To repeat, Yvor Winters judged Wharton, pictured as a teenager, one of the greatest novelists of all time, at least in regard to her very best work. (Winters, a bit strangely, I think, hinted that a lot of Wharton’s fiction was substandard, but that, yes, she did achieve greatness in a few novels and stories. I think Wharton’s achievement is fairly consistent and that Winters mistakenly judged a number of very fine works as weak.) But judging just exactly how Winters evaluated Wharton from his few comments on her art is a bit difficult. It is a matter that Wintersians should discuss more fully. No critic at least sympathetic to Winters’s ideas, however, has, it appears, thought the matter needs judicious reconsideration.
John Updike emphasizes that the secretiveness of the family in which Edith grew up had a profound effect on her art and agrees with biographer Hermione Lee that “Reserve and concealment are everywhere in her fiction.” Even Wharton’s “published autobiography is selective and evasive,” according to Lee. Updike, naturally, finds all this compelling, the result of an upbringing in a family that bred extreme discretion:
The starchy Joneses, with their ritual transatlantic reach toward the seats of real culture, their naïve and monotonous snobbery, their strange mixture of religiosity and materialism, their unforgiving family quarrels, do not invite touching.
Updike appears to agree with Lee that Wharton is one of America’s finest novelists and quotes Lee with apparent approval on what made Wharton great:
... her mixture of harshly detached, meticulously perceptive, disabused realism, with a language of poignant feeling and deep passion, and her setting of the most confined of private lives in a thick, complex network of social forces.
That is a fair summary of the themes of Wharton’s novels, and a profound delineation of the nature and power of society they certainly are. Her works have been on my mind as thematic touchstones for decades. Of course, she is very different from the modern “greats” whom she has been in competition with for so long, such as James Joyce, whom Updike mentions:
But [Wharton] was not a modernist, though well aware of changing fashions; her young friends could not convince her of the virtues of “Ulysses,” which she called “a turgid welter of schoolboy pornography (the rudest schoolboy kind) & unformed & unimportant drivel.”
There’s a striking quotation. That opinion of Joyce sounds remarkably akin to Winters’s very brief comments on Joyce’s work in “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature” in The Function of Criticism and elsewhere. (I should point out, though, that Winters, at least early in his career, had a high opinion of Joyce’s Dubliners and particularly the great short story that concludes the collection, “The Dead.”)
For his part, Updike says that he doesn’t consider Wharton’s Custom of the Country her finest novel, as Hermione Lee claims, but rather The Age of Innocence. I can’t quibble with either choice. Both stand among the very greatest novels of English literature in my judgment and should stand as such in the “Standard Canon.” I think Custom is too often overlooked, however. It reaches for a higher theme than Age through its incisive exploration of the nature of evil.
Another recent essay on the new Wharton biography worth mentioning can be found at the Washington Times web site. This piece, “The Politics of Prose” by Kelly Jane Torrance, declares rather forthrightly that it is high time that Edith Wharton, along with Dawn Powell and Willa Cather, be ranked among America’s greatest writers. The piece can be found at:
Further, Torrance states that these three women should LEAD the “canon,” by which I presume she means the Standard Canon, that general, ethereal, and variable consensus that awards some sort of mystical literary status to certain works and writers:
These three aren't simply undervalued women who in the name of "diversity" deserve a more secure place in the canon -- they should be at its peak. That they're not says much about how literary reputation is born and sustained. Experimentalism counts for a lot; so does cutting a romantic figure.
Torrance discusses experimentalism again later, believing that a big part of the problem for Wharton and the other women has been their seeming conventionality, though that very conventionality might be coming back into fashion:
Experimentalism -- successful or not -- has often counted highly in making a literary reputation. But there are signs that literary modernism -- a stream to which misters Hemingway and Faulkner, in particular, and Mr. Fitzgerald, to a lesser degree, belonged -- is not aging well.
I won’t speak to Powell and Cather, but Wharton’s art certainly deserves a much higher status and deserves your attention as superior classical literature. Interestingly, this critic claims that, perhaps, Ethan Frome should be rated as Wharton’s finest work. I find Frome to be a very weak, though very common, choice. Frome has been the darling of Wharton lovers for decades, though I agree with Winters (we can only guess on thin evidence that he did not judge it as one of the greats) that this is a inferior work that does not even come close to the excellence of Wharton’s finest novels and stories. Among those should be counted an early novel that Winters highly recommended but remains out of print, The Valley of Decision, which is almost NEVER mentioned by scholars and critics writing about Wharton. I have read Valley (I’ve never run across another writer on the web who has) and found it outstanding, just as Yvor Winters believed it to be.
Finally, I wish to mention that the Wall Street Journal also published a review of Hermione Lee’s Wharton biography (available online only to subscribers) “Social Registrar: The novelist who captured the beau monde -- and lived it,” in its April 14 weekend edition. That short article included a couple of telling anecdotes about Wharton that I found worth reading.