Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence

It’s sad that we regard many classic novels as stuffy things of the past.  There are several I’m still afraid of reading (Portrait of a Lady comes to mind) for fear of getting lost in a month-long haze of reading.  I’m sure some of the fault lies in the way these novels are presented in schools.  It wasn’t until late in my education that I came to realize that classic novels were classic for a reason: usually they are very very good and people like to read them because they are more than just an intellectual exercise and more than just a formulaic plot. 

I now challenge anyone to read Edith Whaton’s The Age of Innocence (1920; Pulitzer (the first to be awarded to a woman)) and call it stuffy.  Sure, the cover might look very formal and the society it describes is certainly stuffy, but Wharton’s prose is full of comedy and insight on par with or perhaps better than Jane Austen’s best.  If that scares some of you away because you find Austen’s stories too happy, don’t worry about that here.

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Let me begin by presenting a sample of Wharton’s writing that made me laugh out loud.  Here Wharton is describing the morbidly obese matriarch, Mrs. Manson Mingott:

The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon.  She had accepted this submergence as philosophically as all her other trials, and now, in extreme old age, was rewarded by presenting to her mirror an almost unwrinkled expanse of firm pink and white flesh, in the center of which the traces of a small face survived as if awaiting excavation.  A flight of smooth double chins led down to the dizzy depths of a still-snowy bosom veiled in snowy muslins that were held in place by a miniature portrait of the late Mr. Mingott; and around and below, wave after wave of black silk surged away over the edges of a capacious armchair, with two tiny white hands poised like gulls on the surface of the billows.

That is not stuffy prose.  And I’m not going to work hard to temper my desire to quote liberally from the book.  With that introduction to Wharton’s skill, I now feel secure in describing the setup of the story, hoping that it won’t sound stuffy now. 

It’s New York in the 1870s.  Young Newland Archer of the upper-class has passed through the initial stages of manhood lock-step with what society expected.  He is now grown and has a job at a prestigious law firm that handles the affairs of the upper-class.  He’s had his conventionally wild post-adolescence, carrying on an affair with a married woman, etc., but as expected he has now found the value of settling down in matrimony.

There was no better match in New York than May Welland, look at the question from whatever point you chose.  Of course such a marriage was only what Newland was entitled to; but young men are so foolish and incalculable—and some women so ensnaring and unscrupulous—that it was nothing short of a miracle to see one’s only son safe past the Siren Isle and in the haven of a blameless domesticity.

Strangely, even that feeling of relief when one’s son passes the Siren Isle is conventional.  Despite the fact that Newland’s life is hardly unconventional, he has always seen himself as above New York’s social mores and considers himself quite cosmopolitan.  He didn’t have an affair with a married woman in his youth because that’s when his society condones that sort of behavior; he did it because he wanted to.  He is not now settling down to marriage because it is expected; he’s truly fallen in love with May Welland, and together they will rise above society.

May is purely conventional, however.  But Newland looks forward to liberating her, though recently he’s had fears about how easily that might be accomplished:

It would presently be his task to take the bandage from this young woman’s eyes, and bid her look forth on the world.  But how many generations of the women who had gone to her making had descended bandaged to the family tomb?  He shivered a little, remembering some of the new ideas in his scientific books, and the much-cited instance of theKentucky cave-fish, which had ceased to develop eyes because they had no use for them.  What if, when he had bidden May Welland to open hers, they could only look out blankly at blankness?

As marriage approaches, Newland is less secure about his future with May:

He reviewed his friends’ marriage—the supposedly happy ones—and saw none that answered, even remotely, to the passionate and tender comradeship which he pictured as his permanent relation to May Welland.  He perceived that such a picture presupposed, on her part, the experience, the versatility, the freedom of judgment, which she had been carefully trained not to possess; and with a shiver of foreboding he saw his marriage becoming what most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.

To complicate matters further, Newland’s heart is drifting away from May.  In the first chapter we meet the Countess Olenska, May’s older but not old cousin who married a count and has lived abroad for years.  Returning to New York in a scandal, the Countess has just left her husband in Europe (“And now it’s too late; her life is finished”) and is even seeking a divorce.  In another scandal, the Wellands have allowed the Countess to accompany them to the opera.  Newland is proud of his almost-fiancée for avoiding false prudery and receiving her cousin, but to bring her to the opera is shocking even to him.  But that doesn’t stop him from meeting the Countess.

Recognizing an innate attraction to the Countess, Newland convinces his family and May’s family to announce the engagement sooner than planned.  He then attempts to get them to flout convention and advance the date of the marriage, though this frustrates him because it is expected that the future groom will desire such things.  May asks Newland if he’s afraid he’ll fall out of love with her if they don’t move the date.  And then in a form of magnanimity appropriate to one of her well-bred station, but shockingly genuine (May is a fantastically elusive character, allowing Wharton to criticize the society while recognizing its strength), May asks whether it is because Newland is in love with someone else but is unable to marry that other person. 

Newland denies everything, which is all the easier when Newland sees that May thinks the woman he loves is his old fling and not the Countess, neither of whom he could marry since they were not divorced.  Surprisingly, Mrs. Manson Mingott says the marriage date should be sooner, not later.  Thus begins a torturous marriage where Newland has an affair in extreme slow motion, seeing the Countess only occasionally and her basically unwilling.  But though he rarely sees her, his mind is absent while he is with May.  The marriage deteriorates quickly as Newland blames May for not being as interesting as the Countess.  There was “no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free . . . .”  The ideas of his “untrammeled bachelorhood” no longer interest him.

This is a great story about a society afraid to approach the brink of change except by paying it lip service only to create the illusion of an enlightened mind.  Fascinatingly, and I didn’t expect this, Wharton also shows the intricacies of that society’s power.  Not even Newland understands how it works, even when it is working to make him fall in line.  And underneath these giant themes are the lives of three individualsthe heart of the story.  We feel for Newland, though we may not like him.  We are attracted to and respect the Countess who both flouts and respects the social construct of New York.  And while we sympathize with May, at first because she looks pathetic, we increasingly come to respect her as we see that she is far from naïve and powerless even thoughand perhaps all the more so becauseshe has to do her maneuvering beneath the surface and within the social constructs she considers inviolate.

39 thoughts on “Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence

  1. Extraordinary, isn’t it Trevor? I was completely blown away by this novel, the quality of the writing, the subtlety of the depictions of character. A marvellous work, I’m delighted you’ve given it a chance and discovered how good it is.

    Three remarkable character portraits, that of Mary is particularly impressive in some ways, I think most authors would have struggled with the depth that Wharton achieves.

    As I said on Kevin’s blog, Wharton is I think a master at showing suppressed emotion, I intend to read more of her and reading your review has reminded me how much I enjoyed this particular work.

  2. I’d like to join Mrs. Berrett and Max in welcoming you to the “Edith Wharton is a great writer” side of the line. I suspect you already know that making this statement to others will produce a lot of quizzical looks and the occasional snide “and I bet you like Henry James too” comment (I do like Henry James). After all, as your opening para effectively admits, you were on the other side of the line only a few days ago.

    Your final paragraph did something that I wished I had done in my review of The House of Mirth a few weeks ago. Wharton can describe a society. And she can describe the tensions in that society. And she can locate and develop full-founded characters who are in that world. When Max commented on my review he wondered whether I like the reportage or the literature aspect (because I’d overlooked the latter). The great thing about Wharton is that she does all those things very, very well — somedays you notice one, somedays that other. And some books do tilt one way or the other.

    You do have some Wharton decisions ahead of you. You might want to stay with New York novels and retreat back to The House of Mirth. Or try her New York stories — NYRB has done two great collections on the New York short stories of Wharton and James (I prefer hers but they are both good), which would then let you ease into James (The Portrait of a Lady is both a great book and not hard to read).

    Or you can follow Wharton overseas with The Custom of the Country.

    I’m making no recommendation — all three options are very good. And those are only a few of her books to consider.

    Cheers. Nothing quite like discovering a wonderful new author — well, at least new to the reader.

  3. Isabel says:

    How long did it take you to read this novel?

    Is the Siren Isle another way of saying that a young man has to sow his wild oats?

    Great review. I read one Henry James and another Edith Wharton a long time ago. Maybe it’s time to revisit them.

  4. Mrs. Berrett says:

    I’m interested in your thoughts on why Archer left at the end. I’m certain we differ in opinions.
    And you mentioned a bit about Countess Olenska’s role, but do you think she was intending to string him along? I know he continued to pursue, but do you think she consciously tried to be pursuable?
    I also feel I should let you know I may be smitten with Archer’s son. And that I kind of like the names Archer and Newland, something to keep in mind if we’re sticking to the Y chromosome.
    As a final note, you should listen to Kevin and me more often.

  5. Sarah says:

    I’m a fan of Wharton for her style, wit and insight so am glad you enjoyed The Age of Innocence. As Kevin says, the question is what Wharton do you read next? I’d say The Custom of the Country.

    I’m also an unabashed reader of Henry James. I’d start with his short stories or novellas (Daisy Miller, Four Meetings, Benvolio and The Aspern Papers are my favourites)before moving on to is novels. That way you can find out if he’s your cup of tea and get used to his expeditionary sentences.

    I’ll have to disagree about Austen though- for me she’ll always be number one, and I don’t think her stories are too happy. Of course each of her novels has a romance at the forefront, but so many of her characters don’t experience this ideal and instead settle or suffer.

  6. Trevor says:

    Max: I wonder how many people miss out on the supressed emotion and therefore miss out on the book. Several people I know have read Wharton or James and thought that nothing interesting happens, but so much is going on underneath.

    Kevin: Thanks again for pushing me. I love my wife and respect her opinion on books, but it might have been a while yet before I went this way were it not for your challenge – ahem – six months ago or so. I’m anxious to read more of her and also James (just like I’m interested in reading the rest of Sebald’s works, Auster’s works, Yates works, Salter’s works, Murdoch’s works, etc., etc., etc. I need to go back into the academy so I get paid to read all of these books.

    Mrs. Berrett, while I respect Kevin’s opinions on books, I am not sure when I would have read The Age of Innocence were it not for your challenge – ahem – a year ago. As for the Countess: I didn’t think she was stringing Newland along, at least not without great trial. I think she encouraged the relationship only at the very beginning, but then, perhaps because of May, she seems more reluctant and even sees the things that come between them as a bit of a blessing in disguise. But she did love him, and she when he was around it was difficult for her to push him away. I’ll have to think about that more.

    You also asked my opinions about why Newland left at the end. I think there are many potential reasons, so I’ll go off the top of my head here. I think he had come to respect May when she successfully ended his affair with the Countess. I think that he recognized that for all his cosmopolitan views, she was still able to execute her will over his (to an extent), and it humbled him and probably sucked a bit of the life out of him. Then some of the void was filled back up with their respectable life. Now the conventions for a respectable life have changed, and he sees it in his son, and he’s no longer courageous enough to change.

    On the other hand, the Countess is now old, and so is he. For years he pined after her and created an image that made him emotionally absent from though physically present in his marriage. He never really had time to develop a relationship with the Countess, even though for a time that was all he wanted. Perhaps he is now afraid of bringing his vision of her to the test, especially at their age (a bit different view on love, then, from, say, Love in the Time of Colera). I think that might be a bit too harsh a view on Newland, though. It seems to me that his experiences with May – the love, the lsss of love, the family, and then the respect built which provided the foundation for their marriage though passion probably was absent – taught him that he’s a foolish person. That his cosmopolitan desires are baseless in comparison becomes clear over the years (Wharton was writing this book as an apology for her criticism of that society in The House of Mirth, so it might make sense to not only have the main character beaten by society but also, in the end, obeisant to that society. I think Wharton presented the strengths of this society, along with its foibles, in many ways throughout the novel).

    Then again, perhaps that day Newland was tired and didn’t think he could climb the stairs. Just kidding, I’m sure that’s not it, but I’m not sure about any of my cobbled together views above.

    Sarah, the only James I’ve read is “Daisy Miller” and I enjoyed it very much. I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy James when I dig into him more thoroughly later. Most of my favorite authors pay him tribute in one way or another, so I look forward to my own relationship with his work.

    As for Austen, my suspicion is that once The Age of Innocence has settled in my mind a bit more, Austen will still reign supreme. The charm of her novels is contagious. And there are so many presentations of human nature, both good and bad, in all of her characters. I cannot imagine the genious of keeping it all straight while constructing a subversive plot. Also, I definitely recognize that her novels have biting realities too, though they are all presented in such subversive ways it is possible to forget that almost all marriages in her books (aside from the perfect ones at the end of the novels) are unhappy. The only exception I can think of is Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle in Pride and Prejudice. I get so much pleasure from Mr. and Mrs. Bennett’s interactions, but I would hate to be in their shoes. I’ll see how I balance the two out when I’ve read more Wharton. Austen is an annual treat, and I think Wharton might become as much too, so I think I’ll continue to enjoy both of them for many years to come.

    Thanks everyone for your comments. There is so much in this particular book, I’d love to hear your perspectives on some of the matters I’ve just addressed, and on new matters entirely.

  7. Trevor says:

    Isabel, sorry to leave you out of my lengthy post above, but I lost myself in there (as I’m sure many others will now).

    The book did not take me long to read at all, I think three days. I’m a fast reader, but over those days I didn’t have much time to read. Still, I found myself having to pick up the book whenever time allowed. Wharton’s prose is definitely not cumbersome, so I found no problem navigating through the pages so long as I picked it up to read.

    About the Siren Isle: Newland is sowing his wild oats already. The Siren Isle is the temptation for him to remain doing so instead of moving on and settling into a proper marriage now that he is at the proper age.

    I hope to see your thoughts on Wharton soon if you revisit her!

  8. Dorothy W. says:

    You make me want to read this book again! I do love Wharton and may be getting in the mood to read something of hers again. I love her careful observation and description of emotional states she offers.

  9. I am most impressed with Mrs. Berrett’s perceptive questions and the excellent response that you have given them.

    For me, what they have done is underline that, in fact, I do pay more attention to Wharton’s “reportage” than I do to her character development — and that is a criticism of me, not her. What I remember most about The Age of Innocence is her exploration of New York society and the way that it is changing — the questions that Mrs. B asked and your response provoke memories for sure, but nothing that would leave me feeling capable of comment. All of which in itself is a worthwhile observation — I need to go back to this book and pay attention to those nuances that I missed and that you found the first time. The House of Mirth has been a recent enough experience that I do remember that aspect of that book — I need to refresh my memory with The Age of Innocence.

    After saying all that, I do think now that you should move on to The Custom of the Country next — you’ll find she takes that reportage/literature angle to a different continent and adds levels of complexity. I would also agree that waiting several months or a year is entirely appropriate. The idea of reading a Wharton, James, Austen (and I’d add Eliot and Hardy) a year is entirely appropriate. It is true of all of them that the plot line is pretty much always the same (as in “all pies have crusts”); their strength is the filling you put inside the crust.

    I certainly found Mrs. Berrett’s input on this issue interesting and would hope a) that you pay more attention to her suggestions about books you should read b) that she contributes to this blog more often and c) that you have a careful ear to her preference for names.

    Cheers,

    Kevin

  10. Mrs. Berrett says:

    Maybe I’m a vixen, or just think everyone else is, but I definitely thought the Countess was trying to be pursuable. The way she always talk about May (establishing that she is off-limits) while at the same time being flirtatious and casting off the social rules (drawing him back).
    I won’t deny real feelings potentially developed, but what kind of women allows them to develop with her cousins fiance? A vixen. From the beginning, long before she could have loved him, she tried to draw him in.
    I think it may have been psychological, a personal need to realize that she was still lovely and acceptable. But also somewhat social (the reason the great patriarch allowed the actions) by ensuring that a respectable male would be in her company. And not just one respectable with his money, but also with his manners. It was a feat, and one that even Newland seemed to acknowledge as necessary when he ensures she’s invited to the dinner party.
    To her credit I don’t believe she intended for it to go as far as it did, but she started it out.
    That could be another reason Archer was reluctant to go up. As sure as he was of what he would do for her, there was obviously less committment from her. In his mind she was fixed as a beautiful trophy he may have won, but to see her may have made him realize that it never would have been. The possibility for that rejection, despite the time that has passed, would make anyone a little weak in the knees.

  11. Mrs. Berrett says:

    oh, and much thanks for the name endorsements Kevin. Trevor may be coming around. Though lets hope he has PLENTY of time before he has to really decide.

  12. Trevor says:

    I might have been reading things that weren’t there, but didn’t Newland and the Countess know each other and have a sort of infatuation before she married and left? I think when she came back from Europe she may have been seeking to lure him back; perhaps she missed the company of men. But I do think there was a bit more there later, if not at the beginning.

    It is weird that she would invite him to her house, though. Though she was invited everyone to her house. And she was accepting most invitations to others’ homes. She wanted company and saw no reason to live by the rules.

    I do see your point, though. Perhaps my blindness to her being a vixen is a good thing, though, if it also explains how you lured me in :) !

  13. It has been a couple of years since I read The Age of Innocence and my memory may be effected by my more recent reading of The House of Mirth but my memory is very consistent with Mrs. Berrett’s view (and that is reinforced by Wharton’s other books — although that might mean I am wrong in this case).

    Just as James’ novels feature European males who take advantage of rich American women, Wharton’s have meddling female intriguers who expose the weakness of her central male characters (I’ve always assumed this was part of getting back at her dreadful ex-husband), leading either the men, a weak heroine or themselves to ruin. Bertha Dorset and Judy Trenor both do that in Mirth and Undine Spragg runs through a number of men in The Custom of the Country. The impression that has remained in my mind of the Countess is that she got into the whole process as a bit of an amusement — and the question of whether that turned into genuine affection was left pretty much up to the reader. If you want, she becomes the Marquise de Merteuil from Les Liaisons Dangereux, as opposed to Madame Bovary — and given that this book was written after Wharton had been in Europe for some time, that would make some sense.

    All of which, as I said at the start, is what memory of the book has left to me as opposed to a scholarly impression drawn from recent reading.

  14. I was intrigued enough by this exchange that I went back to my Everyman’s Library edition of The Age of Innocence and the excellent introductory essay by Peter Washington, editor of the series. I offer two quotes from that:

    “Charming, cultured, sophisticated and ready to rebel against the stuffy manners of Old New York in the name of love and freedom, in the end Ellen (Olenska) nevertheless accepts as inevitable the ground-rules of the sexual and social game as determined by the dynasties to which both women belong. The basic laws of this game are that a mistress has no rights and that a wife may use such means as she deems necessary to preserve her marriage and the honour of her family.”

    And: “…there are moments in the story when we cannot tell whether Ellen is acting from motives of passion or calculation (nor can she, possibly); and the exact nature of her compromising liaison with the banker, Julius Beaufort, is deliberately left obscure.”

    I think the phrase “nor can she, possibly” captures what we have been discussing — and is a tribute to how well-constructed this book is.

    I have two questions for la famille Berrett (trying to be European here):

    1. Has Mrs. Berrett read The House of Mirth? I would be very interested in her take on Lily Bart if she has. In some ways, Lily is the female version of Newland Archer. And while Age of Innocence explores the impact of society on a man, Mirth (admittedly written much earlier) is the female version of the same situation.
    2. This is a major change of topic. Trevor, have you read Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities? I have been thinking about it frequently lately and contemplating a trip to the basement shelves to bring it up for a reread. (Seeing the film doesn’t count here — the parts that interest me are only in the book.) As the traditional economy collapses, my memory says that there are parts of this book that may be relevant concerning the behavior of corporate leaders (indeed, I’ve also been thinking about A Man in Full — did Wolfe somehow have some understanding of the looming sub-prime crisis?). Bonfire is about a previous Wall Street crisis but memory says it has some things to say about the present. I don’t know very many readers (actually I know only you, Mrs. KFC and me) who know enough about that corporate world and, at the same time, literature to be able to make the comparison. Wolfe’s reputation is hardly literary but I suspect there may be something there — as you can see, I’m persuading myself into a reread. Significant aside: I think the only thing that W and I have in common is that we both thought reading I Am Charlotte Simmons worthwhile — I forget where, but the President said he had read and admired it and I rather liked it to. Certainly, almost no one else did. Wolfe apparently has a new novel about immigration out this year (working title is apparently Miami and I will confess to looking forward to its appearance. He is no Edith Wharton for sure but I do think he is most under-rated as a serious observor of our times — too populous for the literatti and too literary for the corporate types. A few of us do have a foot in both those worlds.

  15. Trevor says:

    Often when my wife and I argue (we don’t view “argument” in this context as a fight so much as a dance) about books, we often recognize that, while we may have our seemingly conflicting views, the book is actually and thankfully ambiguous. As quoted above, Countess Olenska herself might not have known her true motives, though by the end she surely allowed them to be quashed for May. Those two quotes are excellent and help me understand Wharton’s structure better.

    On to Wolfe: I’ve never read him, though since I entered the corporate world I’ve been meaning to read The Bonfire of the Vanities. I even have it and have read the first few sentences in an attempt to push myself in. It does intrigue me, but its length is daunting. I’ve also heard it is a bit of a soap opera, so that doesn’t help. I also have been tempted to read I Am Charlotte Simmons because some of my law school friends said it was good. Just hasn’t happened yet. I suspect the day is coming. As of now, though, the only particular knowledg of Wolfe I have was when he and a few other artists went to Congress to lobby against some alteration in the tax code. While there one of my law professors told him how much she loved his writing and asked how he wrote such fine sentences. I remember his response was witty, but I can’t remember what it was. The artists got their way, incidentally (I think it was something about expensing or capitalizing writing and research materials (tools of the trade) and the like, but I can’t remember that precisely either).

    I guess one reason I feel intrigued by Wolfe is because he is one of the only authors of recent years to write serious fiction about the corporate world (so I’ve heard, and you back that up). If you or anyone can recommend some great current and past fiction authors who understand that world and its nuances, I’d love to hear them. An aspect of The Age of Innocence that I enjoyed was the briefly mentioned securities scandal. While I wanted more, Wharton shows that she knows exactly what happened. There’s something about literature of that time period (James, Wharton), the earlier time (Dickens, Collins), and somewhat in the later time period (primarily Cheever) that went into the world and the laws of wealth (including financial markets, banking, and even inheritance law) to ellaborate on human themes. Today many characters are bankers, analysts, attorneys, wall street moguls, whatever, but they have become stock characters, meant to showcase greed and corruption in a story meant to indict the contemporary world.

    For example, while I enjoyed The Reluctant Fundamentalist as it was, I actually wanted more about his life as an analyst and how that affected him. Instead his position (which he loved) implied that he was on the fast track to wealth the New York City way, and that was about all. The best writing (excellent writing) I find about this world is nonfiction and news, but I really want some good fiction.

    On a side note, I very much love Mad Men; though its connection is tangential to the financial markets. I also really enjoyed John Stewart’s brush up with Jim Cramer Thursday night on The Daily Show. It was comical at times, deadly serious at others, and showed a surprisingly sophisticated and financially savvy John Stewart. At least they used the words short trading, futures, fomenting the market, the SEC, and 35:1 leveraging. I haven’t found good fiction, but at least a comedy show gave some gratification. I also thoroughly enjoyed the movie Michael Clayton. The moral elements are there in all of these, but at least the corporate world is not merely a prop.

    (By the way, don’t give me too much credit for knowing this world. I’m still fresh and relative to most in the world, I’m incredibly unsophisticated :) ).

    Well, I don’t know if any of what I said above makes sense now. Where did I start? I also wanted to ask a few questions relating to Wharton’s relationship with James, but I feel I should leave that to later.

  16. Your reply confirms my impression: There is a literary examination of the corporate world and there are not very many of us who are comfortable with — or can even understand — novelists who try to describe it. A few thoughts:

    1. You and your wife don’t “argue” about these books, you “dialogue” about them. In our household, my wife was the senior corporate executive and, now semi-retired (and a corporate director), is fascinated by much of the non-fiction that is being written about them — House of Cards is just the latest of books on the subject that she has wanted ordered. I do the fiction; she does the non-fiction and we occasionally overlap, to both our benefit. We also spend a fair bit of time exchanging observations from our different points of view. Wolfe is one of the few authors where that overlap truly occurs.
    2. I am going to pull Bonfire out for a reread. It is a soap opera (and that is why it was a good movie). What I am thinking — and only a reread will confirm or dispel the notion — is that there are more observations about corporate structure and malfeasance than I saw the first time — so I’ll be reading the book for the secondary themes, not the main one (this is where Wharton is relevant — the ornaments that she hangs off the tree are every bit as interesting as the tree itself). I do have a firm belief that looking back a couple of decades or so can often provide us with examples that better explain the present — that’s what I am hoping this reread will provide (and I won’t bet against it extending into a reread of A Man in Full which I also remember with some fondness). Both books are thick but the way Wolfe writes, they are a very quick read. If you like basketball, now that March Madness is upon us, do read Charlotte Simmons (actually, given that you taught at BYU, that’s another reason) but it really is not up to the other two. It is more interesting than the reviews have it in capturing the only-American notion of the conflict between varsity sports and the academy, but outside of that doesn’t have much to recommend it (I think W liked it because of the way it exposed the academy side of that equation — as usual, he only saw what he wanted to see.)
    3. Your comments about The Reluctant Fundamentalist and MadMen fully support that point — and again both my wife and I are in that camp. As one of the people indebted to you for introducing me to Yates, my primary interest in him is in the way that he captured elements of the corporate world of the time. As I have indicated elsewhere, I think Mad Men does a very good job in the video world of doing the same thing.
    4. I promise to think of some other examples. I do think you are on the right track in looking at other authors (and Wharton, given her background which meant she at least knew something about that world, is excellent) who have at least addressed that world. This is one area where the North American and English experiences start to split — they have their aristocracy as a heritage (good or bad); one of the things I like about Wharton (and to a lesser extent James — this is where she is much better than he is) is that she came from there and, consciously or not, does a good job of describing it. (Off the top of my head, Louis Begley is another contemporary author who does address it, albeit not nearly as well. If I recall correctly, he does pay more attention to the role of law firms.) I know New York only as an occasional visitor, but even with my limited knowledge of Fifth and Madison Avenues Wharton’s books have an immediate presence that I can relate to. Every time I pick up one of her books, I mentally locate myself at MOMA or the Plaza and I find myself right at home with her geography.
    5. And totally off the wall, but it is your fault for revealing somewhere that you taught at BYU. Do you and Mrs. Berrett watch Big Love? Calgary has a large LDS community (and their Canadian headquarters are in Cardston, south of here — the Canadian polygamists are just across the border in Bountiful, British Columbia, next door to the Doukabhors) so Sheila and I do have some experience with them. We have been fascinated by the series and are devotees — she actually found herself seated next to Bill Paxton on a flight a couple of years ago when season one was on and struck up a friendship. If you have been watching it, we’d be most interested in your observations.

    As I said, I’ll do some more thinking about other potential examples — and I hope you will too (we have Toobin’s book on The Nine — Sheila’s started it, I have not got to it yet). There are not many of us who can attempt to bridge this gap — perhaps between the two of us, and our very intelligent and supportive spouses, we might open some thoughts.

  17. Trevor says:

    I hope you can come up with more examples of fiction dealing with the corporate world for me, Kevin. For some time now I’ve been hoping some books would fall my way.

    As for Big Love I have never seen an episode; we don’t have HBO. We do know that there are disputes between HBO and LDS members about the show’s accuracies, but I can’t speak to those points. I assume both sides are right in their own way, but from what I’ve seen and heard it looks like the producers have mostly portrayed the stereotypical Utah Mormon – self-righteous, ignorant, uncultured. From first-hand experience, I know that is not true, though there are many who fit the bill.

    I can say, however, that many, many people ask me about Big Love. I am not someone who takes offense to the show. I find the topic of polygamy fascinating. On the polygamy topic, from what I’ve heard, HBO has another incredibly interesting, insightful drama on their hands. My complaint is that several of the people who talk to me about it actually assume that I’m a polygamist or that perhaps my parents are, and that means more misunderstandings about the LDS church. It’s been my impression that HBO pays lip service to making a clear distinction between the polygamist community and the LDS community, but that the show is blending the boundaries. At any rate, I know the distinction is not quite reaching all of the audience members.

    I am interested in the series for its portrayal of polygamy. Despite the questions I’ve received, though, I’ve never seriously looked into it because I’m turned off by what I’ve heard of their portrayal of the LDS church. I don’t necessarily avoid things that might misrepresent or even represent aspects of my life, but in this case it hasn’t made me feel the need to watch it. Perhaps you can enlighten me though, Kevin. I’m deeply interested in how it portrays polygamy. I actually know no polygamist personally or by association. But the LDS church’s history has made me interested in the issue. Also, a family law class in law school also gave me an academic interest in the topic. It’s interesting to have a class say there should be no laws based on personal morals turn immediately around and say polygamy is wrong, period. I know many polygamist communities have wrong practices (marrying underaged girls, coercing girls into marriage, etc.), but there are already laws that punish that behavior. Why a blanket law prohibiting willing forty-year-olds from polygamy? Potential for abuse of the women? We don’t stop a man who has abused five prior wives from marrying a sixth, as much as we might want to. And we can get around equal protection by allowing polyandry. Of course, then we have the issue of gigantic families intermarried, and that changes the traditional family structure – but that’s been changing a lot for years. All of these questions are academic, as I’m no proponent of polygamy (tell my wife not to worry), but it has made me think, and it does make me interested in the show’s portrayal of polygamy.

    Also, even were I really intent on watching Big Love, I’m still only thirty minutes into the first episode of Foyle’s War, which you recommended to me months and months ago! (I am enjoying it, by the way, but every time I sit down to watch it something happens – kids!)

    Edith Wharton to polygamy to Foyle’s War. Book blogs are great! You’d never get this train from a newspaper review!

  18. Nicola says:

    What an enjoyable review. I read this novel a year or so ago for book club and our group really liked it. I want to re-read The House of Mirth now.

  19. Sheila O'Brien says:

    Trevor
    This is mrs KFC weighing in with a gentle suggestion in response to your question of KFC re: business fiction. This is one of those interesting times the wise Chinese are always wishing upon us. Our entire economic order is up for grabs, and I believe that it has been caused in large part, by hubris and greed of CEO’s. Their falls from grace are Shakespearean in scale,and in many ways stranger than fiction.
    I have recently read two non-fiction works which illustrate their moral bankruptcy, and lack of moral compasses:
    “Blue Blood & Mutiny – the Fight for the Soul of Morgan Stanley” by Patricai Beard
    and
    “King of The Club – Richard Grasso and the Survival of the New York Stock Exchange” by Charles Gasparino
    Each of these books is very well written, and I think offer compelling reading, with a lot of gossipy insights about some of the titans of industry, whose names will be familiar to you. But more than that, they offer a view of a group of powerful men living in the echo chamber of their own views, powerfully and painfully out of touch with the entire rest of the world.
    Given all the downed eagles we read about daily, these books might be interesting to you in interpreting the question”WHAT WERE THEY THINKING!!!!!!”

  20. Thanks for the response to my query about Big Love. Part of me wants to bang my head against the wall that people assume it is a pseudo-documentary. A bigger part of me (the Westerner with the chip on his shoulder) says that I should know better — I’ve experienced too many examples of people who never have visited the West being willing to make all sorts of assumptions about those of us who live here. Just because I like the Sopranos doesn’t mean that I jump to the conclusion that everyone who lives in New Jersey is part of the mafia.

    I can certainly understand that the LDS hierarchy would be pissed (the show actually pays virtually no attention to LDS beyond some stereotypical assumptions — which those of us who have Mormons among us would know, but I guess someone who has never met on would not). Then again (speaking as a person who has no religious belief) the hierarchy of every church gets pissed when some creative fiction person looks at it (cf. The DaVinci Code).

    Anyway stick with Foyle’s War (which is more entertaining and probably equally unfair in its treatment of British authorities and their attitudes during the war as Big Love is to the Mormon church). When you get more time — that’s probably a few decades away — you can get the DVDs then.

    Sheila’s is typing away, so I suspect some corporate book recommendations will be on the way shortly.

  21. Trevor says:

    Nicola, I also want to read The House of Mirth now. Interesting how some books come along and completely throw off the reading schedule. Suddenly I’m reading Henry James, when I already had so many other books in line! I’m sure more Wharton will wiggle in to the front of the queue.

    Mrs. KFC, so glad you commented and for your recommendations! I haven’t read either of those books yet. My law firm has a sort of attempt at a book club (not a high priority) and the last book was Confederacy of Idiots about the Enron scandal. The writing was great. Excellent reporting and story-telling. Still, it misses some of the flavor that only fiction can offer. That said, I will be taking your recommendations into account very soon!
    I think the one on Dick Grasso will be up high on the list. I find his fall from grace due to his excessive compensation fascinating. (I wonder what would have happened had his case been decided this year. Though we were already in the slump when it was decided in 2008, it sure seems like a different world on Wall Street.)

    Kevin, even when writing my comments about Big Love‘s misrepresentations, I knew I was speaking for nearly every group who gets put under a lense, for whatever brief amount of time. There definitely are people here in New Jersey who take exception to the Sopranos. I watched most of the show after I’d already moved to New Jersey and found so much of it to be spot on, but I recognized that it left out many essential details. And I vaguely remember the hullaballoo about The DaVinci Code (just kidding about the vaguely). Thankfully I thik most of us don’t take such things too seriously; they blow over quickly anyway, making room for the next spat!

    And I’m definitely going to stick with Foyle’s War. I already really like it, and it always feels good to settle down and watch a few minutes of it even though I know it deserves to be watched with more attention. You can keep these types of recommendations coming too :) .

  22. Sheila O'Brien says:

    Trevor:
    your “Confederacy of Idiots” reference gave me an opening – have you read “A Confederacy of Dunces”? its a bit of a cult book and you either love it (as I do and take it on as an obsession) or go “huh?” and then move on.
    I think it’s a brillinat critique of rigid Catholicism, done up in some hillarious garb, set in pre-Katrina New Orleans.

  23. Mrs. Berrett says:

    Kevin-
    I loved the visual of you and Sheila spending time together…on seperate computers. Sounds familiar, sounds like tonight.
    I had to laugh at your comment “Just because I like the Sopranos doesn’t mean that I jump to the conclusion that everyone who lives in New Jersey is part of the mafia.” Trevor stopped watching the show because I would get so paranoid when I saw someplace familiar. I still keep my head low when I see a man in a velour suit on our local jogging trail. Though these may be illusions of grandeur as the mafia has no reason to have interest in me.
    I haven’t read House of Mirth, but you’ve heightened my interest. It’s on my to-read list. I’m really hoping Trevor gets both of Mrs. KFC’s recommendation, they sound good to me too.

  24. Trevor says:

    Sheila, I read A Confederacy of Dunces a few years ago, and I’m afraid I was more of the “huh?” group. I laughed out loud many times, and found so much to like. I had heard so much about it and had incredibly high expectations. I’m sure it was that that killed it for me. That and I read it my first semester in law school. My mind was all a mush. Then again, there were no children at that time, and I think my mind is mushier now.

    By the way, I didn’t catch any of the critique on rigid Catholicism. That or I have since forgotten it. As I said, mushy mind. On a positive note, I enjoyed it enough to think I should read it again. I might enjoy it more this time since I lowered my expectations. Thanks for the reminder! I’d like to get through it soon while we’re thinking about it so I could benefit from your insights, but this post has already expanded my reading list beyond what is doable in a short time!

  25. Sheila O'Brien says:

    It always ruins a book for me when people go on and on – so I completely understand about “Confederacy…”. so many wonderful books, so little time.
    I love your blog, and love reading Mrs B’s comments too.

  26. Trevor says:

    It always ruins a book for me when people go on and on . . .

    I often wonder how many books I ruin for people when I post here how good they are :) .

    Thanks for your kind comments, Mrs. KFC. Also, I’m glad you got my wife interested in the nonfiction books. Makes purchasing them much easier!

  27. Mrs. Berrett says:

    I’ll say it, you killed Atonement for me.

  28. Trevor says:

    I’ll say it, you killed Atonement for me

    And I’ve heard that enough from you now that you have ruined it for me too. I now have to read it in secret.

  29. Atonement is quite a good book. Knowing something about it doesn’t spoil it. Read on.

  30. Trevor says:

    That was the problem, Kevin, she read it after I’d built it up too much for her. Ended in disappointment. Not a McEwan fan, my wife. Said his smug picture matched his prose.

    I thoroughly enjoyed Atonement.

  31. Mrs. Berrett says:

    Smug would not be my choice of word. Arrogant would be more accurate.
    I liked the premise, but his execution was a little too self-indulgent. Almost baroque.

  32. While I don’t share Mrs. Berrett’s criticisms of Atonement or MacEwan, I can certainly understand them — and why someone would hold them. Which means that you didn’t spoil the book for her, Trevor, because she would have had these same critical opinions (and they certainly have validity) whether or not she had heard what you thought of the book. You are off the hook.

  33. I loved Black Dogs, but hated Amsterdam so much that I kept it for a while as a reminder never again to buy MacEwan.

    That aside, I somehow missed half the comments on this blog entry before. No idea how. I work in the corporate world, more precisely I’m a corporate lawyer, and it is a world poorly captured in literature mostly because very few writers have any real experience of it.

    John Self’s old favourite, Something Happened isn’t bad, I don’t recall Bonfire having that much on the actual corporate side of things, really though it’s non-fiction where the best stuff is. Barbarians at the Gate is excellent, Liar’s Poker is rightly famous, those two would be at the top of my personal recommendations pile.

  34. Sheila O'Brien says:

    Lest anyone be tempted to buy “Snowball” – the bio of Warren Buffett, please DO NOT. This is a doorstopper of epic proportions, and not at all worth the read. Only if you are after Michelle Obama Arms, and plan to carry it around for several weeks is it worth the purchase. Better you should lug around “War and Peace” – same muscular effect, better osmosis potential.

  35. I suspect the market for business tycoon bios is going to be off for a bit, following recent events. Probably for the good really, it was never that great a genre to begin with.

    Thinking about it, I have put my own wife off a couple of books by talking about them too much as I went through them, I now try to avoid it, it’s a sad irony when your own enthusiasm becomes a barrier to someone else’s enjoyment. Easily done though.

    She’s better than I am at conveying “this is great, you should read it” without overdoing it or giving too much away, I really must read some Stefan Zweig actually, one of her favourites (Emma, my wife, is very big on Pushkin Press).

  36. Trevor says:

    Thanks for the warning, Sheila. By the way, I did get a hold of the book on Grasso. Looking forward to it! Especially since it was written in 2007. Such a different world now!

  37. Trevor says:

    My wife and I sat down to watch Scorsese’s film of this book. We couldn’t finish it! Probably only got 40 or 50 minutes in before the melodrama and directing hijinx were starting to taint my memory of the novel. Why the quick shots? Why so many not-so-subtle cross references, if not simply to show cleverness? Why the blacking out part of the scene so we could focus in on the speaker? And—the device that finally tipped it over for us—why the Michelle Pfeiffer reciting a letter to Newland in a dramatic monologue from a sled? Would having this as a voice over have stepped on the toes of Joanne Woodward’s uninspiring narration?

    I respect Scorsese and have found many of his films to be brilliant. The production values in this film were exceedingly high (and the only thing that kept us going for as long as we got; my wife loved the costume and the authenticity), but the artifice was taken too seriously and completely ran over the story. Seems anti-Wharton to me.

  38. Trevor says:

    Here’s an excellent post from A Commonplace Blog on “Ingenuity in plotting” that discusses The Age of Innocence in terms of its brilliant plot.

  39. Trevor says:

    Here’s an interesting post on the LOA’s blog, Reader’s Almanac, about Wharton’s controversial Pulitzer win. I didn’t know this, but the fiction judges voted to give the prize to Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, but the board overruled and gave it to The Age of Innocence. This isn’t the only time the committee designated to choose the winner was overruled, but I’m happy at the result, though apparently Wharton was not. Here’s part of her letter to Lewis:

    When I discovered that I was being rewarded — by one of our leading Universities — for uplifting American morals, I confess I did despair.

    Subsequently, when I found the prize shd really have been yours, but was withdrawn because your book (I quote from memory) had “offended a number of prominent persons in the Middle West,” disgust was added to despair.

    The piece also goes into Lewis’s subsequent success (or lack thereof) with the Pulitzer board (the fiction committee was again overruled when they chose Babbit, which he’d dedicated to Wharton; that year the award went to Willa Cather’s One of Ours).

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