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Edith Wharton & The Novel of New York Aristocracy

Andrew Madigan By Andrew Madigan Published on November 28, 2016
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Born January 24th, 1862, Edith Wharton collapsed from a heart attack in 1937. At the time, she was a guest of Ogden Codman at his home in the French countryside. They were busy revising their book on interior decoration. Several months later, Wharton died of a stroke at Le Pavillon Colombe, her 18th-century home in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt. A fittingly genteel end, it seems, for a woman who dedicated her life to chronicling the vagaries of the upper crust. 

Wharton didn’t enjoy a life of unmitigated privilege, however. The truth is more complex and more compelling. She suffered from financial worries throughout her life, largely because of laws making it difficult for a single woman to inherit money and own property. She was born during the Civil War as Edith Jones, to an affluent New York family, traveled extensively in Europe, and enjoyed the advantages of her class. Nonetheless, she wasn’t always willing to submissively play the part assigned to her, because of gender and status, by society. She was strongly encouraged to marry an older man, Teddy Wharton, for reasons of class and “suitability,” but the marriage was never happy. She took a lover and divorced Teddy after 28 years, keeping his surname. 

Although Wharton didn’t publish her first novel until age 40, she was productive, completing 15 novels, 85 short stories and seven novellas, in addition to works of poetry, autobiography, travel, design and criticism. She was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for her novel, The Age of Innocence, in 1921, and she was nominated for the Nobel Prize three times, in 1927, 1928 and 1930. Wharton isn’t only one of America’s greatest writers; she’s also one of its most remarkable citizens. Aside from writing, she was actively involved in charity and the war effort. In fact, she was awarded the Legion of Honour by French president Raymond Poincaré for her commitment to soldiers and refugees during World War I. 

Like her friend and mentor Henry James, Wharton was devoted to European travel and many of her novels are set overseas (The Reef, The Buccaneers, The Mother’s Recompense). However, she’s most closely associated with fiction set in New York high society. In these works, Wharton shows the manners, morals and machinations of the city’s ruling class—old money that works hard, while hardly working, to keep out new money, foreigners and non-Christians. Her astute, critical eye is clearly still relevant today.

This Novel of New York Aristocracy, pioneered and perfected by Wharton, is a genre unto itself. Money, class and privilege are the central topics, not just a colorful sideshow. The jeweller’s loupe of inquiry is focused on the effects of socio-economic stratification on the individual. Typically, these are satires or novels-of-manner, that do not cherish the elite or condone their methods of retaining power and position. 

Let’s explore seven writers who have worked masterfully within this form:  

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1. We’ll begin with Wharton herself. The House of Mirth (1905), her first masterpiece, is a naturalistic look at New York’s social structure and a realistic examination of ethics and choice. Lily Bart belongs to the “impoverished upper-class,” like so many of Wharton’s protagonists. She has class but no money, and therefore must marry well. That’s her duty. Lily is ambivalent about this arrangement, however. She approaches age 30 without negotiating a good marriage—criminal behavior in her circle. The novel shows her sharp decline, economically, financially, socially and personally, as old friends and “polite” society abandon her. She ends up lonely, poor and, what’s worse, earning a living. Wharton addresses similar issues in The Custom of the Country (1913) and The Age of Innocence (1920): the corruption and crass values of the gentry; the futile attempts of outsiders (new money, Jews, Midwesterners, anyone but a few old Dutch and English families) to gain status; the struggle to balance money, love and happiness; the gradual evolution of the privileged class. Wharton takes the genteel domestic romance of Jane Austen and updates it by exploring, in greater depth, the tragic effects of the class system on human lives and human values. She also describes, in fine detail, the protocols and practices of affluence, from the cut of one’s crinoline to the language of flowers—what a yellow rose symbolizes rather than a lily. Wharton examines the exterior aspects of life in order to explain how these superficial details speak to our interior lives.

2.  The works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, especially The Great Gatsby (1925), are undoubtedly the most well known examples of the genre. Most of his fiction deals with the New York elite, its fast-paced and glamorous behavior, and the emptiness lurking just beneath the surface. He writes much more about individuals and their personal demons than the underlying social or economic systems and, typically, he’s not critical of society. Instead, he focuses on our private dreams, joys and losses. An elegiac tone pervades his work, even or perhaps especially in the midst of celebration. His characters mourn the death of their youth, innocence and love—which have been neglected in favor of money, cars and champagne. Fitzgerald is quick to point the finger at individuals, and fate, rather than the apathy and greed of affluent society.

3.  American Psycho (1991), by Bret Easton Ellis, is such a dry, understated satire of contemporary society that many readers, even highly enlightened critics, failed to recognize it as such. Many felt that he glamorized the violence, cruelty, greed, consumerism and emptiness of the novel’s main character, Patrick Bateman, but even a cursory glance at the text demonstrates how weak this argument is. Bateman is a successful investment banker who comes from old money. He floats through a rarified Manhattan of boutique restaurants, exclusive clubs, and the best—defined as the most expensive—of everything. He’s a monster who feels nothing besides love for himself, money and bad pop music. His actions and interior life are far too over-the-top to be taken as anything but the darkest satire. Ellis, like Martin Amis, is a severe moralist who, in his own deadpan serio-comic style, is a staunch critic of modern life—the opulent violence and cartoonish humanity of his work attest to his outrage, not tolerance or apathy, at contemporary mores. American Psycho is an attack on the self-involved, dehumanized, money-grubbing spirit of Reagan's America, a time when charity meant donating money to big business, not the homeless, when Trump became a hero to the deluded and misguided, when bumper stickers read, Whoever dies with the most stuff wins!  

4.  From one Bratpacker to another. Jay McInerney recently released the third in a trilogy of poignant, astute novels about wealth, power and middle-class adversity in Manhattan. Brightness Falls (1992), The Good Life (2006) and Bright, Precious Days (2016) are, like Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine, part of a single ongoing narrative. McInerney’s subjects are Russell and Corrine Calloway—a surname which evokes Gatsby’s Nick Carraway—who are uneasily wedged between art and commerce, substance and shallowness, real estate and real life, between the lowly masses who struggle for their daily bread and the lucky fraction who perch upon the city’s uppermost branches. The Calloways are as real, complex and expertly constructed as any fictional couple. The true protagonist, though, is New York and its exclusive dinner parties, fundraisers, restaurants, wine cellars and art galleries, where the gentry feasts while applauding itself for allowing the less fortunate to enjoy the scraps. 

5.  Not unlike McInerney’s work, Claire Messud The Emperor’s Children (2006) is elegant, impeccably written and slightly old-fashioned, but not stodgy or stuffy. Messud has roots in Connecticut, Australia, Canada, Algeria and the UK but, like Ellis, she’s a New York transplant who expertly dissects the city from the outside. The Emperor’s Children, her third novel, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It was her first bestseller and her first work to even come close to fitting our category (her previous books were set in Bali, Algeria, Ukraine, Germany, Canada). It deals with three friends, caught between youth and middle age, who come from privilege yet never quite reach their potential. A central theme of Messud’s novel, and of many others in the genre, is that while New York society may be eternal, it’s also eternally shifting. Each generation must adapt to a new set of rules. Wharton’s characters had to accept “objectionable people” into their social network because the aristocracy could no longer sustain itself without forming such partnerships. Messud’s characters are searching for a way to succeed in a postindustrial world where employers sometimes want more than a good surname. Her characters also discover that, for a satisfying life, they need more for themselves. The Emperor’s Children proves that the traditional novel, without gimmicks or self-conscious experimentation, still has a long half-life. 

6 & 7.  If Messud demonstrates that traditional story telling has no expiration date, David Gilbert and Garth Risk Hallberg have recently shown that postmodern frippery and avant-garde panache is also worthwhile. Gilbert’s & Sons (2013) and Hallberg’s City on Fire (2015) are bulky, complex, innovative novels that skillfully combine conventional narrative and structural pizzazz. The former comes from affluent New York and the latter from the middle-class South, but both have written deeply compelling novels about the torments within a prominent, wealthy Manhattan family. Neither Gilbert nor Hallberg indicts society, or the drive to earn and consume, so much as they explore the lies, secrets and private cruelties that exist inside the family, or the individual, itself. 

Wharton would be delighted by these writers, her literary offspring. She helped create a genre that many have followed but few have matched. She was born 155 years ago this month, and died 80 years ago in August. After her death, she was buried in Versailles with all the honors befitting a war hero. Appropriately, the street in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt where she lived and died is now called rue Edith Wharton.  


Freelance writer (food, drinks, travel, culture) and former professor (creative writing, literature, Islamic studies, US history) and magazine editor who's lived in the UK, New York, Dubai, ... Show More

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