“The Old Book Conundrum: I make startling discoveries that are already well known to anyone who cares about the subject. I plant my flag on the peak, not noticing the other flags, and the little book in the tin box which has been signed by thousands of other climbers, and the little café that sells hot cocoa and strudel.” –Amateur Reader
Ethan Frome is an extremely chilly book. Winter, snow and ice everywhere–like, Russian snow and ice. Turgenev, Tolstoy, Chekhov snow and ice. It was always there in New England, but Hawthorne and Jewett and most of the other New England writers I’ve looked at don’t highlight it the way Wharton does here. Wharton mentions winter and snow and ice about 100 times in 75 pp., the frame is winter, the story is winter, and the climax is winter, based on a deadly sled ride. “Too many winters,” Wharton’s narrator says about Ethan Frome.
Or mountain peak, little cafe, cocoa and strudel chilly. There’s no doubt that everybody has read this book. Some people read it in high school and hated it, some read it then and loved it, others read it later and they kinda like it, a little surprised at how much, or they like it a lot. Reading it and thinking about it and digging around in the backgrounds, I know that much smarter people, working much harder and seeing so much more of the picture, have been hanging out in these parts for almost a century. But that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t enjoy my cup of cocoa.
And I don’t know that I have time for Edith Wharton right now. I suppose I should have expected to find myself with this dilemma. She’s a major writer who falls right in the middle of the feminist-modernist era. I had enjoyed a couple of her books, and had a vague sense of what she was about, but it would have been an easy guess to say I didn’t really know anything, that my view was buoyed up by few general, mostly false assumptions. The good thing is that I’m learning a bunch of new stuff pretty quickly, without even making much of an effort.
What I’m going to do, foolishly of course, is try to outline my current approach. Going in I’ll note that it will undoubtedly consist of the most opinions generated by the least information possible. What I want to trace is Wharton’s version or rewrite of Hawthorne, and the tricky part is that there’s really no way to get there except through the prism of Henry James.
A couple of things. The next book I might read is Summer, which is apparently a New England companion piece of sorts to the “winter” that is Ethan Frome. Wharton has a few other New England stories, but I don’t know that I’ll get to those, although it might be interesting to get a sense of the whole, to see how they relate to Hawthorne, or Sarah Orne Jewett (Wharton makes a comment on the “rose-colored glasses” of Jewett and Mary Wilkins Freeman). And I’ve been dipping in and out of Hermione Lee’s biography of Wharton. I’m a very big Hermione Lee fan, and was amazed at the insight, freshness, and writing of her biography of Virginia Woolf. I just gave a copy of her earlier book on Willa Cather to a friend, without having read it myself. It’s interesting, just on the face of it, that Lee would choose to write Wharton’s life after finishing her work on Woolf. That in itself shows you that Wharton is something of a major figure and force.
It feels kind of lame to read Ethan Frome and get worked up, like a high school kid, and then turn to HLee looking for support for some cockeyed theory. Lee spent years of exhaustive work covering a zillion details in Wharton’s complex life, trying to give shape to the whole at the same time. I went in looking very specifically for Hawthorne, and I didn’t find very much. The good thing about a major, rising writer like Wharton is that someone has spent a lot of time working through the relationship and related questions, and it’s just a matter of finding it (he says, busily eating strudel). There was more in HLee than what I found in the Ethan Frome NCE, but not much. But Lee has a whole lot of info and thoughts on the more obvious, even central relationship, which is Wharton and Henry James.
So I’ll run through the simple version. James was deeply knowledgeable about and influenced by Hawthorne, and he wrote a book about him and his work. James’ interest in the psychological novel can be traced quite directly to Hawthorne’s tales and romances. The Bostonians is thought to be a relatively direct reapproach and rewriting of the characters, relationships, and themes in Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance.
Edith Wharton is generally said to be just as knowledgable and concerned with Hawthorne, although I’m still looking around (not very hard, spilling cocoa) for the direct evidence of this. Henry James was twenty years older than Wharton, and they became friends and he was her protege and literary mentor, I assume. I don’t have the full story on this, as I’ve just been dipping in and out of the Lee’s book and others, and haven’t read the full story of Wharton’s life (but I enjoyed seeing a blog note that “keeping up with the Joneses” comes from her family. How great is that?). It’s easy enough to tell, however, that James was a definitive influence and spur to Wharton, and his dictum that she must “write New York!” is general knowledge and provided my own vague and troublesome assumption about Wharton and her work.
And that gets me to some new stuff, new to me at least. The idea that The House of Mirth takes The Portrait of a Lady and addresses the question of what might have happened to Isabel Archer if she had remained in New York makes a lot of sense, once you hear it. The House of Mirth was a hit book, establishing Wharton with bedrock for her critical and popular reputation. James, ever complex, was both aging and moving in the opposite direction, towards obscurity, and his reaction to Wharton’s success was double-edged. Wharton, a mature woman quickly gaining confidence and mastery, would honor the influence of her mentor and subvert it at the same time.
Obviously Wharton had more on her mind and agenda than rewriting the central works of Henry James’ middle period within her own milieu, perspective, and range of experience. And she was doing all sorts of things, both in writing and in her personal life, that inform her highly sophisticated sensibility and creative approach. Still, she was not a fan of the later James, and his deeply ponderous literary explorations.
So if she had scored a major success by changing the setting and thereby the story of one of James’ most popular works, she was also looking to distance herself from his shadow and influence. These (no doubt faulty and crude) assumptions set the stage for a view of the composition of Ethan Frome, which appropriates Hawthorne and at the same time seems to contain an inherent critique of James and his later method.
If The Bostonians is an interesting revision of The Blithedale Romance, it was also a singularly unsuccessful book. Nobody seemed to like it at all, and James himself declined to include it in the New York Edition of his works. It could also be said, coming towards the end of his middle period, that in the Bostonians James moved off the main track (of American Literature?) and began his journey towards (excessive? modernist?) complexity and obscurity. So we might want to consider the idea that Wharton saw potential in taking on the same project, attempting to get it right, and make her mark by going in the opposite direction from James’ approach.
And at the same time Wharton had the opportunity to make a direct connection to Hawthrone. It’s also worth noting that The Blithedale Romance is psychological and relatively unsuccessful within Hawthorne’s oeurve as well, much like James and The Bostonians. Nobody reads it, although one of my points has been that Hawthorne’s primary body of work, his tales and four manageable “romances,” is well within reach of any general student of American Literature, and at the same time Hawthorne, like James and Wharton, attracts a continuing stream of single author courses and specialists. So Blithedale is not unread. (But would The Bostonians make the cut for a single-author course on James? Dicey at best, especially with the length of the later work. Specialists, enthusiasts, and nutty bloggers only, I fear.) And the contrast to the readership and success of Ethan Frome is striking and important.
Think about it. Blithedale itself is an enigmatic, imperfect book. James’ attempt to rewrite the story was a failure. Wharton, after The House of Mirth, is trying to distance herself from James. That distancing may be in terms of both style and setting. No one would read Ethan Frome and think of The Bostonians. Nothing is similar in any way, and at the same time Wharton put in overt references to Hawthorne. It’s as if Wharton looked at the Bostonians, broke it down, and made a list of the mistakes that James made in adapting the story, the misdirections. James provided an example of the issues that he thought were important in Blithedale, and Wharton seems to have countered him at every turn.
Wharton sensed, and perhaps knew, that there was a strong story and great book in Blithedale, one waiting to be told. The most basic version of Blithedale is simple: it is a love triangle, a strong man caught between an older and a younger woman, with a narrator who plays an important role in the story. James, in The Bostonians, got rid of the narrator, and moved the rural setting to the city (even including New York in the mix). He chose to emphasize the mysterious parentage and experience of the younger woman, exploring and even foregrounding Hawthorne’s hints about mesmerism and showmanship and a background charlatan character. Reading into Wharton, we can see that she thought that these issues and themes were all beside the point, and along with other similar matter they caused the book’s failure. Moreover, it should be noted that the most obvious failing of The Bostonians was that it was meant to be a novella, shorter than Blithedale rather than longer, and it spun out of control.
As Wharton countered James, she also simplified Hawthorne. Hawthorne’s impulse was to write a rural story, using his experience at Brook Farm as a reference. The Broof Farm associations were part of Blithedale’s misfortune (in her one brief reference, HLee refers to Blithedale as “Hawthorne’s satire on Brook Farm”–it seems to be more of a romance than a satire). I’ve noted in writing about Blithedale how the seemingly obvious connection between Zenobia and Margaret Fuller effectively veiled the complex dynamic Hawthorne experienced with Elizabeth and Sophia Peabody, which is similar to the Zenobia-Priscilla story. Where Hawthorne might have had his reasons to mask and displace the love triangle, Wharton knows that it’s the core of the story, and she foregrounds it and strips everything else away.
Wharton also knew that her life in western Massachusetts gave her a deeper view of a much better, even perfect, rural setting for her story. Wharton’s estate, the Mount, was created for all sorts of purposes that I’m eager to discover (“keeping up with the Joneses” could be my favorite literary reference of all time), reading more biography (like I said, I don’t have time for all this), and her life there gave her exposure to a particular community and setting. Ethan Frome takes the form of a regional, local color story, with a landscape that’s a sharp contrast to Jewett’s Maine and Hawthorne’s non-specific utipian community, and Boston and Salem, his New England.
Wharton’s setting brings us full-circle, back to the Russians. That’s the next question: if I need to know more about Edith Wharton and Hawthorne, and her life at the Mount, and I should read Summer today now that I’m finishing this up, the other thing I’m curious about is Wharton’s familiarity with Russian literature. Ethan Frome has modernist simplicity. Wharton boiled down Blithedale, kept the complexity of the narrator, placed the story in a Russia-like winter setting, and wrote it out in an extremely concise manner, one filled with basic symbols and signs, tropes and reverberations. The pickle dish is, of course, a nice, easygoing objective correlative touch. Chekhov might have written this book, perhaps even down to the pickle dish, and Wharton seems to have built a bridge between Hawthorne’s evocative romances and Chekhov’s modernist precision and spare perfection. That’s how it’s done, my old friend Henry, she seems to say, and this is how we want to revist and honor our master, Hawthorne. It’s no wonder then that everybody knows this book, which is an extremely pleasing read on a winter’s day, especially with a little cocoa and strudel.