Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Edith Wharton's Anthropological Stance

I have been working my way through Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. I have any number to things to complain about in her style, beginning with her decision to pile more characters into her plot-line than Richard Wagner would ever have dreamed of summoning up for the entire scope of his Ring cycle. She also seems to share Wagner's style of prolongation, although what, for Wagner, can be the suspense of spinning out thematic material in such a way that one wonders if resolution will ever come, in Wharton's verbal hands tends to devolve into mere long-windiness.

Nevertheless, one of her lengthy sentences caught my attention. Here is it in all of its unabridged glory:
In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs; as when Mrs. Welland, who knew exactly why Archer had pressed her to announce her daughter's engagement at the Beaufort ball (and had indeed expected him to do no less), yet felt obliged to simulate reluctance, and the air of having had her hand forced, quite as, in the books on Primitive Man that people of advanced culture were beginning to read, the savage bride is dragged with shrieks from her parents' tent.
It took me a while to find the right way to read this sentence so that it would actually parse, by the way. However, I was more curious as to whether or not Wharton had any specific "books on Primitive Man that many people of advanced culture were beginning to read" in mind.

Checking a few dates, I established that Franz Boas' The Mind of Primitive Man was published in 1911. The Age of Innocence first appeared in serialized form in 1920, so Boas' book may well have been that Wharton herself, if not other "people of advanced culture" had read. (If nothing else, it would have given her cause to preen in that sentence.) However, it is generally accepted that the plot of The Age of Innocence predates any of Boas' publications. Since Boas was recognized as a pioneer in these studies, it is unlikely that the "people of advanced culture" in The Age of Innocence would have read anything else.

So, when does the plot take place? The evidence for that may be found in the opening sentence:
On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.
That is enough to seal the deal, while reinforcing the context at the same time. This was when the Academy of Music was the opera house in New York. It was controlled by "old money" that defiantly denied "new money" (such as industrialists and, of course, robber-barons) any chance of getting seats in the hall. The "new money" responded by creating and financing their own opera company. The was the Metropolitan Opera, whose own opera house opened on October 22, 1883. The story is that the original plan for the Met was hatched by 22 "new money" men in Delmonico's on April 28, 1880; so Wharton's first sentence dates from a time when it was not yet a gleam in anyone's eye. More importantly, Wharton's first sentence fixes a time that not only predates the Met but also Boas' first field studies.

The verdict, then, is that, in The Age of Innocence, Wharton is guilty of anachronism!

No comments: