even desirable to all of a narrative’s readers, and a work’s popularity, as evidenced by sales figures or library borrowing rates, is also shaky ground on which to base the cultural dominance of the ideas expressed therein. (Who can say that books purchased were also books read?) Few critics go as far as John G. Cawelti, who at least allows that “[n]ovels may be best-sellers because readers find the story or the characters interesting irrespective of the attitudes expressed by the author.”31 But Wharton’s keen attention to the figure of the misreader demands that we pay attention to the possibility of imperfections in the reception of her text, particularly from readers attempting to make their reading of Lily cohere with a sentimental economy of identification in which Lily herself seems caught.
Wharton describes Lily early in the novel as a partisan of “pictures and flowers, and . . . sentimental fiction” (HM, 35), and this reading material can be deemed in large part responsible for the misguided belief that her refined taste uniquely qualifies her for “worldly advantages”:
She would not indeed have cared to marry a man who was merely rich: she was secretly ashamed of her mother’s crude passion for money. Lily’s preference would have been for an English nobleman with political ambitions and vast estates; or, for second choice, an Italian prince with a castle in the Apennines and an hereditary office in the Vatican. Lost causes had a romantic charm for her, and she liked to picture herself as standing aloof from the vulgar press of the Quirinal, and sacrificing her pleasure to the claims of an immemorial tradition. (HM, 35)
Lily’s musings sound like the options among which Isabel Archer must choose in Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, but we could say that her preference for sentimental novels has led her to misread James.32 She dreams of a suitor like Lord Warburton, the “English nobleman with political ambitions,” or even for a “lost cause” who somewhat resembles Gilbert Osmond. Lily insists that, as neither the faux aristocrat with an Italian castle nor the true English aristocrat with vast, though dilapidated, estates had any money at all, she would be content to “sacrific[e] her pleasure to the claims of an immemorial tradition.” But she overlooks the realistic aspects of James’s novel—the fact that there must be money to keep that tradition afloat or the possibility that the man in the Italian castle is an effete tyrant. Again, Lily conflates a moment of reading with a moment of contemplated performance; what she reads (or what Wharton wants us to imagine she may have read) is a potential blueprint for what she does, or for what she yearns to do, an echo of the success manual. And in treating her “text” like a success manual, Lily indulges a desire to separate the aesthetic and the romantic from the vulgarity of finance. Such behavior is symptomatic of Lily’s actions throughout the novel and is symptomatic as well of the practice of reading up—of separating the desirable surface of a glittering society from Wharton’s insistence that it is frivolous and destructive. In other words, the desires that enable Lily to idealize Isabel Archer’s choices are the same as those that would enable Wharton’s readers to idealize Lily’s environs.
Identification was key to the practice of reading up. We have already seen in chapter 1 the ways in which Mabie promulgated readerly identification through his fiction recommendations. One of his lengthier and more poetic defenses of novel-reading appears in September 1907, in a column devoted to answering the titular question, “Should the Young Read Novels?” Mabie’s answer is an emphatic “Yes!” which he elaborates with a meditation on the psychic value of fiction, and its anthropological role:
Every normal man and woman would like to see life on a large scale, to know cities and people, and let experience draw out what is in them. This is simply a craving for self-expression, for getting out one’s power, and it is this craving which prompts men and women to read eagerly stories which describe those who have had experience of life on a great scale. [ . . . ] The sense of tragedy haunts the imagination of every normal man and woman; and when it does not come to the individual as a matter of experience it always comes as a matter of imagination or of sympathy. (September 1907, 28)
While Mabie does not use the term identification, it is implied through his evocation of “sympathy,” and it is reinforced by his discussion of the story he pinpoints as the most archetypal of the time; the story of “the rise of the man out of poverty and ignorance into affluence and knowledge.” “In our part of the world,” he asserts, “the story of the self-made man has been told a thousand times, and will be told a thousand times more, because it is the romance of industry, honesty and resolute purpose.” It is writ large in fiction and, the reader hopes, writ small in his or her own life. Reading is an escape, but it is the best kind of escape: it enhances the self.
[I]n the greatest fiction, as in the greatest plays, the sense of life is deepened and heightened, the imagination trained and enriched, and the vision of what life means enlarged; because it takes its readers into the society of the most interesting, stimulating, and captivating men and women; [ . . . ] because in the best novels another world is opened to the jaded reader, who escapes from the pressure of his work, the routine of his duties, the tyranny of his own experience, and gets a vacation from himself. (September 1907, 28)
Identification here bears only slight resemblance to nineteenth-century “identification with the progressive possibilities of liberal political agency and . . . submission.”33 Indeed, the practice of reading up relies on a shift to identification as a means of wish fulfillment, which leads to an “enlarged and clarified” life because it is an identification of the self with a character who is a social better. A maid can enjoy the novel of high life because it enables vicarious participation; presumably, she would get no pleasure out of a novel whose heroine was a maid because she already knows about (and wants to escape) her life of domestic service. But by identification with a maid who has risen into “affluence and knowledge” she might find a way to follow, perhaps through more reading.
A wishful and willful identification can, however, lead to misreading, though not necessarily the kind of righteous misreading Wharton scorned. The desire, in Certeau’s phrase, to make the text “‘similar’ to what one is” can lead to self-interested misreadings and to selective identification. Lily participates in such an oblique misreading, as we have seen, when she seems to identify herself with an Isabel Archer whose marital choices are all idealistically romantic. But this mode of misreading need not wholly serve ambition. When Lily is nearly raped by Gus Trenor, her penchant for self-dramatization makes her place herself at the center of the third play in Aeschylus’s Oresteia:
She had once picked up, in a house where she was staying, a translation of the Eumenides, and her imagination had been seized by the high terror of the scene where Orestes, in the cave of the oracle, finds his implacable huntresses asleep, and snatches an hour’s repose. Yes, the Furies might sometimes sleep, but they were there, always there in the dark corners, and now they were awake and the iron clang of their wings was in her brain. (HM, 148)
Candace Waid notes that “[t]he appearance of ‘a translation of the Eumenides’ and Lily’s identification with Orestes . . . is puzzling and complex,” and her analysis of these thematics in terms of Wharton’s “preoccupation” with Greek mythography is compelling.34 But it is also puzzling that the partisan of sentimental fiction should take up such a weighty text for the casual, time-killing kind of reading one expects she would be pursuing “in a house where she was staying.” Of course, Wharton placed the Eumenides in Lily’s hands to make her story resonate for her classically trained readership, but she also specifies the conditions under which her heroine became familiar with such a text, and in thus drawing attention to the scene of Lily’s reading forces us to consider that this reference to Aeschylus is potentially mediated by Lily’s disposition. As in her previous reading, Lily misses significant points in the Eumenides, though in this case her desire to recall “high terror” makes her forget that in the scene she cites, Orestes is watched over and aided by Apollo and Hermes, and she perhaps has not read far enough to note that the Furies are ultimately tamed by a diplomatic Athena bent on restoring justice to her city. Lily thinks that the Furies are “always there in the dark corners,” and she is immune to any potential Hermes or Apollo in the form of Gerty Farish or Lawrence Selden. She cannot, because of her sentimental reading practice, go beyond an interpretation of the scene that both inspires dramatic sentiment and works as a textual version of the pathetic fallacy: I am eternally pursued, and so then is Orestes.
Lily’s identification with Orestes may indeed replicate the identification Wharton’s readers feel with Lily, though Wharton finally frustrates the latter by giving her readers a Lily with whom they should not ultimately be able to identify—a beautiful corpse. But just as Lily, perversely, would not be able to identify with the pardoned Orestes at the end of the Eumenides, so too might Wharton’s readers be unwilling to identify with the Lily who burns Bertha Dorset’s letters and overdoses on chloral. Their protestations against Wharton’s cruelty fueled sales of the book, which became the “most talked-about book of the year,” and it is not difficult to imagine, from the slight documentary record that does exist, that a vast public, in the interests of reading up, chose to see Lily’s career not as a warning against social aspiration but as a road map to the potential pitfalls of a still very attractive existence in high society.
Apart from the “Reader’s Forum” in the Times, we know that The House of Mirth occasioned a flood of letters addressed directly to Edith Wharton. While none of this fan mail, unfortunately, seems to have survived, we do know of its existence from Wharton’s letters. She writes, tantalizingly, to Edward Burlingame: “I sent Mr. Scribner only the serious letters, but I have a trunkful of funny ones which I will bring to town with me. One lady is so carried away that she writes: ‘I love, not every word in the book, but every period & comma.’ I hope she meant to insert an ‘only’ after the ‘not.’”35 It seems that The House of Mirth was, in fact, as numerous Scribner’s advertisements crowed, “the book every one is reading,” and although Wharton tells Burlingame she finds the attention “great fun,” as early as 31 October 1905, she pleads with Charles Norton to stop giving out her address, as she was “so persecuted by letters since the appearance of this book.”36 The “funny” letters may very well have come from readers of the “mechanical” type, but in any case, Wharton’s bulging mailbox is yet further material evidence of her burgeoning popularity.
In November 2007, the New York Times reported the rediscovery of a letter that Wharton had sent to a physician friend and that had lain interleaved with a first edition of The House of Mirth for one hundred years. In the letter, Wharton writes that “[a] friend of mine has made up her mind to commit suicide, & has asked me to find out . . . the most painless & least unpleasant method of effacing herself.” The letter’s recipient, Dr. Francis Kinnicutt, did not have much of a chance to be horrified, because Wharton quickly explained that this friend “has just started on a seemingly brilliant career in the pages of Scribner’s Magazine, but the poor thing seems to realize that she is unequal to contend with the difficulties which I have heartlessly created for her, & she is determined to escape from them by self-extinction.”37 Wharton’s ironic language anticipates the charges of “heartlessness” she will face upon publication of the novel, and though it does not necessarily jettison the ambiguity of Lily’s final scene, the letter does suggest that at one point in the composition, at least, Wharton was consciously constructing Lily’s death as a suicide. Accompanying this letter in the same copy of The House of Mirth was another interleaving, a poem dated February 1906 that eulogizes Lily in seven hackneyed and inelegant stanzas. Stephanie Copeland, then president of The Mount, speculated in the Times: “My guess is that the author is one of those people who just didn’t want to believe in the suicide, and that, knowing of his interest, Kinnicutt gave him the letter, or the first part of it. It breaks off just where Wharton starts to talk about Teddy’s health.”38 After marking the sorrows of the other flowers in the garden at Lily’s passing, the poem laments, “Ah Lily! Boundless possibilities / Might your creator have accomplished here!” The “creator” is doubtless more Wharton than divine, Wharton again becoming the target of a frustrated reader’s condemnation. Wharton did not see the potential in Lily, or did not allow it to come to fruition; in the final line of the poem, the author notes strangely and parenthetically that “(And here all Reasoning must turn to Fear).” This reader’s ability to approach life—or at the least literature—rationally has been shaken by Lily’s death, enough to compose, and then to preserve, this poetic rejoinder, which was likely shared with Wharton’s partner in crime.
Amy Kaplan reads Wharton’s famous statement about the objective of The House of Mirth—to expose the tragedy of what a “frivolous society” destroys—as self-justification. Wharton, Kaplan writes, “fear[ed] that a novelist indeed endorses society’s wastefulness and even produces more waste when she preys on society’s glamour and transforms it into a marketable commodity in the form of a novel.”39 Just before her discussion of Lily Bart’s genesis, Wharton also takes the opportunity in A Backward Glance to once again criticize some of her readers: “There can be no greater critical ineptitude than to judge a novel according to what it ought to have been about.”40 Wharton undoubtedly thought that both sides of the debate in the Times were talking past her novel, that all had indulged a conception of “what it ought to have been about” that bore little resemblance to the text she crafted. And yet such impositions of meaning onto the text were also the source of the novel’s success—it could be “all things to all men” (“VR,” 99) and all women—and one of those things was a guide to the potential pitfalls of an upwardly mobile career built on cultural prowess.
Pointing out the affinities between the descriptions of interiors in The House of Mirth and the language of women’s guidebooks for home decoration—which, like reading manuals, instructed their middlebrow readers in highbrow aesthetics—Melanie Dawson has argued that Lily’s career demonstrates the ineffectiveness of attempts to wield cultural capital as a means of upward mobility. But Dawson also points out that in the writing of this fable, Wharton “cannily invites her readers to claim the abilities Lily lacks, to take precedence in a reading of the politics of cultural hierarchy.” Dawson concludes that “while Wharton’s middlebrow readers stand to benefit from the lesson of Lily Bart’s fall, the text simultaneously points to the futility of attempting to step out of a middlebrow position by exercising cultural knowledge,” finding in the text “embedded warnings to those who wished to traverse cultural boundaries or to glamorize positions outside of their own realms.”41 Dawson’s analysis is indispensable in its assertion of Wharton’s engagement with the middlebrow advice genre, but she maintains (paradoxically, I would argue) that Wharton has ultimate agency in determining the meaning of the text. While Dawson reads such warnings as thwarting the middlebrow reader desiring upward mobility, I would argue that the reader trained in the school of reading up would see Lily’s career as a lesson by negative example.
Even before approaching the regrettably meager existing documentary evidence of reader reactions to the novel, it is easy to see how Lily would be a particularly compelling figure of identification for an aspiring middle-class reader. Joan Lidoff argues that Lily’s story is charming because it is a story of failed identity, that “Lily charms the reader as she does the other characters in the novel (and as she has her creator). . . . Irrationally, we wish with her for a prince to transport her from her troubled poverty to the paradise she craves; we concur in her yearning to live happily ever after.” Lidoff locates the sympathy readers feel with Lily in her appeal to “those sustained remnants of narcissism in adults.”42 While I favor a historical approach over Lidoff’s psychoanalytic model, many of Lidoff’s sensitive readings speak to the identificatory dynamic of reading up. Contrary to Lidoff’s analysis, which tends to see Lily as a static model of narcissistic and libidinal pleasure, however, Wharton’s contemporaneous, striving, middle-class readers would have noted not just Lily’s charm but also its instrumentality. Her liminal position in her social set would not have escaped them; indeed, it would have been crucial for their identification with her. Although Lily does not have the wealth or position required for full membership in high society, her accomplishments make her an indispensable member of her set. By arguing that the choices she makes, which in the rhetoric of the novel ostensibly speak to her free will, are in fact constrained by an unaccountably sadistic author, the readers of The House of Mirth who want to identify with Lily while maintaining social ambitions can overlook Wharton’s criticism of those who already occupy the heights. Lily asks herself: “What debt did she owe to a social order which had condemned and banished her without trial?” (HM, 300). But the reader who reads up replaces “social order” with “pessimistic author,” weeps for Lily’s waste, and continues to cultivate an upwardly mobile lifestyle.
From Lily Bart to Ethan Frome
Mabie in his November 1911 column “Are the Best-Sellers Worth Reading?”—a column written near the end of his Journal tenure that reads at all points like a capstone—works hard to distinguish the “quality” best seller, or “steady seller,” from the “manufactured fiction” that is generally thought of when one talks about best sellers. He notes that Scott, Dickens, and Thackeray, among others, were best sellers in their own day, and that they are now thought of as “classics.” Indeed, it seems that Scott is better appreciated in 1911 because this “new generation of readers” does not “hang breathless on the plots, as did the young readers of the third decade of the last century,” but rather recognizes that Scott’s novels are “rich in human interest” (November 1911, 30). This is the column in which Mabie dismisses Charlotte Temple, The Lamplighter, and The Wide, Wide World as unfortunate missteps in taste, while celebrating the brisk sales of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Mabie wants to suggest that most of the “classics” were best sellers at the time of publication and to suggest by extension that the most exemplary “best sellers” of the first decade of the twentieth century might be likewise destined for such esteem.
Mabie lists the “best sellers” of the previous six years, to see what kinds of conclusions he and his readers might draw from the collection. Of his list, only The House of Mirth and The Jungle are immediately recognizable in the twenty-first century; Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman is there, but holds current significance largely insofar as it was the source text for D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. And while Mabie signals in other columns his opinion that Conquest of Canaan, Beverly of Graustark, and The Garden of Allah are destined for spots in the pantheon, they are of course waiting in oblivion for the moment when they become the subjects of a recuperation project for middlebrow literature. Mabie recognizes that the list is a mixed bag; while “perhaps six” will endure, “there are four or five stories of no lasting value, but of a pleasant flavor, a passing charm; and there are fourteen or fifteen which bear well-known trademarks and are to be classed with what are known in business parlance as spring or autumn “offerings.” As long as his readers have a proper relationship to them, such texts will do no harm. But it is disconcerting to see Wharton grouped in such company; her novel is unusual in that regard, and Mabie almost certainly wants to keep her an exception here. The House of Mirth, while it is well known as a quality text, is here presented en masse with books one might reach for more lightly, books that do not seem to require the same kind of intellectual commitment that Wharton’s book would. This is precisely the point: Wharton’s book is within reach of the reader who might have previously only considered The Awakening of Helena Ritchie or The Masquerader. Mabie’s list works just as well to promote the reading of Wharton as it does to make his readers reflect on whether they really should be spending their time with The Millionaire Baby.
Aside from this mention and the initial review Mabie offers for The House of Mirth, the novel appears in his column six times, nearly always as an item in a list of reading programs. In an April 1906 question-and-answer column, a reader (or Mabie posing as a reader) glosses the term “analytical novel” with reference to The House of Mirth, and in his response Mabie reinforces this classification by noting that the novel is one of several “striking studies of character and society modified by the materialism of the day” (April 1906, 26). In the following month’s column, Mabie lists Wharton alongside Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Mrs. Humphry Ward, among others, in response to a reader’s query about the “ten leading women authors of today.” He lists Sanctuary and The House of Mirth as Wharton’s representative texts, offering the caveat that “[i]t is impossible to say definitively that any one book is the best of any particular writer; that is a matter of taste” (May 1906, 18). In the same column, Mabie offers his version of the “three tests of a good novel” and uses The House of Mirth as an illustrative example of a novel that “describe[s] a character with such insight and feeling as to create genuine dramatic interest.” In his November 1908 course of reading, “Novels Descriptive of American Life,” The House of Mirth is listed in company with Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, Norris’s The Octopus and The Pit, Owen Wister’s The Virginian, and Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lapham (see appendix B). And finally, the novel is one of the representative “novels of realism” in Mabie’s compendious September 1909 “Courses of Novel-Reading” column. In one of his benedictory columns, Mabie explains why The House of Mirth stands out among Wharton’s works: it is the novel in which she lets herself be the most romantic:
Mrs. Wharton writes with a quick artistic conscience and is greatly concerned with the form of her work, and one suspects that she is indifferent to the general verdict. It is her limitation that she always makes us aware that she is an expert. She lacks humor, but she is well-stocked with wit, and the intellectual quality of her work is always high. In “The Valley of Decision” she was the expert rather than the creative artist; in “The House of Mirth” she wrote with conviction and emotion, and the story came to life. (February 1912, 42)
When Wharton lets herself go, when she writes in a way that is more responsive to “the general verdict,” she is a better writer—more “emotional,” more evocative of the responses a Mabie reader might want to enjoy while reading a novel.
Mabie mentions other Wharton novels along the way, but the only one he mentions repeatedly is Sanctuary; with four appearances, it seems to be his go-to Wharton novel when he wants to recommend something with a less ambiguously happy ending, or with a greater affinity for sentimentality. Mabie no doubt concurred with the assessment of the original New York Times review of Sanctuary, that “it is good, ethically and artistically, to read and read again a book with such a lift”;43 with the reviewer from the Independent, he may have felt that the book attested to “a beautiful, tender sentimentality peculiar to women, whether they are writers, mothers, or missionaries.”44 He chooses Sanctuary, for example, as the suggested Wharton novel in a list that closes the column “Should the Young Read Novels?” (September 1907). This novel of renunciation and maternal devotion would have played very well with a large part of Mabie’s demographic, who would never have described it, as Hermione Lee does, as a “claustrophobic study in maternal possessiveness.”45 Mabie’s time at the Journal ends before he can shape a nuanced response to Wharton’s Ethan Frome (1911); Frome, one imagines, would have posed a dilemma for Mabie, a dilemma he was perhaps facing across the board with the more naturalistic turn in her work and the work of many of his other favored authors. He praises it as “a noble piece of penetrating analysis, close characterization and atmospheric effectiveness,” and praises—or perhaps breathes a sigh of relief for—Wharton’s craftsmanship: “In hands less skillful it would have been not only a depressing but also a sodden domestic tragedy.” As it is, the novel is still tragic because of the “general sense of futility which pervades it,” but “the situation is saved from moral squalor by the acceptance of the results of an impossible break for freedom.” Still, Frome is a tough book to recommend, and Mabie himself seems glad for his section break and the turn to another text: “However one may enjoy the fine workmanship for this story it is a relief to open Mr. F. Hopkinson Smith’s ‘Kennedy Square’ and find one’s self in the genial air of an old-time Southern home, surrounded by people who believe in their emotions, but do not analyze them” (December 1911, 30). Frome does not offer the respite of The House of Mirth, and it needs to be followed with a palate cleanser, both in reading and in criticism.
Kennedy Square seems a relief for many reasons, not the least because it offers a more nostalgic, rose-tinted version of regionalism, which was the variety Mabie vastly preferred. Frome was artistic, yes, but it was regionalism with a bleak and critical bent; no one, reading Frome, would want to visit the Berkshires anytime soon. As we shall see in the following chapter, Mabie turned to regionalist fiction more frequently than to any other form, because it was there he was able to locate for his readers the last vestiges of romanticism. In his final column, “Which Way Is Literature Going?” (April 1912), Mabie writes hopefully of a trend that might run counter to the excesses of Zola and his ilk, who Mabie accuses of wielding “tremendous sledge-hammer force” to artificially suppress literary romanticism.
Romanticism, which had taken on new forms from time to time, was held in many quarters to have had its day, and to have disappeared finally from the field of writing. Thereafter society was to be content with nothing short of the bare fact. The world had grown impatient of the graces of style, the flights of imagination, the pleasant interpretation of the hard facts of life, presented by romanticism. Realism had planted fiction on an immovable basis of fact, and life was thereafter to be presented unadulterated and without disguise. So it seemed at the moment. (April 1912, 42)
Readers revolted, however; Mabie uses the example of England, where “Mr. Locke, who is more popular [than hard-core realist Arnold Bennett], is writing romances with as brave a heart and as free a hand as in the days before Zola came and went, and Mr. De Morgan is as far removed from realism and veritism as is ‘The Arabian Nights.’” When he shifts to the American context, though, Mabie speaks more gently of the readership of realism. He concedes that Frank Norris’s The Octopus and The Pit are “both youthfully defective novels, but both novels of genuine power, dealing with real things and expressive of forces now making themselves felt in a supremely powerful way on this continent.” Mabie goes on to predict, and to hope, that a novelist will write the decisive romance of business, will take the tone of The Scarlet Letter and turn it to business in the same way that Mary Johnston has “use[d] the history of the Civil War in an epical, romantic spirit.”
In this benediction, Mabie includes Wharton as one who is “breaking away” to write “beautiful art” like, yes, Ethan Frome. He tellingly refrains from using any precise terminology to describe from what she is “breaking away,” but one might read him as critiquing either derivative sentimental literature (“refined, delicate, and imitative”) or realism (“bold, original, and crude”). His vagueness, his convoluted diction, and his conflation of seemingly rigorous technical terminology yet again sustains his project of rendering certain works, or certain authors, of high-capital “realism” palatable for his mass audience. Edith Wharton, a valuable intellectual commodity, must not be lumped with the less-valuable Norris, or with the abjured Zola, as a naturalist; she must continue in the minds of Mabie’s audience, particularly after he has ceased to offer monthly advice, to signify the future of American letters.