Last month, I finished reading Hermione Lee's wonderful new biography, Edith Wharton (Knopf, 2007), but I didn't write it up in my usual fashion. For one thing, any serious appraisal of the book must reconsider RWB Lewis's authorized biography of 1975, but the last thing I wanted to do upon putting Lee down was to pick Lewis up once again. Does the world need a new biography of Edith Wharton? Without really re-reading at least a few chapters of Lewis, I can't say for sure, but it's my opinion that the world needs this, Lee's, biography. It's not so much a matter of new sources as one of broader perspective. Professor Lewis (as I recall) saw Wharton as a society woman who overcame conventions and made a name for herself as a writer. I think that Ms Lee sees more: an extraordinarily gifted woman who managed to put all of her gifts to work. The ability to write literary fiction was one of these gifts, but there were others, relating to the running of households, that Wharton managed with all the aplomb of a master hôtelier. Wharton knew how to handle money, whether her own or that of the charities that she oversaw during the Great War. She was a compleat woman, insofar as that is possible without having a shred of silly thoughtlessness, but she bore the heft of a man of parts. Even when she was having fun, she was serious. As we say, she "meant business."
There is one gift that Ms Lee does not make much of, perhaps because it could be taken for granted in women of Wharton's station, generation, and intellectual endowment. I am not sure that the name of this gift ever appears in the text, although evidence of it abounds. The gift is called "cultivation." The word came to me in another context, by happy accident, but I saw at once that it applied to Wharton's entire life. She was at all times a cultivated woman, a woman in the process of cultivating her mind. Much of the hard work was laid down in childhood, of course, with the memorization of great lines of verse and prose. As late as Wharton's day, conscious quotation was an important social ornament. Today, we quote Shakespeare and Keats all the time, but we don't know that we're doing it; we take their phrases for granted. People like Wharton not only knew their sources but could cite them chapter and verse (a phrase that refers to Biblical citation, in case you've never thought about it). They knew their literature far, far better than anybody does today.
Conscious quotation was a grace, not a cudgel. It was not competitive. Showing off is always unattractive. But if I'm the only person in the room who has read Phèdre, then my thoughtlessly rattling off the famous line,
La fille de Minos et de Pasiphaë
is not going to make me any friends. Wharton, however, surrounded herself with people who were as cultivated as she was. Her husband might have been a sad booby (and eventually she had to get rid of him), but then she didn't choose him. The people she did choose were widely read and widely traveled. They knew art and music. They were also, for the most part, hard workers; their cultivation was not the fruit of protracted idleness. Perhaps Hermione Lee neglects Wharton's cultivation because, by the time Wharton got going, at about the age of forty, the art of self-cultivation was no more time-consuming for her than breathing was.
When I closed the book, I was very sad. Long as the book had been, I didn't want to let Wharton go; even when beset by the crotchets of age, she seemed to grow more alive with every paragraph. Bustling back and forth between her two French establishments (a good American, she stayed at the Crillon while the servants moved house), she seems to have been a woman who knew what she wanted and who, with one exception, got it (the exception was lasting love). There is an air of hypercompetence about Wharton that her friends found formidable and somewhat exhausting. Henry James pretended to be elaborately terrified of her visits - as doubtless he really was, a little.
It was sad, too, to see the world that Wharton made for herself broken up into pieces. I don't mean the material world - although half of her library would be blown up in the Blitz, and her gardens at Hyères would not be maintained - but the orbit of activity that governed her days and her nights. She was fastidious and disciplined at home, adhering to a rigorous schedule that nonetheless seems to have emerged from within her; on the road, she could be moody and capricious. She was always irritating her companions with last-minute changes in plans. For a grande dame, Wharton was magnificently, even ferociously, alive. That she wrote some first-rate novels is almost beside the point.
Wharton's great friendship with Bernard Berenson was doubly surprising, because her anti-Semitism was matched by his misogyny. They appear each to have made an exception for the other. They traveled together, they celebrated Christmas together, but mostly they talked together.
Their literary conversation is informed, impassioned, and energetic. It is an exchange of precious objects - cherished quotations and allusions well known to them both. They test each other a little for their skill in attributions, but mainly draw on the same cultural fund. They cite Tennyson's Ulysses, Browning, Goethe and Dante to each other, exchange opinions on Petrarch, or Renan, of the Oxford Book of German Verse, or the relative merits of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, or discuss her view that Melville's early travel books are better (because "simpler") than Moby-Dick. For light relief, they swap allusions to "The Hunting of the Snark," or he tells her to read Daisy Ashford's The Young Visiters. They cultivate little verbal gags, like calling a particularly outrageous or unbelievable quotation or anecdote (usually American) "textual" or "textuel," or referring to the next generation as "the youngs." *
It is possible that a handful of people are still capable of such performances, but I pity anyone on the lookout for it. Wharton and Berenson made their own discoveries, but they were both well-grounded in a recognized canon of great authors. They did not doubt the importance of Tennyson and Browning - poets who may never again command the admiration that seemed theirs by right before the advent of modernism. For Wharton, literature was not merely an ornament but a source of explanation and connection. Her Commonplace Book is a kind of Scripture: a guide to life.
Like her library, it is strong on philosophy and poetry, with many passages on evolution, scientific curiosity, the search for knowledge and the development of ideas. There is much copying-out of Schopenhauer, Goethe, Pascal, Dante, Emerson, Meredith, Plato, Pater, Tyndall and Nietzsche. Stoic realism dominates, in quotations from Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca - the latter on the danger of following other people's ideas, on the need for calm in the face of death, and: "How late it is to begin life just when we have to be leaving it." **
It is undoubtedly preferable to learn about life from direct experience, but experience is chaotic without grounding in thought, and the thoughts that are sparked by contact with literature are likely to be the sturdiest. Our literature, of course, is more motley and manifold than it was in Wharton's day, and as if that were not damaging enough to the consensus that allowed Wharton and Berenson to make new and finer suggestions, there is an even more gruesome development: literature is held in nowhere near the high general regard that it commanded a century ago. The ratio of recent to venerable books in most people's libraries has tipped vertiginously to the recent. The craving for novelty, largely unconscious, keeps everyone's attention fixed on what's next. Although there is nothing, I find, quite as thrilling as the unanticipated conversational click with which two people discover similar keen literary tastes, such encounters are rare and unlikely.
While perfectly aware of what a poor showing I'd make in Wharton's world - such poetry as I've memorized is a litter of rusty fragments, and there are many, many standard works that I have never read (Moby-Dick, for one) - I came away from Edith Wharton a little wiser about myself. I had been puzzled, ever since launching my sites, and especially The Daily Blague in November 2004, by the praise that I received from readers. It was very flattering to be told that I was brilliant and erudite and so forth, but it was news to me. And the compliments always reminded me of dinner guests of the past, who often would say - I'm not making this up! - that they could never entertain me at their tables because they couldn't cook as well as I! A most peculiar gratitude, don't you think? Well, peculiar or not, it was distancing. "I can't do what you can do - so don't expect me to!"
I learned to cook in order to make dishes that I wanted to eat, and there is probably no stronger impetus to successful cooking. The desire to show off in the kitchen has produced many problematic meals, not to mention protracted delays between courses. The point of a dinner party is the gathering of sympathetic personalities to do something that must be done anyway (eating). It's curious that while bad cooking rarely ruins a dinner party if the guests are well-chosen, good cooking is rarely more than a mild enhancement. I never sought to distract my guests with coruscating delicacies. I wanted them to feel good enough in their bellies to be generous in their talk.
I see, from the vantage inspired by Ms Lee's book, that I've read and even studied throughout my life with much the same objective. During my freshman year in college, I learned that there were important things to learn about that were nevertheless probably not going to be taught in classes. If I'm not mistaken, the body of Beethoven's late string quartets was the first encounter of this kind. The quartets were said to be very difficult to listen to, but ultimately very rewarding to know. It took years of listening to find out that this is indeed true. Like a number of dishes in my repertoire, I had to have several goes at the quartets before, one fine day, they were simply familiar and not daunting at all. Am I patting myself on the back for persevering? Pardon me if that's what it looks like. I'm just puzzled that more people aren't motivated to do the same.
Cultivation is often confused with affectation, but I think that anyone can tell the difference between a cultivated person and an affected person in a flash. Sadly, however, affectation is easier for many people to bear. They can laugh at it and despise it. They can even mock it. But cultivation sometimes excites a miserable hopeless envy. It would be a much better world by far it everyone could understand this truth: truly cultivated people cultivate themselves, just as I learned to cook, because they enjoy what cultivation brings to their lives. Cultivated people continue to read and think long after they've faced their last exam. So, the next time you find yourself in the company of a cultivated man or woman, know that they have been moved by pleasure and curiosity to learn what they know, and that they are not in the least bit interested in deluding you into thinking that there's nothing that they don't know. It's far more likely that they're looking to you to tell them something interesting that they don't know, and you'd be surprised: you probably have something right in your pocket. (July 2007)
* Edith Wharton, p. 323. "Textuel," in familiar French, means something like "quote unquote," and it's meant to express distance or doubt regarding the remark quoted.
** Ibid, page 676.
Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press