Friday, February 24, 2012

Edith Wharton


Confession: I don't like American literature. I just don't. Not being a great fan of American classics, I've largely avoided interaction with many of the nation's celebrated writers. John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain: overrated. All of them. As an American, I'm aware I am not exhibiting much patriotism in my indifference (even extreme dislike) of my country's canon, but there it is. I honestly have never regretted migrating to England for my education in order to focus on British texts.

However...

Lately I've felt like I'm missing out by excluding Edith Wharton from my library. I've not read a single work of hers, and I'd like to change that. A friend has been consistently encouraging me to give The Age of Innocence a go, then I'll come across an enthusiastic review of Ethan Frome. While I'm currently (and quite happily) buried under a pile of books all vying for my attention, my thoughts keep wandering to Edith Wharton. Clearly my literary subconscious is dying to get to know her, and I need to arrange a meeting soon.

So, as one who is entirely ignorant of this acclaimed author, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject and as well as any recommendations. I'm inclined to begin my Edith Wharton education with The Age of Innocence, but I can't be sure. Where would you start?  Do you have a favourite Wharton text? What is it about her writing that you like if, indeed, you like it at all. Please, educate me!

P.S. Even though I've not read a word of Edith Wharton's, I am dying to visit her former home and museum The Mount. Methinks I see another literary pilgrimage on the horizon. Check it out:


17 comments:

The Moody's said...

For reals?! Mark Twain?!!! Not sure we can be friends if Huck Finn is considered overrated, which happens to be in my top five favorite books. Pure genius in its writing and commentary about America through a beautifully told story. But about Wharton, Matt just bought Ethan Fromme for me and am excited to read it. Sigh. But I get it, your loyalty lies in the red coat and it's crown. I say, "Give me liberty or give me death!"

Danny said...

Read The House of Mirth! It is by far her best novel.
Lovely pictures of 'The Mount' by the way. Edith actually thought her creation of the mount was a greater accomplishment than any novel she had ever written.

Violet said...

I vote for The House of Mirth as the place to start. The Custom of the Country and Buccaneers are good, also The Age of Innocence. But I think THOM is her best novel.

I also have a bit of an antipathy towards most American Literature, but I think Steinbeck is brilliant. Not so much The Grapes of Wrath and Mice and Men, but some of his other books, such as Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat, are brilliant.

I haven't read Ethan Frome. It just seems too sad, somehow.

Diana said...

Andrea: I know I should be overcome with guilt about it, but I finally accepted that I just don't like Mark Twain's writing (though I do appreciate the cultural significance of Huck Finn). After your chastisement, however, I am feeling properly contrite and have decided to give the novel another go. Someday.

P.S. When are you going to acknowledge that you're bi-literary? :)

Diana said...

Danny: Thanks for The House of Mirth recommendation! I wasn't aware Wharton felt greater pride for The Mount than her written work, but it's exactly the sort of biographical tidbit I was hoping to hear!

Diana said...

Violet: Perhaps I've been reading the wrong Steinbeck texts, because the ones you've mentioned are the ones that put me off him! I'll have to read Cannery Row or Tortilla Flat to see if this helps Steinbeck and me come to an understanding.

Cassandra said...

I have no idea of Edith Wharton but I'm just so glad that I've finally found someone else who is literary unpatriotic!
I don't know much about American literature but it can hardly be as bad as Austrian/German literature (see?! There isn't even enough Austrian literature of any importance so we have to deal with German as well!)
I wish I could solve the problem your way by simply studying literature in England (preferably Cambridge... Hey, if you dream, why don't shoot for the stars?) but I'm afraid my English isn't good enough for that.

Diana said...

Cassandra: I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one who doesn't feel much literary patriotism. Your comment has eased my shame a bit, so thank you!

P.S. You should definitely apply to Cambridge when the time comes! You have a fabulous mind, and they would be lucky to have you. :)

Allie said...

Edith Wharton is one of my all-time favorites, so I'm glad you're giving her a chance! I know you settled on The House of Mirth, and I think that is a great choice! It is one of my favorite books of all time, so I hope you love it. :) Ethan Frome is good, as is The Custom of the Country. Actually, there isn't a book by Wharton that I don't love...

Have you tried Henry James? I find him similar to a lot of European writers. I read The Portrait of a Lady in December and was completely blown away.

Diana said...

Allie: I'm thrilled to hear more enthusiasm for The House of Mirth (and Wharton in general). It makes me think that I will love her too!

I've read a bit of James and feel two ways about him. I really enjoy his early Victorian-style works (Turn of the Screw, Washington Square, Daisy Miller, etc.) but I'm not so keen on the texts he wrote when he transitioned to early Modernism (e.g., The Ambassadors). I haven't yet read A Portrait of a Lady though it's calling to me from my bookshelf. I'll have to read it soon!

o said...

I really need to read some Wharton. I'm going for House of Mirth at some point this spring because of Allie :)

Diana said...

Me too! My first thought was to start with The Age of Innocence. But the recommendations in favour of The House of Mirth have been overwhelming, so I've changed my mind. There is, however, a Penguin omnibus of Age of Innocence, House of Mirth and Custom of the Country. Hopefully I'll be able to get my hands on that and indulge in all three!

Laura said...

I'm not especially patriotic either but I visited The Mount (which was wonderful) which inspired me to read more of her work, and now she's one of my favorite authors.

Laura said...

Sorry, I mean to link to my Edith Wharton page which has links to my reviews. My favourite was The Custom of the Country, which has a delightfully despicable heroine.

Diana said...

That makes me even more excited to read Wharton! I haven't heard much about The Custom of the Country (though I love the title), so I'll be adding that one to my TBR list. Thanks for the recommendation.

I'm quite envious that you've been to The Mount. I'm glad to hear it's worth visiting. :)

Karen K. said...

I've read a lot of Wharton and House of Mirth is still my favorite, though it sometimes ties with Ethan Frome. Her short stories are wonderful too. Xingui is hilarious and Roman Fever is great too. . . and the ghost stories! Really, she was so talented, not many writers excel at both novels and short stories.

Diana said...

Karen K.: I didn't know Edith Wharton wrote ghost stories. How fabulous! I'm a big fan of Victorian/Edwardian tales of the supernatural, so they would be right up my alley. I'm looking forward to checking them out. Thanks for the info. :)