Monday, August 18, 2014

Edith Wharton--The Custom of the Country (1913)

I have been reading a lot of Edith Wharton lately--I wrote a couple (here, and here) of things recently on The Age of Innocence for my other blog, and here is another archival bit on her, with some commentary on Ethan Frome, which I read a few years ago. The Custom of the Country I take to be considered in the second rank of her novels, as I had never heard of it before. I do think the other books are a little better, they are more tightly written and focused, the settings are more vividly evoked, the dialogue is sharper. This book is about a beautiful and already super rich American woman with voracious and ultimately insatiable appetites for ever greater wealth and social success. She marries four times, to a scion of one of New York's most established families, a French marquis, and a billionaire who is reckoned America's sixth wealthiest man (she married him twice--he was not a billionaire yet the first time, just a cocky and abrasive striver she ran off with, and her parents forced her to divorce him). She was divorced three times. Her New York society husband, with whom she had a son she was not much interested in (but demanded and received custody of in order to maintain her respectability for future husband-hunting and social climbing) ended up killing himself. The sacred ancient possessions and household customs of her French husband did not escape from his marriage to her without enduring some substantial dimunitions either.

The biggest problem with the book is that Undine (the man-eating beauty) is such a relentlessly awful and shallow person that it is not clear why her New York and French husbands, secure in high social statuses and pretty substantial wealth, and who are portrayed as intelligent and cultivated men, would be so eager to marry her. She is described of course as beautiful, but it is not a beauty that the reader is made to feel, and be persuaded that it is worth all of the trouble that comes with procuring it. Being a patriot, I was sympathetic to her struggles against the austere restrictions her French husband and mother-in-law and their army of enforcing relatives would put on her social energies, but only because it was so ridiculous to expect an American millionairess not born into decrepit European aristocratic society to be capable of adhering to them. Among the other characters, Undine's billionaire husband goes from being a decidedly menacing figure through the early parts of the book to being mildly jovial at the end when he has made his fortune and has finally gotten his destined bride. Are we supposed to like him then? It also is not consistent that Undine's parents could have forced her to dissolve the earlier marriage, since whenever they appear in the rest of the book they are cowering to every demand she makes of them, all of which involve spending exorbitant amounts of money. The characters in this book are on the whole cruder and less truly wealthy than those in The Age of Innocence, so some of their exorbitant expenditures on flowers, apartment furnishings, seasons in Paris, opera boxes, and so on, come off as more desperate (and consequently offensive), I suspect because there is a deficiency of harmony between the possessors of these luxuries and privileged positions and the possessions themselves, which the observer/fantasist never likes to see.

In one of the biographical notes in my edition of the book (The Library of America), it stated something to the effect that Wharton was impressed or experienced pride in the successes of the American forces during World War I. I suppose I knew that there was skepticism on the part of some of the old guard of Europe that Americans could really have what it took to fight toe to toe with the great nations of Europe with their ancient and glorious military traditions and cultures, but I had never heard it hinted that any Americans possessed such doubts. I also suppose it caught me by some surprise that Edith Wharton should identify at all with the American army, and take a keen interest and pride in its performance.

I only took down two quotes from the book. I found relevance to my own idea of life in both of them.

"...but perhaps another stroke of luck might befall him: he was getting to have the dependence on 'luck' of the man conscious of his inability to direct his life." This was the guy who later killed himself.

"Raymond de Chelles, who came of a family of moderate fortune, lived for the greater part of the year on his father's estates in Burgundy; but he came up every spring to the entresol of the old marquis's hotel for a two months' study of human nature. applying to the pursuit the discriminating taste and transient ardour that give the finest bloom to pleasure." This seems like a life I was, if not meant to lead, perhaps suited for, as much as any.

Since finishing Wharton I have gone on to Emerson's "Divinity School Address", which I take to have lain down the primary tenets of the transcendental school to a not terribly appreciative audience at Harvard (30 years later, when the likes of Oliver Wendell Holmes had become the ruling spirits of the University--and Emerson had attained international stature--he was invited back). I have written here before that I enjoyed Emerson's journals, but had never taken much to his essays. This one has not really set me on fire either. Near the end it gets a little better, when he exhorts the auditor or reader to in effect be self-directing in religious matters, that the follower or imitator of established forms or doctrine can never attain to the insight or intensity of the originator of those forms. However much of it suffers from the usual Emersonian problems of his words and ideas not having enough clarity and solidity to focus the mind of the reader on their flow. I don't think his thoughts and his general organization are good enough to hold his essays together in any kind of pleasing whole. When I read this my mind is not moving with his, nor is it moving in any firm direction at all. It may be that I am always catching his essays at a bad time, or perhaps it is his writing that sends me into these periods when my focus becomes poor and my thoughts sluggish, because I had for the past couple of months felt generally sharper and more engaged with what I was reading, until the past few days. I ought to take more interest in what he says about God being present and alive and within every one of us, but I can't seem to find it very interesting, as he writes about it. 

"The third floor chapel in Divinity Hall where Emerson delivered his Divinity School address in 1838".

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