Sunday, July 5, 2009


From a letter Wharton wrote to her governess Anna Bahlmann, quoted in Rebecca Mead's piece on the just auctioned (if they went) and newly uncovered Edith Wharton letters, in the June 29 issue of The New Yorker:

He said that I knew more of German literature than he does (and he sets up to be rather well-read) that "my knowledge of the language was wonderful" and that he had never quoted anything (and he is very quote-y) which I had not recognized—there!

What is striking about the word is less itself per se than the fact that Wharton was using a form that would likely have been puddled into a Rorshach blot by the pen of, for instance, Lily Bart (when she was playing social secretary for her not-very-nice female friends).

It's amusing to place Wharton and J.D. Salinger/Franny Glass in the same room of y users (Wharton and Salinger are two of my favorite authors). Now of course I am wondering how Salinger decided upon his y usage. If I were an insta-theorizing woman, I might toss out (just for the hey of it) something class-y, such as, "Spirited young and intellectually adept women were fond of modifying words with an appended -y rather than an -ish ." Discuss. On your blog.

I think sometimes about Lily Bart, her circle, Selden's lack of ________ (fill in your own word here), and the reactions of some Facebook addicted teenagers with whom I read The House of Mirth. They didn't have much (if any) sympathy for Lily, and recently I realized that I might have emphasized one piece of her broken life more than I did, in attempting to point out why this novel is still a living work of art: the fact of Lily's being an outcast in her own social circle and paying with her life for her own sense of decency.

In the world where the story works out differently, these people are well-dressed, up to the minute on art and music and all the rest, and hung up their rapiers in the previous generation. They are more like the beautiful people in the delightful novel Beginner's Greek. Where are those people? They are spun from Selden's best instincts, apparently.

When Selden tracks Lily down at Mrs. Perfumed and Overstuffed Sofa's, Lily is still doing her best (her utmost) to keep up appearances in a bid for a final shred of doomed dignity in the face of the mineral-gauge callousness of the whole rotten bunch. She is still willing to shake hands with people whose hands she should recoil from (as Nick Carraway does when he runs into Tom Buchanan). It may be that the fact of having "no heart to lean on" has punctured whatever is left of her self-respect, especially in the presence of vultures, and when Selden attempts to offer his shaky hand, she can't gain even a pinkyhold:

"I am very much obliged to you," she said, "for taking such an interest in my plans; but I am quite contented where I am, and have no intention of leaving."

Then Selden rises to his feet and says, "That simply means that you don't know where you are!"

To me his retort is one of the most powerful lines in the novel. He knows exactly where she is, and he knows she knows, and he won't step out of his role to reroute her downward trajectory. He is a lily who festers, and, frankly, I do not forgive him. Unlike the garden-variety self-absorbed bachelor, Selden actually knows better and still chooses to be a bystander (as he does when he happens to see Lily leaving Gus Trenor's—but refuses her justice by believing in appearances and remaining silent, never seeking to find out what was what. I expect shoddy behavior from Gus Trenor, but from Selden and his finer sensibility I expect so much more. Woe is me). Even in his rooms--"Lily—can't I help you?" when she burns the letters, he's a bystander. [In the Hollywood movie either Lily finds new friends or Selden does more than ask; he acts.]

He (evasive, passive almost to a T) and Bertha Dorset (mercenary for the home team) are two sides of the same coin. She lances Lily, and Selden fixes his cuff links while the blood seeps from his soulmate's cheeks.

Louis Auchincloss has written that Lily dies thanks to her beauty: "Lily's beauty is the light in which each of her different groups would like to shine, but when they find out it illuminates their ugliness they want to put it out." Yes but also no. Her so-called friends despise her because of her beauty but ultimately Lily dies of civility and decency and tender feelings. She also dies of impracticality: she never managed to choose the right friends.

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