Thursday, March 31, 2011

Letters from Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice

Edition: Letters from Iceland
In 1936, Auden and MacNeice went to travel in Iceland, having been commissioned to write a book beforehand. The result was a hodge-podge collage of their own poetry and prose, and textual fragments compiled from other sources, published in 1937. This collage is put together as "chapters." Immediate historical contexts in 1936 included high unemployment rates in Europe, the Spanish Civil War, and Hitler's continuing rise.

The "Letters to Lord Byron," interspersed throughout in four parts form a kind of "central thread," according to Auden. In the second Letter to E.M.A., Auden says that he formulated his idea on the Byron letters while on a bus: "He's the right person, I think, because he was a townee, a European, and disliked Wordsworth and that kind of approach to nature, and I find that very sympathetic. This letter in itself will have very little to do with Iceland, but will be rather a description of an effect of travelling in distance places which is to make one reflect on one's past and one's culture from the outside. But it will form a central thread on which I shall hang other letters to different people more directly about Iceland." The first letter explicitly talks about its form (rhyme royal), and tells Byron why he has been chosen for correspondence. As is the case in the rest of the letters to Byron, the rhyme is intentionally bad as a tribute to Don Juan. The second letter tells Byron of England today; Auden articulates the modern malaise under lives controlled and made comfortable by such things as "antiseptic objects" or "central heating."  Don Juan, he says, would find the century good nonetheless, for the variety enabled by technology: "Indeed our ways to waste time are so many, / Thanks to technology, a list of these / Would make a longer book than Ulysses." Continuing on, Auden tells Byron that they are more socialist, in that "Fortune's ladder is for all to climb," but that the spirit of the people has lost the appreciation for the individual hero. He even muses on whether Hitler is the heir to the Byronic hero--a scary thought, and Auden clearly expresses nostalgia for more colorful and spirited individuals who take the trouble to speak back to authority and establishments. The third letter continues the subject of modern Europe, specifically articulating for Byron the place of the modern artist. Unlike in the past, when an artist had a specific audience or a patron, today's artist didn't really have a place at all. Most occupations have a professional niche and utility, but artists don't belong as such. The fourth and final letter muses on a child from the future, asking "What's / An intellectual of the middle classes?" This becomes Auden's excuse to offer an account of his own life, beginning with information found on his passport, the ancestral lineage of his parents, his early fascination with Icelandic sagas, his dream to become a mining engineer, and finally his career a poet and his literary influences: Layard, Lane, Lawrence, and Gidet are mentioned. He tells Byron of the profession of teaching English at a boarding school, and how those who want to be authors today take this on because it generates enough income for a life independent compared to the "alternative" of occupying "an office stool" all day.

Auden's to Letter to Christopher Isherwood consists of a poem followed by a letter, where the letter answer's Isherwood's queries about Iceland. Some of Auden's thoughts are that the Icelanders are not a particularly ambitious people, that they are fond of satirical lampoons, and are uninhibited sexually. In a word, they seem a people that take life with a certain levity and without the kinds of "neuroses" common to the English: Auden concludes, "Scandinavian sanity would be too much for you, as it is for me."

In a Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard, MacNeice writes in verse couplets to answer the question as to why they are in Iceland.  Iceland is simpler, for one, than England: "This complex world exacts / Hard work of simplifying; to get its focus / You have to stand outside the crowd and caucus." At another point, MacNeice offers his own "simple" answer: "Wystan said that he was planning to go / To Iceland to write a book and would I come too; / And I said yes, having nothing better to do." In Iceland there is a sense of rest from the rush and movement of England: "Here is a different rhythm, the juggld balls / Hang in the air--the pause before the souffle falls."

The For Tourists chapter is written as a typical travel guide, offering advice on currency, lodging, food, transportation, language etc. A bibliography includes travel guides, language books, and histories - mostly pertaining to romances and sagas.

Sheaves from Sagaland is probably the most fragmented and heteroglossic "chapter." It begins with categories followed by quotations drawn from a number of authorities (the first is, category "Iceland is Real," followed by "'Iceland is not a myth; it is a solid portion of the earth's surface.'"). The authorities are mostly British but with some French and German ones mixed in as well. The many categories are organized under larger headings- The Country, The Natives, The Tourist, and Home Again. After this section, there is a prose account "The 1809 Revolution" drawn mainly from "Hooker and MacKenzie." In 1809, Jorgen Jorgensen, a Danish traveler/adventurer tried to proclaim himself the new ruler of Iceland after its independence from Denmark. The revolutionary failed, and was taken to prison in London after the Danish government was reinstated. Following this historical account is another one, this time of a volcanic eruption in 1727. This account is in given by a preacher (who is quoted by Mackenzie). At the end of the chapter, there is a quick textual extracts from the Suarbar Parish Register from 1805, listing the names, occupations, ages, status of confirmation, literacy levels, conduct and general abilities of a number of inhabitants. After this, the chapter closes with a "bibliography."

Auden's Letter to R.H.S. Crossman, Esq. is in verse, and also includes some old, textual enclosures: a "Formula of Peace-Making, a Law of Wager of Battle, and The Viking Law

Auden writes two letters to E.M.A., the first describing various sights, scenes, and people. There is also a discussion of Iceland's poetry, particularly the odd circumstance that "any average educated person one meets can turn out competent verse." There seems to be no "modern" influence. Included in this letter is Auden's poem, "A Detective Story," explaining why people read detective stories. The second letter I have mentioned above--in it he describes his idea for the Byron letters. The second letter shares a chapter with a set of strange proverbs that seem translated (e.g., "Ale is another man," "If mending will do, why cut off") and also an old story/legend about a woman troll.

Eclogue from Iceland was written by MacNeice, and in couplets, gives the dialogue between two tourists in Iceland and a ghost they meet. One of the tourists is Irish, and the other is escaping from the Spanish Civil War, suggesting they are representations of MacNeice and Auden. The tourists see Iceland as a kind of escape from Europe. The ghost, however, advises them to struggle on with modern Europe: "Minute your gesture but it must be made--/ Your hazard, your act of defiance and hymn of / hate, / Hatred of hatred, assertion of human values, / Which is now your only duty." Escape isn't a permanent answer.

Hetty to Nancy: These are a set of letter written by Macneice, adopting a loquacious female voice to tell of his and Auden's camping adventures with four schoolboys and their schoolmaster. "Hetty" relates the adventures of herself, her friend Maisie, and four schoolgirls and their schoolmistress. Hetty mostly launches complaints about her travel companions, about not having brought enough of her own camping supplies, and about the spartan living conditions of small tents in severe, cold weather. Hetty views the landscape to be inhospitable, and speaks fondly of "civilization" back in England. She writes, "Iceland is a barren land for souvenirs. Of course one can always bring home little bits of lava for one's friends...but I am afraid I have the wrong sort of friends." She doesn't see evidence of anything particularly foreign or romantic about Iceland: "You can't imagine any of them behaving like the people in the sagas." "Hetty" and "Nancy" are apparently codes, respectively, of "straight" and "gay," the letters revealing that Nancy is a lesbian who likes rock-climbing, and Hetty is stereotypically "feminine," holding up things like lipstick and marriage.

Auden's Letter to Kristjan Andresson, Esq. is an account of Iceland which Kristjan had requested from Auden after his travels, wishing to know what Auden's impressions of his own country were. Auden begins with apologies and qualifications on a touristic view of Iceland. He says he won't talk about geography, since impressions on people are really what matters most. This introduction aside, Auden launches unabashedly into his impressions, dividing them into the following categories: Physique and Clothes, Character, Manners, Wealth and Class Distinctions, Education and Culture, and General. Some of the more memorable observations that Auden makes about Icelanders is that they are "very direct, normal, and free from complexes, but whether that is a good or bad thing, I cannot decide." He appreciates Icelanders' wide appreciation of literature, but laments their lack of taste in architecture, drama, painting or music. In thinking through Iceland's future, Auden does not think that Iceland can become a successful capitalist society, because though peasant proprietors are becoming more and more "urbanised," there are not enough of them to "build up a capitalist culture of their own." Socialism might be an alternative. Finally, Auden is ambivalent about cosmopolitanism and Europe's influence on Iceland: "I know the day of self-contained national culture is over, that Iceland is far from Europe, that the first influences of Europe are always the worst ones, and that the development of a truly European culture is slow and expensive. But I am convinced that the cultural future of Iceland depends on the extent to which she can absorb the best of the European traditions, and make them her own."

Letter to William Coldstream, Esq begins as a "little donnish experiment in objective narrative," where Auden narrates what happens to them in third person. This is followed by a free-verse poem talking about the writing and publication of this work. This chapter ends with a poem, "Iceland" by MacNeice.

Auden and MacNeice's Joint "Last Will and Testament" end the work. The two of them bequeath many abstract concepts to people, communicated often via humorously enjambed lines like MacNeice's "And to my stepmother I leave her rich / Placid delight in detailed living who adds / Hour to hour as if it were stitch to stitch." Auden appoints Edward Upward and Christopher Isherwood "my join executors / To judge my work if it be bad or good." Together they also "leave" things that are not theirs to leave, like "the false front of Lincoln Cathedral" to the P.M. Baldwin, or "National character and strength of will" to Winston Churchill Ballinrobe's dry harbour." The tone is irreverent; the bequeathals often make fun of contemporaries. One of the more cutting moments is what they "leave" I.A. Richards:  "Item, to I.A. Richards who like a mouse / Nibbles linguistics with the cerebral tooth / We leave a quiet evening in a boarding-house." Towards the ending, however, their bequeathals become more serious: they leave, "[t]o all the dictators...the soft wind from the sweeping wing / Of madness, and the intolerable tightening of the mesh / Of history." And finally, near the very end, they end on a hopeful note: "We leave the unconceived and unborn lives / A closer approximation to real happiness / Than has been reached by us, our neighbours, or their wives."

MacNeice's Epilogue dedicated to Auden in a way summarizes what they have (not) seen in Iceland: "In that island never found / Visions blossom from the ground, / No conversions like St. Paul / No great happenings at all." Iceland's attraction, however, owes to its barrenness, in comparison to modern Europe: "Better were the northern skies / Than this desert in disguise--/ Rugs and cushions and the long / Mirror which repeats the song."

Auden returned to Iceland in 1965, and wrote a foreword to the 1966 edition of Letters from Iceland (by then MacNeice had passed away). In this foreword, Auden traces his lifetime relationship with Iceland: "In my childhood dreams Iceland was holy ground; when, at the age of twenty-nine, I saw it for the first time, the reality verified my dream; at fifty-seven it was holy ground still, with the most magical light of anywhere on earth." He returns to the themes of Iceland as a place somehow untouched by "modernity," and the "only really classless society I have ever encountered." Though Iceland could never really be an "escape" for Auden facing the challenges of two world wars and massive historical and cultural shifts, it manages to retain a kind of magical hold on him in its perceived exemption from the complications of the modern world.

James Wilson's reading of Letters from Iceland's hodge-podge form argues that the work follows the high modernist treatment of art and fragment with some important departures from modernist canonical texts like Eliot's The Wasteland. Like The Wasteland, Letters is "polyglot" and hence fragmented: various in genre, in allusions, textual extracts, and finally, dual authorship. At the same time, the literary work itself as a whole is a "hermetically sealed" whole: in Wilson's summary of this high modernist tenet: "Art is always art, rather than something else, but everything else can always be absorbed within its integral form." For Letters, the integral form which brings together fragments is the travel account, whereas in The Wasteland it's the poem. Where Letters departs from The Wasteland is in its rejection of Eliot's seriousness. Letters takes up Byron as a father-figure, and particularly, such a humorous, irreverent work as Don Juan. Wilson suggests that while Eliot and Auden/MacNeice all seek to form something integral and communal in the fragmented modern era via the power of literary form, the latter achieves this through a comedic spirit which is an alternative to Eliot's serious religiosity.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

The Importance of Being Earnest was Wilde's final play: it opened on Valentine's day in 1895 at St. James's theater in the West End. Having achieved much success with previous plays, Earnest was an immediate hit. Its success, however, was interrupted by Wilde's conviction, brought on by Lord Alfred Douglas's father, of homosexual offenses. The play stopped running prematurely as a result of the scandal caused by Wide's trial.

Act I: It is morning in Algernon Moncrieff's flat in the West End. His manservant, Lane, allows him to eat cucumber sandwiches that have been prepared for Lady Augusta Bracknell, his aunt. Jack Worthing appears, whom Algernon knows as Ernest. Jack has come to propose to Gwedolyn, Augusta's niece. Algernon makes some critical remarks on marriage, and then tells Jack that he needs to clear up some issue about one Cecily. Algernon brings out the cigarette case which Jack has left there, and demands to know why it says "From little Cecily with her fondest love to her uncle Jack." Jack confesses that she is the granddaughter of Mr. Thomas Cardew, the man who adopted him. She is his charge, and because one has to adopt a "high moral tone" when a guardian, Jack has invented a brother named Ernest as an excuse for him to visit town. Algernon says that he is a "Bunburyist," which refers to his own similar ruse to get out of unpleasant engagements--"Bunbury" is his fake invalid country friend, whom Algernon uses when Lady Bracknell comes in and asks him to dinner. Lane lies to Augusta about the cucumber sandwiches, saying that there were none at the market. While Augusta and Alberta go to the music room, Jack propose to Gwendolyn, who agrees to marry him because she likes the name Ernest. Lady Bracknell quizzes Jack on his background to determine if he is an worthy match for her niece. She is horrified when he tells her that he was left in a handbag at Victoria station and then taken up by Thomas Cardew. Gwendolyn tells Jack that she may not be able to marry him, but that she is eternally devoted. She asks for his country address, which Algernon takes down.

Act II: This act opens with Cecily in conversation with Miss Prism, her governess. Miss Prism acts prim, strict, and proper, but it is clear that she is interested in one Dr. Chasuble, the rector, as she talks to him about the ills of celibate life, encouraging him to marry. Cecily suggests that the two take a walk together. As Cecily is alone, Mr. Ernest Worthing (who is actually Algernon) arrives. They are taken up with each other. Meanwhile, Jack has come back and encounters Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism outside. Jack tells the two of them that Ernest as died of a severe chill while in Paris. Cecily emerges from the house, announcing that Jack's brother, Ernest, has come. Cecily makes Jack and Algernon reconcile, and when the two shake hands, she is pleased. Though Jack wants him to leave, Algernon stays on and proposes to Cecily. Cecily lets him know that they are actually already engaged--prior to their even meeting, she has written fantasy love letters and made records in her diary of their engagement. Realizing that she, like Gwendolyn, is in love with the name Ernest, decides to leave to get christened as Ernest. While he is gone, Gwendolyn arrives, seeking Jack (whom she thinks is Ernest). At first the women take well to each other, until there is the misunderstanding that they are both engaged to Ernest Worthing. At that point, the women view each other with barely veiled hatred over tea and cake, until Jack and Algernon both come in. At this point, the men have to admit that neither of them are named Ernest. The women immediately run to each others' side and leave the men. Algernon begins to eat muffins in his distress, while Jack looks on, disgusted.

Act III: Gwendolyn and Cecily decide to confront Algernon and Jack. They decide to forgive the men, who say that they will make the sacrifice of christening themselves Ernest. Lady Bracknell suddenly arrives at the country manor, causing problems because she will not sanction a marriage between Jack and Gwendolyn. After finding out that Cecily is well off, she does encourage Algernon to marry Cecily, however. Jack counters Lady Bracknell by saying that he will only countenance the marriage of Algernon and Cecily if she will countenance his marriage to Gwendolyn. They are at an impasse until Miss Prism's name comes up. Lady Bracknell demands to see her. It is revealed that Miss Prism, twenty-eight years ago, accidentally put her three-volume novel into a baby carriage, and a baby into a handbag, which she left at Victoria station. That baby was Jack, and belonged to Mrs. Moncrieff, Lady Bracknell's sister. It turns out then, that Algernon and Jack are brothers. Jack additionally finds out that his name is indeed Ernest (which is also the name of Jack and Algernon's biological father). The play ends with reconciliation: Jack will marry his cousin Gwendolyn, and Algernon will marry Cecily. Chasuble and Miss Prism also finally reveal their attachments to one another.

Like many of Wilde's other works, the characters in Earnest challenge traditional notions of morality with sayings that turn traditional morality on its head. The women marry not for love, for romance, or for sentiment, but for a name. Each of the characters spout witticisms which say the opposite of what is to be expected. There are countless examples, but here are just a few:

-Algernon on the lower classes: "Really, if the lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?"
-Jack on truth and courtship: "My dear fellow, the truth isn't quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice sweet refined girl."
-Gwendolyn to Jack: "The simplicity of your character makes you exquisitely incomprehensible to me."
-Cecily regarding her diary: "It is simply a very young girl's record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication."

All of these examples are certainly humorous, but they also do the work of revealing the traditional morality which they refer to to be equally absurd. In the first quotation, the traditional morality being mocked is the notion that the upper classes ought to set an example for the lower classes. The second quotation mocks the hypocrisy of the "sweet" and "refined"; indeed, these are rather social "lies" themselves and so ought to be treated in kind. The third quotation reverses the notion that those who are simple, frank, and candid are comprehensible, again revealing potential hypocrisies in those who like to pose as "simple." Finally, the fourth quotation critiques traditional notions of what ought to be private and public. Cecily is by no means a young, innocent girl whose thoughts and impressions ought to be protected from the vulgar public eye--in fact, she desires that these thoughts to be widely seen.

Thus, the "serious" work (the play was subtitled "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People") that Earnest does is to explode myths of traditional morality, and in doing so, level a charge against hypocrisy. The main characters in the play may be liars and primarily concerned with money, their names, eating well, and other aspects of life that are generally considered "superficial" but they are not hypocrites like many who espouse traditional morality. Even those that adopt more traditionally "moral" stances, Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble, come around in the end. The importance of being "earnest," then, is the importance of not being a hypocrite.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Selections from Twice-Told Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hawthorne's collection of Twice-Told Tales was published in two volumes: the first in 1837 and the second in 1842. All of these tales had previously appeared in magazines or annuals. The collections were only moderately successful, though the stories were praised by the likes of Poe and Longfellow in critical reviews.

The Gray Champion: A ghostly old warrior reappears during times of trial, specifically, when the people of New England were under oppression. This "Gray Champion" fends off the tyranny of Royal Governor Edmund Andros in April of 1689. 
The Wedding Knell: Like many of the other stories in this collection, this is a frame story: the narrator tells his grandmother's testimony of an incident in a church in New York years ago. An old widow was to marry an old scholar. At her wedding, funeral bells ring ominously, and a ghastly procession of old men and women enter, with the bridegroom entering finally in a shroud. She grimly accepts this marriage as a "marriage of eternity."
The Minister's Black Veil: This is one of the most famous and anthologized stories of the collection. One day, the reserved Reverend Hooper began to wear a black veil without explanation. The mystery gradually threatens to degenerate into scandal, but the minister refuses even to tell his wife why he wears it, only saying that it is a "type" or "symbol" of his sorrow. The minister finds that sinners are attracted to his veil, perhaps imagining their own sins as a kind of black veil. The minister won't even take off his veil on his deathbed, and he is buried with it. Oddly, though the minister says on his deathbed that it is indeed a symbol for the evil that is in every human, the story ends with people fearing something very material rather than the abstract--the mouldering face under the veil.
The Maypole of Merry Mount: This account is framed by the narrator's guarantee that what follows may be verified in "Strutt's Book of English Sports and Pastimes." The narrator proceeds to describe a scene of the Maypole celebrations in the New England colony: a lord and lady of the Maypole are crowned, and all are happy; suddenly, though, "care and sorrow" enters into the countenances of the couple because they "truly loved." Here, a historical account of the Puritan settlers and the Merry Mount colonists interrupts. The account, though seeming to go for an "objective" tone, paints a pretty grim picture of the austere Puritans. Governor Endicott himself stops the Maypole celebrations, cutting down the maypole itself in a castrating stroke. He takes the lord and lady prisoner, and punishes the rest of the revelers. He does take some pity on the two young lovers though, and decides to take them up and indoctrinate them into Puritanism. The narrative ends by suggesting, however, that some part of their "early joys" remained in them.
The Gentle Boy: This is a story of the Quaker-Puritan encounter in New England in the colonial days. The narrator isn't particularly kind to either group--the Quakers are represented as overly-eager martyrs, and the Puritans are over-stern in their persecution of other faiths. The exception is a Puritan named Pearson, who takes in a Quaker boy named Ilbrahim whose father has been killed by the Puritans. Pearson and his wife take care of the boy, and prepare to raise him as their own. In church, they are shunned by their peers. Pearson eventually becomes a Quaker himself, but his new faith is tried when Ilbrahim falls ill. Ilbrahim dies just as his biological mother returns from exile to say that the King has issued a mandate to stay Quaker martyrdoms.
Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe: This is a markedly more comical story than most, in which a tobacco pedlar spreads a rumor that he hears from a traveler on the road that Mr. Higginbotham has been hanged. It turns out that Higginbotham is not dead. However, there are several men that still seem to corroborate that Higginbotham has in fact been hanged. To get to the bottom of it all, the pedlar follows Higginbotham home one day, and actually catches someone in the act of hanging him. The mystery is solved: three men plotted Higginbotham's robbery and murder, but two of them delayed the act because they lost their courage. The pedlar had run into both of these men. The third he caught in the act.
Wakefield: This is one of the more formally interesting stories: the entire "plot" is told in the first paragraph. Basically, a man in London leaves his new wife, lives next door to her undiscovered for twenty years, and then finally returns and lives out the rest of his life as a loving spouse. The narrator uses this story to construct a speculation as to what happened. The speculation is that Wakefield didn't plan his long absence--that one day, he just sort of left and then got used to blending into the London crowd. Similarly, the narrator doesn't think that Wakefield's return was pre-meditated. If there is any sort of moral that the narrator offers, it is this: "Amid the seeming confusion of our mysterious world, individuals are so nicely adjusted to a system, and systems to one another and to a whole, that by stepping outside for a moment, a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever."
The Great Carbuncle: This story reads a bit like a fairy tale: eight people are seeking "the great carbuncle" (a precious jewel) in the mountains of Maine. They are a cynic, a poet, a merchant, a scientist, a "seeker" (someone who has just been ambitious since his youth about seeking this jewel), a lord, and a humble, rustic young couple named Matthew and Hannah. They all have different reasons for seeking the great carbuncle. At night, Matthew and Hannah go to seek it and nearly perish in the attempt because they have gone so far up the mountain. They finally find it, and they see that the seeker has perished beneath it. The cynic has made it up there too: he doesn't see the carbuncle at first, but Matthew and Hannah tell him to take of his spectacles. He does so, and he is blinded by the light of the jewel. Matthew and Hannah decide to return home without the carbuncle; they don't need such an extravagant light for their humble cottage.
David Swan: A Fantasy: This story is about events that come close to happening that we are unaware of. David Swan was on his way to Boston to work for his uncle, the grocer. He falls asleep under a tree and doesn't wake as various people pass by him. A couple nearly takes him in to be their own charge, a potential lover passes by, and a couple of "rascals" nearly rob (and potentially murder) him. David wakes up, and eventually goes on his way to Boston not knowing anything of what might have happened.
The Hollow of the Three Hills: A young woman meets with a old crone with psychical powers in order to listen to the voices of people she's "left behind." She has left behind aged parents, an estranged husband, and a defenseless child. She dies from the spell.
Dr. Heidegger's Experiment: The doctor conducts an experiment on four aged friends of his. Apparently, he has discovered the fountain of youth--not  in Europe, as might be expected, but in Florida. The aged friends, a widow and three men who have loved her in her youth, drink the water and forget the lessons of old age when they find that they are young again. They are reckless, and shatter the vase with the water in it. The effects of the water are only temporary. Having seen the "results" of his experiment, Dr. Heidegger gives up on pursuing this project.
Legends of the Province House: This is a group of stories that are linked to a province house that the narrator visits. It is the old mansion of the royal governors of Massachusetts. The narrator essentially says that these stories are likely to have a foothold in truth as well as in legend. In the first story, Howe's Masquerade, Sir William Howe, who would be the Commander-in-Chief of the British army during the American Revolution, has a masquerade party in the mansion. At this party, a funereal procession of former Massachusetts governors enters. Howe beholds himself at the end of this train. The legend says that on the anniversary of the British loss to power, these ghosts frequent the province house. Edmund Randolph's Portrait is framed as an account of one Mr. Bela Tiffany, whom the narrator encounters. The Lieutenant-Governor Hutchinson makes the mistake of not listening to his niece's warnings that the portrait of Edmund Randolph hanging in the province house registered the man's agony of having done evil against the people. He decides to sign an order to allow British troops to occupy the Castle William. Years later, Hutchinson is said to have died with the same frenzied look on his face that the portrait of Edmund Randolph revealed. Lady Eleanor's Mantle is about the haughty Lady Eleanor, who arrives to live at the province house because she is the relative of one Colonel Shute who lived there. She wears a mantle which symbolizes pride and the mantle brings smallpox to New England. The crazed suitor of hers, Jervase Helwyse, ends up burning the mantle. This story is also told by Bela Tiffany. The final story, Old Esther Dudley, is told by an old and somewhat senile royalist who has joined their circle. After Howe left the province house, the old Esther who had lived there all her life decided to stay behind. It became rumored, long after the revolution had happened, that she would have ghosts from colonial times over at the house. When the Republican governor Hancock comes to the province house, she mistakes him for the royal governor. She dies soon afterwards, loyal to the king to the end.
The Ambitious Guest: This is the harrowing tale of a family living in the mountains of Maine. They are shown as rustic and happy, until an "ambitious guest," a young man who dreams about doing things worthy of a commemorative monument comes to seek shelter. He inspires the members of the family to also desire more--the father thinks about political office, the eldest girl thinks of love, and the Grandmother thinks of what she wants for her burial rites. A landslide rolls down the mountain and obliterates them all.
Peter Goldthwaite's Treasure: A reckless speculator named Peter Goldthwaite believes that there is gold hidden under his house by an old relative of his. Peter lives with an old housekeeper named Tabitha. Peter tears apart the house, confident that he will find something. He finds nothing but old, devalued currency. He is rescued by his partner, John Brown, who offers to buy his property and to put them up at a nearby place in the meantime.
Shaker Bridal: Much like the stories of other religious sects, the narrative offers a critical account. Two Shakers, a woman and a man, have been too poor to marry even thought they are in love. Instead, the two decide to commit their lives to leading the Shaker community together: as the Shaker elder dies and passes on his authority two these two, other members of the community are skeptical and are afraid that these two will submit to "carnal desires." The man, Adam, vows at length that he will not, but Martha, the woman, is too in touch with her own real feelings to venture more than a quick response. The story points out the hypocrisy of the Shaker men who have libertine pasts and require strict sexual mores of others. 
The importance of creating American historical myths cannot be too much emphasized in any discussion of this collection. The story frames, the linking of stories to specific places, the emphasis on passages of time all contribute to the sense that Hawthorne is deliberately making American historical myths. America has its own myths separate from Europe. And though these "myths" are centered in New England, which functions in Hawthorne's stories as a kind of sacred and mysterious originary place, it is clear from moves like locating the fountain of youth in Florida in Dr. Heidegger's Experiment that Hawthorne means to create national and not just local myth. Even the title, Twice-Told Tales signals re-telling and the passing down of stories. Publication in different serials and annuals renders the short stories transitory and fragmented; Twice-Told Tales regroups them into a unified body of American myth to be passed down throughout the generations.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

Edition: The Portrait of a Lady (Penguin Classics)
Portrait of a Lady was published in twelve parts in Macmillan's Magazine and the Atlantic Monthly in 1880. Book publication followed both in England ad America in 1881. The New York Edition (1907) of the work contains a number of revisions. F.O. Matthiessen summarizes many of these changes as amplifications of character in late-Jamesian style. Relatedly, James also changed the language to heighten the eroticism of the men who wish to possess Isabel. Ralph's deathbed scene was also amplified for emotional effect. Some other major changes include: the addition of Chapter 51, in which the Countess Gemini tells Isabel of Merle and Osmond's relationship and the deletion of a passage in Chapter 29 which spelled out aspects of Osmond and Merle's relationship. (Source: Pat Righelato, Litencyc).

The novel opens with Daniel Touchett, a wealthy American banker who has bought an old English property (Gardencourt), in conversation with his son Ralph, and his son's friend Lord Warburton, a young English nobleman. Touchett's estranged wife, Lydia, has returned to England from America with her niece Isabel Archer in tow. Her aunt felt that Isabel's intelligence and curiosity were too constrained in Albany, New York, and wished to give Isabel an opportunity to "see the world," so to speak. Of her three sisters, Isabel had always been considered to be the most intelligent. When Ralph asks his mother what she plans to "do" with Isabella, his mother answers that Isabel will do as she wants, revealing Isabel's independent streak. At Gardencourt, Isabel discusses Warburton with her uncle, whom she greatly likes. Her uncle thinks of him as a liberal radical who doesn't do much because he is so well off; he merely has good theories but won't act seriously on anything. Warburton soon takes a liking to Isabel, but she rebuffs him.

Henrietta Stackpole, a dear friend of Isabel's from and a lady journalist who works for the New York Interviewer, arrives in England as well. She comes to Gardencourt, hoping to report on the "inner life" of European aristocracy. Ralph misunderstands Henrietta's intrepidness as a marriage proposal, and Henrietta is momentarily offended. She, unlike Ralph, views herself as intensely and patriotically "American" in her candor and ambitious attitude; she doesn't like Ralph for his not "taking hold" of anything in his life. Meanwhile, Isabel receives a letter from Caspar Goodwood, a suitor who had tried to win her hand back home in Albany--Caspar will be arriving to see her shortly.

Isabel doesn't know why, but right after Warburton proposes to her, she knows that she cannot accept him. She senses that the life which he would bring her into--of material well-being, and social-well being--would curb her independence and desire to discover the world on her own. Henrietta tells Ralph that she is afraid that Isabel is losing her American idealism, and succumbing to Old World cosmopolitanism, and pushes him to invite Goodwood to Gardencourt. Goodwood refuses the invite for the time being. Ralph, Henrietta, and Isabel go to London, and Goodwood chooses to intercept her there.  Of course, Isabel rejects Goodwood too, and also confronts Henrietta for her duplicity in encouraging him. For Henrietta, Goodwood, heir to a cotton mill, is the perfect "American" man for Isabel: he is forthcoming, manly, and will treat her well. This, however, Isabel also sees as a constraint on her freedom. The only character who seems to understand her is Ralph, who secretly talks to his father (who has fallen ill and soon will die) and convinces him to give half of his own inheritance to Isabel in order that he might watch what she would do with her freedom.

Before Daniel Touchett's death, Isabel meets a woman named Madame Merle, a friend of her aunt's. Madame Merle is a polished, independent, and intelligent woman whom Isabel takes to immediately. When Touchett dies, Isabel finds out about the seventy-thousand pounds that she has received upon the death of her uncle. At first, she feels constrained and doesn't know how to use the money. Henrietta worries too that the money will take her away from the "realities" of human life and suffering and that she will be caught up in the cheap cosmopolitan thrills on the Continent. Isabel first trip as a heiress will be to go to Florence with her aunt. Here, the narrative breaks and shows a scene between Gilbert Osmond (an American who has lived all his life in Italy and a mediocre painter) and his meek and obedient daughter Pansy. He has been considering taking her out of the convent where she had been studying and speaking with Madame Merle, ostensibly an old friend of his. Madame Merle suggests that Osmond marry Isabel and thinks that he will be fascinated by her. Isabel makes the acquaintance of Osmond through Madame Merle and she indeed takes to him immediately. She is fascinated by his "connoisseurship" of life, his wide-ranging tastes, and the sense of indifference that makes him seem so independent of everything. At Osmond's, she also meets the Countess Gemini, his sister, who sees through Madame Merle's plan and disapproves. She does nothing to hinder the connection between Isabel and Gilbert, however.

When Isabel has plans to go to Rome with Ralph, Henrietta, and Ralph's English friend Bantling (a kind but not particularly bright man who already seems to be under Henrietta's thumb), she suggests that Osmond come along. In Rome, Isabel encounters Lord Warburton; their meeting is strained. Osmond decides to come to Rome as well, and in this setting, he wants Isabel even more, thinking of her as something he would like for his "collection," because she is rare and an original. Before she is called back to Florence by her aunt, Osmond confesses to her that he is in love with her. He does not propose to her for the time being, however, and merely asks if she would visit with Pansy while back in Florence.

A year later, during which time Isabel's sister Lily had visited her and Isabel had traveled with Madame Merle in Turkey and Egypt, Caspar visits Isabel back in Florence. She has told him of her engagement to Osmond. When her aunt and Ralph learn about the engagement, they are both disappointed with her decision. Mrs. Touchett blames Madame Merle. Ralph confronts Isabel with her choice. She says that she is marrying Osmond because he doesn't care for money or position, and is therefore free. Ralph sees in Osmond nothing more than a selfish, "sterile dilettante." Isabel settles in with Osmond, taking responsibility for Pansy as her stepmother. Time passes: Isabel has a miscarriage, and Pansy receives a suitor, Ned Rosier, an American art collector living in Paris. Osmond doesn't want Rosier to marry his daughter because he deems Rosier too poor, and would prefer for his daughter to marry Warburton. Warburton seems to make some overtures towards Pansy, but it is soon revealed that he is only thinking of marrying her in order to get closer to Isabel. Meanwhile, Isabel becomes more and more estranged from her husband, who turns out to be controlling and paranoid. She also discovers that he and Madame Merle seem much more intimate with one another than she might have thought. Isabel's friends, Henrietta, Ralph, and Goodwood all go to Rome in order to be nearby should Isabel need any help. When Warburton leaves Rome, his hopes for Isabel dashed once again, Osmond accuses Isabel of ruining Pansy's chances.

Eventually, Henrietta, Goodwood, and Ralph return to Gardencourt on acccount of Ralph's failing health. Before leaving, Henrietta tries to get Isabel to leave Osmond, but she says she will not because she has made marriage vows. Isabel soon learns the truth about Madame Merle and Osmond: Pansy is their child together, and she had been conspiring to win Pansy a fortune by fixing Isabel with Osmond. Rosier, who had left Rome for a period of time in order to sell his art to make enough money to win Pansy, now returns but in a rage, Osmond sends Pansy back to the convent. Ralph sends for Isabel because he is on his deathbed. Osmond won't let Isabel go, but she does anyways. Before going to England, Isabel stops in to visit Pansy: though the girl is still obedient to her father's wishes and in every way the innocent and perfect little specimen that he has crafted her to be, she begins to see that something is wrong between Isabel and her father. Boldly, Pansy also declares that she doesn't like Madame Merle, who has just also been visiting her. At the convent, Madame Merle tells Isabel of Ralph's role in bringing about her fortune.

In London, Isabel is met by Henrietta and Mr. Bantling, whom she will be marrying: despite her vows to  be American through and through, she will be settling down in London. Isabel goes to Ralph on his deathbed. They reconcile, and confess their love for each other. Isabel realizes her error but feels that she can do nothing but to return to Rome after Ralph dies. She rejects Caspar one more time before doing so. The novel ends oddly not with Isabel but with Henrietta reassuring the distraught Caspar: "She walked him away with her, however, as if she had given him now the key to patience."
There's a lot to tackle in Portrait of a Lady but for my own interests in changes in journalism during the late nineteenth century, I'm going to focus not on Isabel Archer, but on Henrietta Stackpole, who is a sort of foil to Isabel Archer. Indeed, since her judgments turn out to be right, and since she does the novel, she seems a rather critically underestimated and unexamined character. A notable exception is Elise Miller's essay, "The Marriages of Henry James and Henrietta Stackpole" (1989) in the Henry James Review.

Miller points out that Henrietta Stackpole's name signals the wielding together of traditionally masculine and feminine traits. "Henry" is embedded in Henrietta, and Stackpole suggests a rigidity and strength which is as unbending as Goodwood's. Her profession as a "lady journalist" too is a contradiction in gender values: in an era during which journalism was defined more and more as a male endeavor, requiring an intrepid aggression and an adventurous, investigative spirit, she achieves professional success. In the end, she even gets money from Ralph to start her own newspaper. As Miller also points out, however, Henrietta is not really interested in traditionally masculine subjects for her paper: she wishes to behold the "inner life," of the societies that she visits. This, Miller argues, is her feminine side--though she is intrepid and aggressive (Ralph describes her as going through doors without knocking), she is also open and sensitive to psychological complexities of those she encounters. Miller writes: "Henrietta's brash journalism combined with her feminine nosiness, her aggressive integrity combined with her flair for melodrama, make her an amalgam of male and female, rebellion and convention.

To build on Miller's discussion, I argue that Henrietta's staunch Americanism is important. It seems that her success as a lady journalist has much to do with her nationality: to be American is to be frank, idealistic, and free of the social conventions and distinctions that characterize the Old World. As other characters have admitted, there is something about her that is fresh, and which signals the future. Though she is a lady, her candor, free spiritedness, and her intrepid crossing of boundaries is distinctly American: thus, to say that she is a lady journalist might not be such a contradiction in terms. She isn't necessarily male, but properly American. In the end, she does make concessions--both with respect to her freedom as a woman, and as an American--by marrying an Englishman. He is, however, the most benign of Englishmen, a man who is duller than her, kind, and will not oppose her on anything important such as her ideals and her career.

Thus Henrietta seems to embody a kind of independence which Isabel fails to achieve through embracing some conventions--loving her nation, engaging in a "profession," and finally marrying--but on her own terms. It is perhaps Isabel's insistence on independence from all of these things that brings about her ruin: this isn't the kind of independence that was available, least of all for women.

Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Edition: The Remains of the Day
The Remains of the Day was published in 1989 and won the prestigious Booker Prize for fiction. The novel is Ishiguro's third novel.

The story is told from the first-person point of view of Stevens, the butler at Darlington Hall, as he embarks upon a four-day excursion into the English countryside in July of 1956. His new employer, an American by the name of Farraday, has suggested that Stevens take a vacation; Stevens, whose "professionalism" defines nearly his entire personality. Stevens tells the reader that he decides to take the trip only after an old housekeeper during the great days at Darlington Hall before the war, formerly Miss Kenton and now Mrs. Benn, had written to him with a tinge of nostalgia and news that her marriage wasn't so great. Stevens goes into great detail about how a faulty "staff plan" after Farraday's paring down of the staff was the culprit for some minor errors which he had committed lately. Stevens has in mind that Miss Kenton might return to Darlington and solve these minor problems.

The time during which Stevens writes his story is confined to immediately before, during, and immediately after his trip, but the story itself follows no particular chronology and seems to spontaneously pour out of Stevens's head as a set of flashbacks and philosophical musings. One of his first anecdotes he offers is an account of Farraday gently teasing him about visiting a lady friend; this anecdote launches him into a longer musing on the requirements of "banter" which his new employer requires, and which he can't seem to get a hang of. On the road to Salisbury in Farraday's Ford, Stevens is told by an old man to take a view of England atop a hill, and he does so, thinking on how "great" the landscape of "Great Britain" really was. This catapults him into reflecting on what makes a "great" butler, and he answers that a great butler must have "dignity." To describe dignity, which he defines as an "ability to inhabit [a] profeesional role and inhabit it to the utmost," Stevens gives a few examples from his own father's career: one time, when his father was a butler in India, shot a tiger under a dining room table without disturbing the occupants of the drawing room; another time, his father compelled a couple of drunk men he was driving to settle down just by force of his own silence; and yet another time, his father maintained his composure while serving the haughty general who had given bad orders resulting in the death of Stevens's older brother.

On the morning of the second day (Stevens is still in Salisbury), Stevens re-reads Miss Kenton's letter and has a long flashback to their mutual arrival at Darlington Hall in 1922. Miss Kenton had been pointing out that Stevens's father had been making more and more errors. Stevens has rude responses to Miss Kenton and basically won't believe her. Soon however, his father's decline simply can't be ignored; following a fall, Stevens tells his father curtly (and "professionally," Stevens thinks) that his duties will be abridged. He ignores the old man's protests. Here, the reflection ends and Stevens doubles back to talking about his approach to Salisbury, and how he had nearly run over a chicken. Abruptly, he returns again to talk about his father, thinking it important to justify his treatment of his father as the reader might think him harsh. To give further examples that his behavior was simply professional (and, ostensibly, "dignified"), Stevens narrates the events of the conference of 1923 at Darlington Hall. Stevens regards this moment as a proud one of his career because he thought that it illustrated his own coming-of-age as a butler. It was an "unofficial" conference at Lord Darlington's which would essentially bring about the relaxing of terms against Germany in the Versailles Treaty (the "official" conference, Stevens tells us, is merely a front for what has already happened in private settings such as Darlington's home). As the reader knows, this relaxation of terms was the appeasement policy that would largely enable Hitler's ascendancy. Stevens, though, seems negligently unconcerned about this, simply using the occasion to talk about his own equanimity even though his father dies during this event. Stevens callously ignores his father's deathbed question as to whether he's been a good father to him or not and delusionally imagines that his father would want him to continue his duties. During the conference, the foreign diplomats that Darlington has assembled seek to convince M. Dupont, a French gentleman of interest, of the need for relaxed terms because it is the "gentlemanly" thing to do after war. M. Dupont comes around, and the only dissident is Mr. Lewis, the American. After Stevens's father died, Darlington remarks that it seems as if Stevens has been crying, but Stevens, of course, shrugs this off.

In the afternoon of this same day, Stevens reaches Mortimer's Pond in Dorset. He continues reflecting on the question of what makes a "great" butler, and launches into a nostalgic consideration of his own generation of butlers, whom he imagines as being part of the hub of a wheel: the metaphor is that important decisions which change the course of history are made from the hubs (great houses like Darlington) and the fanning out of the spokes represents the widespread effects of such decisions. Thus, the butlers at these great houses were at the center of historical change. Stevens returns to an incident on his journey, in which he notices a strange noise coming from his car. He manages to find someone to help at a garage. Strangely, Stevens finds himself lying to the man at the garage about his association with Lord Darlington, and we find out that this is something that he has lied about before. The reader becomes increasingly aware of Stevens's hidden desires to distance himself from the name. On reaching Taunton, Somerset, Stevens recalls an episode which substantiates Darlington's loss of his good name after the war. It seems that Darlington had received hospitality from the Nazis during his pre-war trips to Germany, and had also received to his own home members of the "blackshirts." Stevens is quick to defend Darlington, however, saying that he cut off associations with the Nazis and the blackshirts as soon as he realized what they represented.

On the evening of the third day, Stevens has reached Moscombe, a small village near Tavistock, and he doubles back to answer charges of anti-semitism leveled against Darlington. Apparently, Darlington had dismissed two of their Jewish housemaids at one point--this became a point of contention between Stevens and Miss Kenton. Miss Kenton felt it to be wrong and nearly resigned on principle while Stevens maintained that such decisions by "great men" did not concern them. The hiring of a new pretty housemaid named Lisa becomes an occasion for Miss Kenton making fun of Stevens for having a "curious aversion to pretty girls being on the staff," suggesting his repressed sexuality. Stevens, of course, denies this. It seems increasingly clear, however, that Miss Kenton and Stevens has a much more intimate relationship than Stevens would admit. Stevens then reveals that he had been so deep in thought that he has gotten lost, resulting in his running out of Petrol. He had found lodging with a nice couple, the Taylors, at Moscombe. After this bit of information, Stevens offers another recollection which has preoccupied him of late: the time that Miss Kenton discovered him reading a sentimental romance novel. His excuse at the time had been that such novels were helpful in perfecting his gentlemanly English, though he does admit getting some "incidental enjoyment" out of reading them. He thought that this incident may have led to a change in his relationship with Miss Kenton; things seem increasingly strained between the two of them when he refrains from comforting her when her aunt died. Going back to his stay at the Taylor's, Stevens tells of how the various members of the small village came to know about his arrival and many of them imagine him to be a "gentleman," voicing to him their opinions on political involvement and wishing to gain his attention. Stevens doesn't let on that he is just a butler, but says that he has encountered the likes of Mr. Eden and Lord Halifax. The question as to whether those who are not "great men" should have strong opinions and a say in politics comes up, and Stevens is uncomfortable. He ends this section with an extended excuse about how butlers can only be good butlers if they don't question the decisions of their employers. Thus, Stevens concludes, "it is quite illogical that I should feel any regret or shame on my own account."

On the afternoon of the fourth day, Stevens has reached Little Compton, where he will meet with Miss Kenton. While sitting at his hotel before their meeting, Stevens reflects on an episode in which Mr. Cardinal, a journalist and the godson of Lord Darlington, berated Stevens for refusing to see that Darlington was a pawn for Hitler. During this visit, Miss Kenton also revealed to Stevens that she was getting married and leaving Darlington Hall. In these fraught moments, Stevens chooses to maintain his "sense of duty," showing little to no evidence of a moral struggle or of emotion. The account closes with Stevens's retrospective account of his meeting with Miss Kenton, in which she had revealed to him that she and her husband were in fact fine and that she had reconciled with him. She hints at the life that Stevens and she could have had together, and Stevens even admits that his heart was breaking as he heard this. He bids her to be happy, however, and takes his leave. In the final scene, Stevens is before the pier in the evening. There, he meets another butler and in his reflections to this other butler, begins to realize some of his own errors. Sadly, he reflects on how Lord Darlington at lest "chose a certain path in life," though "it proved to be a misguided one," but that he himself "cannot even claim that." As Stevens begins to think that there is no dignity in that, his companion tells him to stop, and to enjoy the evening, the remains of the day. In the end, it seems that Stevens reaches a more humanistic understanding as he looks out on the groups of people "bantering" in the evening, thinking how perhaps "in bantering likes the key to human warmth."

Like Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, Ishiguro's first person narrator's story emerges out of a disjointed account which temporally jumps around in such a way that the account is as much a story as a psychological portrait of a disturbed individual. The account primarily oscillates between the past and the present; the overall structure is that something in the present catapults the narrator into either some recollection from his time as a butler under Darlington or some extended philosophical reflection on his career or the changing times more broadly.

At the heart of this story is the psychological portrait of a person who does progress, who gradually comes to realize his own inhumanity: in the reflective oscillation between past and present which his time off from work enables, he does get closer and closer to admitting the mistakes of his past. The scenes that he revisits from his past are ones that clearly bother him, even as he re-justifies them with the same rationales that he had used at the time. In doing so, he gradually realizes their emptiness, culminating in his admitting to himself his love for Miss Kenton (in describing his heart-break) and affirming the importance of "human warmth" at the end of the day.

What makes Ishiguro's novel greater than just a psychological portrait of a man who learns that he has sacrificed his own humanity to the abstraction of "professional duty" is its contextualization within the social changes from the pre-war to the post-war period. Stevens's being unaware of human suffering through his idealization of Darlington's English gentlemanliness and his own professional dignity is shot through by the unawareness of the whole world as it stood by while Hitler came to power. Since Stevens's realization of his own mistake sneaks up on him and isn't anything climactic, Ishiguro seems to remind us that the attitudes that comprise appeasement have a much deeper root than "political policy," it seems to be an attitude which pervasively extended its influence from high to low society. That someone like Stevens, a butler, could accept as part of inhabiting his "profession" that he was incapable of making moral distinctions and that such decisions should be left to the more capable elites indicates that appeasement was written into the entire structure of English society. Stevens's attitude and revisions of his own past at the end of the novel also doesn't seem to owe much to his own moral merit, but changes in English society after the war. As he looks out on the pier, he meets a butler enjoying his retirement and groups of people enjoying the evening after work. This "new" kind of professional, unlike the old professional who "inhabits" his role all the time, takes of the "role" that s/he inhabits at the end of the day, and has time for "human warmth," even if it is only at the end of the day. In acknowledging this change from new to old professionalism, Stevens again sort of goes with the flow.

Finally, what could Ishiguro's revisitation of such pre-war to post-war changes have to do with the moment of The Remains of the Day's publication? The fall of the Berlin Wall comes to mind, naturally, as the most salient association with 1989. The fall of the wall was a symbolic end to post-war Germany, and the hailing of a new era of democracy and freedom, and so Ishiguro's meditations might be a kind of elegy and reminder of what has come before. Certainly, obvious lessons might be drawn--don't be a drone and accept blind ideologies, maintain your individual moral compass so that this new democracy might last--but I don't think it's quite so simple that, since Stevens's coming to realize his own humanity isn't really his triumph as an individual but simply his being carried on by the "times." Still, though perhaps we're all slaves to the "times," Ishiguro's novel does engage readers in a meta-critical exercise  which reflects on what it might look like to be one particular slave to the times, in hopes, perhaps, to lessen the extend of our own blindness to our times.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Whilomville Stories by Stephen Crane

Edition: Whilomville Stories

Stephen Crane's Whilomville Stories consists of thirteen, self-contained short stories primarily about the children of a sleepy, fictional town called Whilomville. "Whilom," which means "once upon a time," may have become familiar to Crane in his childhood through a family connection to the "Whilom drum corps." (Source: See Brown and Hernlund, "Notes," American Literature 50:1).  Each of the thirteen stories was serialized in Harper's New Monthly Magazine from August 1899-August 1900.

"The Angel Child," (I and II): The first two stories are about an "angel child" (Cora) a spoiled and tyrannical young girl who is the daughter of a timid painter and his imperious wife. In the first story, the "angel child" comes to Whilomville (from New York) for a visit because the Trescott's of Whilomville are relations. It is her birthday, and so she asks her father for money--he hands over five dollars to her. This five dollars enables much havoc, including the humorous scene where Cora decides that they should all spend her birthday money on haircuts at William Neeltje's barber shop. The Whilomville parents, especially of the Margate twins with the curls, are horrified, and these overblown reactions are chronicled in the second story.

"Lynx Hunting" chronicles the adventure of young Jimmie Trescott and a group of boys who decide to go "lynx hunting." Goaded into acting brave, Jimmie accidentally shoots a cow. When the boys get in trouble with Old Fleming (the owner of the cow), the boys all cower. Fleming lets Jimmie off, because Jimmie's answer as to why he shot the cow ("I thought it was a lynx") was so funny.

"The Lover and the Telltale" tells of how Jimmie had fallen in love with Cora and how he wrote a love-letter to her in class. Another girl in the class saw Jimmie writing this letter, and taunts him. Jimmie fights back and gets in trouble with the teacher.

Showin' Off" is another story about Jimmie's love interests, this time in a girl named Abbie whom he followed home one day. Along the way, Jimmie performs his masculinity by beating up on a young companion of his. Before Abbie's house, Jimmie encounters one Horace, who like Jimmie, had a velocipede (a three wheeled bicycle). Jimmie boasts that he can go faster on his velocipede, and eventually Horace is goaded into saying that he could go down a ravine. As he looks over the edge in preparation to go, Horace accidentally goes down the ravine on his velocipede and gets into a accident.

"Making an Orator" is about how the schoolchildren must each memorize a famous speech in order to develop their oratorical skills. The narrator criticizes this requirement as "mainly to agonize many children permanently against arising to speak their thought to fellow-creatures." Jimmie has been assigned to perform Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade," and at first he avoids the performance entirely by pretending to be sick. Eventually, he has to give the speech, and bungles it up entirely, chanting: "Half a leg, half a leg" and then forgetting the rest. The story shows how the children know nothing about the contexts of the works that they perform, subjecting great European texts to a kind of comical devaluation.

"Shame" opens with Jimmie asking their cook for food because he must attend a picnic. Sassy and reluctant, the cook gives in and prepares fish sandwiches for Jimmie in a pail. At the picnic, the other children make fun of Jimmie for having lunch in a pail. He hides behind a tree by himself, but regains his confidence even to the point of becoming boastful when "a beautiful lady" takes pity on him and sits with him. Back at home, he buries the sandwiches in Peter Washington's stable to avoid the wrath of the cook (Peter Washington is the African-American help on the Trescott property).

In "The Carriage Lamps," Jimmie secretly acquires a revolver through bartering. Peter Washington discovers this and tells Mr. Trescott. Jimmie throws rocks at Peter in retaliation, shattering some carriage lamps in the process. Though the Trescott's realize that Jimmie has been in the wrong, a rather ineffectual punishment is doled out.

"The Knife" is unusual because it isn't a story of the children, but of Peter Washington and Alek Williams, who both are tempted to steal a melon from one Si Bryant's property. Peter catches Alek in the act (even though he was about to do the same thing) but doesn't tell on Alek. When Si Bryant asks Alek later if he knew whose knife had been left on his property, Alek recognizes it as Peter's but decides not to sell Peter out. This story reveals some of the racial and socioeconomic tensions between the wealthy white landowners and African-American workers.

"The Stove" tells of the angel-child's return. The painter and his wife have invited themselves to the Trescott's for Christmas. This time, she brings with her a heavy toy, which is actually a stove. She forces Jimmie to play house with her, and they cook a bunch of turnips on the stove. The smell of the burning turnips interrupt Mrs. Trescott's tea party. Mr. Trescott compels the painter to punish his daughter, and he tries to spank her but his timidity is all too apparent as the angel-child screams and runs to her mother, and he is left behind feeling sheepish and sorry.

"The Trial, Execution, and Burial of Homer Phelps" is another story of the boys at play. Homer Phelps refused to make a "countersign" when the Margate twins encounter him and he is to be punished as a result. The ringleader of the boys, Willie Dalzel, commands Homer to be seized, put to trial, and executed. Homer refuses to play at this, and Jimmie instead steps in as the "victim" and plays his role romantically, to the great enjoyment of his peers. The boys then deem Homer to be "dead" and unable to participate in their next game, in which they enact a war between white men and Indians. They pretend that Homer is a dead body and bury him under some brambles, while Jimmie exhibits "deep manly grief."

"The Fight" is about the arrival of a new boy, Johnnie Hedge, from Jersey City. The other boys, of course, give him a hard time. Johnnie seems to just want to avoid any and all confrontation, but the boys goad him into a fight. It turns out that he plays by different rules than the boys of Whilomville (whose fights the narrator humorously describes as "more...a collision of boys in a fog than...the manly art of hammering another human being into speechless inability), and "licks" both Jimmie and Willie. The boys witness Willie's embarrassing flight from the scene.

The City Urchin and the Chaste Villagers" tells of the aftermath of the fight, in which "anarchy" ruled amongst the boys because their tribal leader had been shamed. One day, Willie and the remnants of his gang are role-playing a story from a half-dime pamphlet about a cabin boy who was bullied on a pirate ship but who eventually rose up successfully against the pirates. Willie pulls Johnnie Hedge's little brother in as the cabin boy, and though he doesn't mean to, hurts the little boy. Johnnie comes out enraged, and at first it seems that Willie gets the better of him. When Willie brags that he has "licked" Johnnie, Johnnie comes back to punish Willie. Before he can do anything though, his mother (a rather strict widow), comes out and stops him: "Yes, the war for supremacy was over, and the question was never again disputed. The supreme power was Mrs. Hedge."

"A Little Pilgrim," the final story in the collection, tells of Jimmie's decision to switch Sunday schools because his own, the Presbyterian school, was forgoing a Christmas tree that year in order to allocate funds the Charleson earthquake (in 1886, Charleston was indeed hit with a serious earthquake). Much to his dismay, the new Sunday school that he convinces his parents to let him go to also eventually decides to go without a Christmas tree.

The Whilomville Stories were part of a new subgenre of short stories, generally featured in "quality" magazines like Harper's or the Atlantic Monthly which were linked by a common set of characters and setting. These stories weren't entirely different from serialized novels (critical accounts have stressed the ways in which this new genre affected the novel and vice versa--Michael Lund points out, interestingly that the use of "to be continued" began in this period, in order to signal to audiences that the work was a serialized novel and not serial short stories). Lund's account of American serial fiction also points to the short story genre more broadly as increasingly associated America and America's specific national ideals at the end of the nineteenth century. Here are some details I have summarized from Lund's book: At the time on both sides of the Atlantic, there was much debate on literature's changing role in society, and out of this scuffle, Americans came to increasingly claim the short story as particularly a national genre of their own. In 1897, Harper's suggested that Americans had perfected the short story more than anyone else, concentrating on American traits of "national hurry and impatience" to suggest that the genre was somehow naturally suited to Americanness. A sense of novelty, imagination, and freshness was also associated with the American short story: in 1892, an Atlantic piece called "The Short Story" praised American short stories because they were "so rich, so varied, so fresh," and that they were the "national mode of utterance in the things of the imagination." In part, these rather upbeat characterizations of the short story were responding to the bleakness of naturalism, a competing genre of late realism which had taken hold of the American literary scene.

Crane's Whilomville Stories certainly embodies much of what Lund describes. The stories are upbeat, light, and quick reads* and they also engage readily in a tradition of distinctly American idioms, situations, images, and history. Much of Whilomville's comic and upbeat tones are generated by the exaggeration of trivial situations, especially child's play, to the height of epic registers. The examples are too numerous to list, but here are a couple of memorable ones: when Jimmie bungles his speech of Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade," the cruelty of his peers was "no better than a Roman populace in Nero's time"; when Cora's father ineffectually punishes her, she "raised to heaven a loud, clear soprano howl that expressed the last word in even mediaeval anguish." Though these exaggerations create a comic and slightly satirical effect, they also ventriloquize a child's imaginative sensibility--to the children, their playground confrontations and make-believe worlds are indeed epic, and deeply emotional. This ventriloquism doubly suggests a taking up or even embrace of the imaginative world of childish perception while also making fun of it.

There is, I think, something supposed to be distinctly American about Crane's reveling in these comic, yet fresh imaginative worlds of children (this kind of "imagination" is universal in that it applies to both boys and girls, as well as children from different regions--New York and New Jersey children exhibit generally similar behavior in these collections; though, the children's role playing is prescribed by gender, a girl like Cora plays at house with a stove, the boys play at wars between Indians and white men). Beyond the sense of America as more "imaginative" than Europe, Crane's stories are everywhere littered with American idioms and tropes. The American boys are fond of the wilderness, and often their social actions are described naturalistically. At play, they enact important scenes of American history, like the confrontation between the Indians and the white men (the civil was probably too recent to be a historical myth for expressing national solidarity). The narrator too describes the confrontation between Johnnie and the boys from Whilomville in terms of this historical myth: it was like "savages observing hte first white man, or white men observing the first savage." The children of Whilomville also show their alienation from great European works in their humorous, bungled accounts in the story on "Making an Orator." The children simply don't get the history nor the emotion behind the speeches which they give. The story suggests, perhaps, that such "Great Works" have no cultural bearing on American children, and so they ought not to be forced down their throats.

*Though the stories are upbeat and light, they are not without the edge of critique, particularly of race relations, indulgent parenting, pointless education systems, and more broadly, the dark side of human nature as apparent from the social "play" that children engage in.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Sight and Song by Michael Field

Edition:  Sight And Song (1892)

Sight and Song was a collection of poems published by Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, an aunt and niece who were living together as lovers. Elkins Mathews and John Lane published these poems as a limited-edition volume in 1892. Each of the poems is to have been based on Renaissance paintings which Bradley and Cooper viewed together in galleries in England and on the continent.

Each poem describes in detail the painting to which it refers, concentrating on form, color, and emotional expression, though rarely revealing much at all about the stories or allegories often attached to these paintings. In doing so, Michael Field follows the injunctions of Pater to focus on form rather than on the connotations, history, or stories that might attach to form. In the preface to these poems, Michael Field makes clear this Paterian notion: the aim is "to translate into verse what the lines and colours of certain chosen pictures sing in themselves (italics are mine)." That they wish to translate what the pictures sing "in themselves" is important because this philosophy resists the pouring in of the spectator's own subjectivities into the paintings. Something similar is expressed via a quotation from Flaubert, also in the preface: "Il faut, par un effort d'esprit, se transporter dans les personnages et non les attirer a soi." For "personnages," Field says to substitute "peintures." Again, this quotation expresses the aesthetic philosophy that spectatorship is to put oneself in the place of the pictures, and not to bring too much of oneself to the pictures.

However, as critic Julia Saville suggests in her essay on Field's collection (in The Fin-de-Siecle Poem edited by Joseph Bristow), Paterian influence did not mean that they were simply applying Paterian philosophy without their own innovations. Specifically, Saville notes Michael Field's position of impersonality to suggest that if we allow the paintings to speak for themselves, it becomes apparent that they contain many "dissident" meanings, particularly in the arena of new "erotic registers."

In "The Faun's Punishment," based actually on Corregio's "Allegory of Vice," Field's descriptions of the Maenads surrounding the faun reveal female eroticism and desire grounded in malice and violence traditionally assigned to male sexuality: "One sits with fanciful eyes beside him; / Malice and wonder mix / In her glance for the victim--woe beside him, / When once her snakes transfix / His side! Ere they dart, / With backward start / She waits their rigid pause; / And with comely stoop / One maid, elate / With horror, hate / And triumph, up from his ankle draws / The kin away in a clinging loop." The description of the snakes immediately signals male erotic violence, but here the women possess this capacity to take pleasure in this kind of violence. The rhyming of "elate" and "hate" consolidate this pairing of pleasure and violence. A more chilling depiction of predation is in "Venus and Mars," where while Mars sleeps, Venus looks on: "Ironical she sees, / Without regret, the work her kiss has done / And lives a cold enchantress doomed to please / Her victims one by one." A look at the painting on which this poem is based, Botticelli's "Venus and Mars," indeed reveals a sleeping Mars and almost disturbingly awake and sharp-looking Venus. Allowing the art to speak for itself, Field contends it reveals a cold irony on the part of the woman who is "doomed to please" yet feels that whom she pleases is a victim.

Descriptions in other poems reveal that an unrestrained, powerful, and un-self-conscious sensuality is possible for female subjects. "Treading the Press" is one such description: "Maidens with white, curving napes / And coiled hair backward leap, / As they catch the fruit, mid laughter, / Cut from every silvan rafter." The maidens's movements are sure and unaware of being looked upon. They seem only aware of catching the fruit, spontaneously laughing all the while. "The Sleeping Venus," based on Giorgione's reclining Venus, boldly suggests that Venus's hand ostensibly positioned to cover herself out of modesty actually is a hand placed to pleasures herself: "She enjoys the good / of delicious womanhood."      

"A Portrait" describes Veneto's portrait (of a courtesan), and in doing so, reverses general assumptions that courtesans are passive before the male gaze. Instead, Field argues that the look of this woman signals that she has deliberately manufactured the way that she looks in this portrait, hence taking away the agency of the (male) painter: "She saw her beauty often in the glass / Sharp on the dazzling surface..." and so knowingly, she plucks the flowers which she holds in her hand, "[t]hese simple things with finest touch she gathers in her pride." The ending of this poem is even more striking, contending that "Lo, she has conquered death!" by her deliberate construction of her image and will to be painted on her own terms. "Leda" similarly exhibits her agency up against the swan, overwhelming the swan with her will: "Tis Leda, wild and free, / Drawing her gracious Swan down through the grass to see / Certain round eggs without a speck...She draws the fondled creature to her will." Here, Leda has her way with the swan, forcing him to attend to the importance of maternal duties, much more than the swan has his way with Leda. 
I would argue that at the same time that Field's collection multiplies the possibilities of female sensuality, it also multiplies possibilities of male erotic registers as well as emotional states. As critics of the collection have noted, Field turns the gaze unexpectedly onto male bodies. There is a sense of equality in this gaze, however, in that Field treats male subjects to the same processes of "translation" that they have treated female subjects to. Again, the process elides the allegories and histories which may have inspired the paintings, instead focusing on the visual aspects of form and color, and in doing so, bringing out new possibilities that may not have been apparent if one were too fettered by such frameworks of interpretation offered by allegory and history.  

"Venus, Mercury, and Cupid" describes a very different "cupid" than the usual feisty and mischievous one: here, cupid is a harmless and timid infant, a "little lad beside her [Venus], / Who half hides and half doth guide her." "A Shepherd-Boy" refers to Giorgione's "Boy with Flute," focusing on a description of his face which might seem more apt, traditionally, to a female object: "A radiant, oval face: the hair / About the cheeks so blond in hue...Warm eyes, sweet mouth of the softest lips..." and so forth. Yet such a description doesn't make him feel any shame or any self-consciousness of being looked upon, as might be expected if this were a Victorian depiction of a female. "His countenance reveals him one / Of those whose characters are fed / By light--the largeness o its ways, / The breadth and patience in its joy...Delight will never be slow to come / To youth that lays its finger / On the flute's stop and yet is dumb / And loves with its dumb self to linger." I think "dumb" here signals his lack of self-consciousness, countering conventional notions that one might look so "femininely" and feel comfortably and unknowingly so."St. Jerome in the Desert" tells nothing about what has made kneel before God, only describing the physicality of the moment and extrapolating from this physicality, his emotional state: "His breast of flint awaits / Much flagellation; pleasure fills / The body courage reinstates / Enduring what the spirit wills." Against conventional notions of violence and sensuality, it is a male and not female figure here who desires violence upon himself; flagellation is pleasure. "Saint Sebastian" describes the martyr "stript and fastened to the tree that has no bough" focusing on the details of his form and extrapolating from this, his great vulnerability and unwillingness to die (rather than his fortitude, which an allegorical account of the martyr might give): "For we see no blessedness / On his visage pale, / Turned in its distress / Toward the heaven, without avail." This is a suffering and protesting figure: "Massive is his mouth; the upper lip is set / In a pained, protesting curve." Even Christ, in "The Blood of the Redeemer" is treated via Field's "translation" of Bellini's painting, revealing something unconventional about this depiction as well: this Christ in his resurrection is haggard, pale, and grotesque and so for the spectator, Field boldly contends that "There is no light athwart these eastern skies / For us, no joy it is that Thou dost rise."

[To summarize all of these somewhat scattered observations: I have tried to show here the ways in which Field's application of Paterian philosophy (allowing the artwork to speak for itself) enables them to question numerous conventions, especially but not limited to gender conventions]

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Edition: The Age of Innocence (Oxford World's Classics)

The Age of Innocence was first serialized in the Pictorial Review from July to October, 1920. The Pictorial Review was begun in 1899, originally intended as primarily a fashion magazine to showcase dress patterns, and henceforth a popular women's magazine. Interestingly, Wharton's proposal to New York editors for the novel was much more sensationalistic than the novel ended up being, promising lovers that "go off secretly...and meet in Florida where they spend a few mad weeks." The editors paid her $1800 for the serial rights--this episode illustrates the changing times of the literary press and the kinds of demands expected of literature that would sell.

The novel begins with an old New York opera house production of Faust in the 1870s. The families involved in this novel are the "old money" New Yorkers for whom meticulous and mincing distinctions of pedigree and taste were the primary determiners of life. Several respected men of society notice the improprieties of Ellen Olenska, a cousin to the Welland's and Mingott families who had made a bad marriage to a Polishman and had come from Europe to live with her relatives. It was inappropriate that she should be out at all. Newland Archer, the young man engaged to the beautiful May Welland, observes the men observing, and goes over to his betrothed's box in an effort to support their introduction of Ellen into "nice" society. After the opera, they attend a ball at the Beaufort's (Mr. Beaufort is a banker who has a dubious reputation with women and Mrs. Beaufort turns a blind eye). Ellen is not at the ball, and society is thankful that she has had the tact to refrain from appearing there. There, Newland and May announce their engagement.

Newland finds himself increasingly drawn to Ellen, and defensive of what people perceive as her eccentric and foreign actions. Things come to a head when the Lovell-Mingotts plan a dinner to introduce Ellen to polite society: everyone declines the invite. Newland appeals to his relatives, the respected van der Luydens, who help Newland out by giving a dinner in honor of an illustrious visiting relative, a Duke, and inviting Ellen. Society acquiesces, and because the van der Luydens entertain so rarely, everyone comes. In the meantime, Ellen's "eccentricities" include a frankness with men which the polite old New Yorkers deemed scandalous. She tells Newland to call on her, and he finds himself doing so. Beaufort and the Duke also become her regular consorts. In an impulsive gesture, Newland sense Ellen a bunch of yellow roses, anonymously.

Newland doesn't have a profession, because as a gentleman, he need not work. Nevertheless, he does some work as a lawyer purely as a luxurious occupation. When Ellen reveals to her relatives that she wishes to get a divorce from the Count her husband, Newland's future in-laws charge him with handling the case and getting Ellen to reject such notions. Newland is successful, revealing to Ellen the delicacies of avoiding scandal in New York society. Newland doesn't realize this at the time, but Ellen really agrees out of kindness to Newland and not out of fear for her own name. Later, at the theater, Newland's feelings for Ellen come to the surface as he watches a scene of parting between an actor and an actress in the play "The Shaugraun." He imagines Ellen and himself in their position. When he talks to her at their box, he is shocked when Ellen says to him: "I wonder if Harry [the character in the play] will send yellow roses the next morning."

After this episode, Newland feels the need to hasten his marriage to May, and impulsively follows her to St. Augustine, Florida where she vacationing with her family. May seems to understand more than Newland thinks she does, asking him if his rush had anything to do with another woman (May apparently connects this not to Ellen Olenska, at this point, but a previous indiscretion of "sowing his oats" prior to his engagement with a married woman). Newland reassures her that this is not the case, and continues to think of May, even in her apparent generosity, as only acting out a part taught to her by the restrictive society which made her. Inevitably, Newland and Ellen admit their love for each other in a touching scene in which Ellen admits that her decision not to pursue the divorce was because she was trying to prevent scandal for his sake.

Some time passes, and May and Newland are married. Newland sort of goes on autopilot, fulfilling his duties as husband and member of polite New York society. The couple goes to England after marrying, and there, they meet some acquaintances of the Welland's, Mrs. Carfry and Miss Harle. There, Newland also makes the acquaintance of a Frenchman named M. Riviere, whose engagement in what Newland considered to be "real ideas" through the encounter of literature and learned conversation attracts Newland. M. Riviere is poor though, picking up odd jobs as a tutor here and there in order to retain his independence (he once tried to be a journalist, but found the profession to restraining on his intellectual independence). For a time, Newland and Ellen lead separate lives, Ellen engaging in other circles (literary and artistic circles that Newland's old money society doesn't really have contact with) and then subsequently moving to Washington. Newland doesn't see Ellen until he and May's family vacation in Newport: Ellen has been invited as well, and in a strange episode, Newland is sent to fetch Ellen but instead decides to watch her from afar because she hasn't turned around to look at him.

Newland's interest in Ellen has been re-kindled, and he seeks her at a party thrown by the Professor Sillerton and his wife. He hallucinates that a pink parasol, which belong actually to a Miss Blenker, is Ellen's. From Miss Blenker though, he learns that Ellen is actually in Boston. On an impulse, Newland lies to May that he is going to Boston on business in order to see Ellen. In Boston, the two meet, and he learns of a situation in which the Count has promised Ellen money if she were to go back to live with him in Europe. Ellen refuses, desiring her freedom and independence. but the Mingott's and the Welland's expect her to do the "nice" thing, which is to accept. Newland agrees with Ellen (as does M. Riviere, who turns out to be the messenger bearing the message from the count), and so he is subsequently left out of family conversations about Ellen's situation. Though Newland is generally oblivious, the narrative hints more and more that May and her family know more than they let on about Newland. May, for one, seems to keep testing Newland, by dispatching him on errands to fetch Ellen. For example, when the old Catherine Mingott (Ellen's grandmother) has a stroke, May agrees to Newland fetching her Ellen from New Jersey. People speculate that Catherine's stroke has been brought on by Regina Beaufort's plea to Catherine to help her out (since they are related) after Julius Beaufort's recent financial demise. Catherine has requested Ellen's presence to serve as her nurse, ostensibly to help Ellen to avoid the fate of going back to Europe (Catherine too is "unconventional").

For the time being, Ellen is to stay, but Newland doesn't want to consign to their love to such ugly, hackneyed categories as "having an affair" or subject her to "being his mistress." They are at an impasse where they are together but not: Newland says, "I want--I want somehow to get away with you into a world where words like that--categories like that--won't exist. Where we shall be simply two human beings who love each other, who are the whole of life to each other; and nothing else on earth will matter." Finally Newland, desperate, asks Ellen to come to him once, but it turns out that May has had a conversation with Ellen, telling her that she was pregnant, so Ellen decided, in the end, to go to Europe (though she made sure to secure an allowance from Catherine so that she did not need to depend on her husband). Newland finds out about this conversation later, and soon begins to realize that many others probably knew about his feelings for Ellen, and have only been pretending to enable everyone to save face. May throws a farewell party for Ellen, and for thirty years, Newland lives his life as a dutiful husband. The very end of the novel, Dallas, Newland and May's eldest son, summons Newland to go on a trip with him, and arranges for him to meet with Ellen. The novel quickly tells about how different this new generation of New Yorkers are from the old--things are more in the open, and Dallas is free to marry his "Ellen Olenska," a bastard child of Julius Beaufort without anyone batting an eye. Newland goes with Dallas to Paris, but at the last minute, watches as his son goes into visit with Ellen, and refrains himself, preferring to keep intact the ideal reality of what has happened in the past.    

One of the most interesting aspects of Wharton's text is the inaccessibility of "the real" in the text. Though the narration is omniscient, it is primarily focalized through Newland, whose limited perspective disallows access to the "hieroglyphs" of New York society and its characters. Although the omniscient narration ironizes Newland's limited perspective, the reader never gets inside of Ellen or May's heads and can only guess at their interior perspectives (the effect is very Jamesian, in restricting access to the female characters' subjectivities).

Newland repeatedly hopes for a "real" that is beyond the customs and unwritten rules of old, monied New York society. It isn't clear, though, that there IS in fact a "real." At times, he posits that this real is available in Europe, where those who read literature, who write, who engage with "ideas" aren't a separate culture from those who have money. At other times, Newland thinks that running away with Ellen Olenska to somewhere else (Japan, he suggests at one point) is the "real." In the end, as seductive Newland's "real" is, his decision to remain outside while his son visits Ellen signals his own recognition of the tenuousness of his "real." Newland imagines Ellen living her life amidst "theatres she must have been to, the pictures she must have looked at, the sober and splendid old houses she must have frequented, the people she must have talked with, the incessant stir of ideas, curiosities, images, and associations thrown out by an intensely social race in a setting of immemorial manners..." This vision of European life he knows isn't necessarily more "real" than America, as he quickly concedes that "more than half a lifetime divided them, and she had spent the long interval among people he did not know, in a society he but faintly guessed at, in conditions he would ever wholly understand." Because of this impossibility of knowing, Newland resorts to protecting the vision of his and Ellen's past, because that is something that he does know, and so is as "real" as anything could possibly be.            

The novel's conclusions about the new generation of New Yorkers throws doubt, nonetheless, on even this last bit of "reality." Focalizing Newland, the narrator gives: "To the boy [Newland's son Dallas], no doubt, the episode was only a pathetic instance of vain frustration, of wasted forces. But was it really no more?" Not only are the perspectives of America and Europe different, but so are the perspectives of the past and the present. Dallas's generation seems to have done away with the repressed Victorianism of Newland's, and yet Newland still wonders if maybe there were something more precious to his experience with Ellen because of the repression. It might be said, finally, that every age is an "age of innocence," in that Wharton doesn't allow access to anything definitely "real." Though definitely a biting commentary on the petty social customs of old New York life, Wharton's offer of a limited perspective leaves open the possibility that there is much more behind the curtain of these social customs. At the very least, the rather vindictive contest which May wages with Ellen and wins does happen, though not with directly vindictive words but with hidden but very real implications. The rest we, like Newland Archer, can really only guess at.