The Letters of Edith Wharton

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When I was having trouble with the first chapter of a novel I was writing, a good friend and writing mentor suggested I take another look at Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Its first chapter is a classic; it not only draws you into the story but it also lays the groundwork and foreshadows everything that is to follow.

In fact, the opening was so good I couldn’t stop and quickly reread Wharton’s wonderful classic. But as I put it back on my shelf, my eye caught the volume next to it: The Letters of Edith Wharton, edited by her Pulitzer prize-winning biographer R.W.B. Lewis and his wife, Nancy Lewis. And what a marvelous treasure that turned out to be.

The 400 letters in this volume were published in 1988 and, with one exception, date from 1893, when Wharton was 31, to just before her death in 1937. (More recently, a cache of letters dealing with her more formative years was discovered.)

The letters presented here, a small fraction of the total, create a fascinating picture of Wharton, who appears firm with her editors, caring with her close friend Henry James, free with her criticism of contemporary authors, and alternately passionate and needy with her lover. The Lewises also provide a helpful introduction, plenty of commentary, and ample footnotes to put the letters in context.

The volume includes letters to many of the best known authors of her generation—James, Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, and F. Scott Fitzgerald—and generously mix praise with sharp criticism.

In one letter to Lewis, for example, she thanked him for dedicating Babbitt to her and praised many aspects of the novel but still concluded it wasn’t “as good a novel, in the all round sense, as Main Street.” She specifically chastised him for including too much slang:

“In your next book, you should use slang in dialogue more sparingly. I believe the real art in this respect is to use just enough to colour your dialogue, not so much that in a few years it will be incomprehensible.”

In a perhaps loaded gesture, she also took the liberty of sending Lewis a copy of The Craft of Fiction by Percy Lubbock.

When Fitzgerald sent her a copy of The Great Gatsby, she wrote back praising the book but complaining of poor character development:

“My present quarrel with you is only this: that to make Gatsby really Great, you ought to have given us his early career…instead of a short resume of it. That would have situated him & made his final tragedy a tragedy instead of a ‘fait divers’ for the morning papers.”

The letters to her publisher are demanding, pressuring for more promotion and sales, and complaining even about the proposed title page of one novel: “Words fail to express how completely I don’t like it.” She also proved a tough negotiator. When The Ladies Home Journal proposed cutting her autobiography—and the fee for its serialization—by 20%, she wrote back that the editors were free to cut the manuscript but not her payment.

What I found most fascinating, I must confess, were the letters to her secret lover, the journalist W. Morton Fullerton. Wharton’s affair with Fullerton began in 1908, when she was 46 and married, and continued, at times sporadically, for about three years. The letters make clear that Fullerton awakened a passion in Wharton that her marriage never had. In fact, she seemed a bit insecure at first because Fullerton had had so many other affairs. In March 1908, shortly after the relationship had been consummated, she wrote:

“I’m so afraid that the treasures I long to unpack for you, that have come to me in magic ships from enchanted islands, are only, to you, the old familiar red calico & beads of the clever trader, who had dealing in every latitude, & knows just what to carry in the hold to please the simple native—I’m so afraid of this, that often & often I stuff my shining treasure back into their box, lest I should see you smiling at them!

“Well! And if you do? It’s your loss, after all! And if you can’t come into the room without my feeling all over me a ripple of flame, & if, wherever you touch me, a heart beats under your touch, & if, when you hold me, & I don’t speak, it’s because all the words in me seem to have become throbbing pulses, & all my thoughts are a great gold blur—why should I be afraid of your smiling at me, when I can turn the beads & calico back into such beauty—?”

The letters trace the course of the affair—the secret rendezvous, the unsuccessful effort to get away for a whole weekend, and the insecurities that Wharton feels whenever Morton pulls away, going silent for weeks at a time. In one letter, she tells him she knows he is busy and not to write unless he wants to, only to follow up with this:

“When I sent you, eight days ago, that desperate word: ‘Don’t write again!’ I didn’t guess you were already acting on it. Not a letter from you in nine days…”

And then in 1910…close to the end of the affair:

“I have had a difficult year—but the pain within my pain, the last turn of the screw, has been the impossibility of knowing what you wanted of me & what you felt for me…. My life was better before I knew you. That is, for me, the sad conclusion of this sad year. And it is a bitter thing to say to the one being one has ever loved d’amour.”

I confess to feeling more than a bit like a voyeur in reading some of these letters, especially knowing that Wharton repeatedly urged Fullerton to destroy them. Some have argued that they add to a literary understanding of Wharton’s works, in particular to Ethan Frome, which she began writing as the affair was ending. There are clearly parallels in that Ethan Frome deals with a hopeless love affair and its disastrous results, includes passages taken directly from a journal Wharton kept for Fullerton, and is far more passionate and erotic than the sexless House of Mirth and other novels written before Wharton met Fullerton.

Still, I’m not sure that’s enough justification for reading letters the author wanted destroyed. Once sent, they obviously belong to the receiver, but intentions should also matter, as I argued in a recent blog on my separate ethics website. Plus most authors prefer to be judged on the merits of their work, not on the stories behind them, and most resent critics and readers who look for the autobiographical in fiction.

At any rate, my argument (rationalization?) for reading and enjoying these letters is that they have been in the public domain for years now, and whatever I do won’t change that. Plus the letters represent a kind of art—a dying one replaced all too often by e-mail and social media. So I can’t tell you not to read them. Quite the opposite. I think you’ll find them as fascinating as I did.

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