Thursday, August 11, 2011

The 2010 - 2011 Book Reading Project -- Part Five (Edith Wharton)

     After I finished reading Howard Andrew Jones' Plague of Shadows (2011), a fantasy novel of little distinction, I picked up Etham Frome (1911).  I'm not sure how I managed to avoid reading this novella.  It is almost required reading for all American high school students; then again, I took a lot of time off in high school and managed to get myself excused for the more demanding classes through lack of effort and threatening a teacher.  I wouldn't recommend either.  Nor would I recommend assigning Ethan Frome to high school students.  Like The Sun Also Rises (1926), it requires the reader to have been broken by life and/or love at some point to truly appreciate.  There aren't a lot of teenagers who have had those experiences, so they are left instead to ponder over symbolism and contrivances their teachers believe to be important in order to prove they know how to read.

     You may have noticed that I picked up quite a few DTE books over the year.  They are inexpensive – Etham From clocks in at $1.50, much better than $8.00 from Penguin Classics (and I really like Penguin Classics editions) – and I don't mind marking them up when I feel like it.  The DVT edition is only 73 pages, and that encouraged me to knock the book out in a single day.  I feel pretty good about that because I started it on the train ride to and from Monday night PFS play.
     All I could think as I was starting this book was, "why the hell had I wasted time reading Plague of Shadows?".  Wharton didn't normally set her stories in rural environs or people them with the working class, but she absolutely got everything right here.  It perfectly evokes the sensation of desperation of struggling with unspoken, perhaps forbidden love.  At the same time, Wharton is working a masculine version of Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman's "A New England Nun" (1891) with more of an emotional impact because there is a commitment to more than the self of the protagonist.  I'd like to call John Cusack up and ask him to apologize for his criticism of Ethan Frome in Grosse Point Blank (1997).
     I want to point out that this $3.50 DTE book only cost me $2.60 + tax, so I feel even better about picking it up.  I was impressed with Ethan Frome and wanted to read some more Wharton before the year was up, but I didn't want to commit to The House of Mirth (1905) or The Age of Innocence (1920).  I am beyond glad that I picked it up.  Included stories are "Expiation" (1904), "The Dilettante" (1904), "The Muse's Tragedy" (1899), "The Pelican" (1899), "Souls Belated" (1899), "Xingu" (1916), and "The Other Two" (1904).
     "Expiation" is clearly self-referential, but it is telling of Wharton's opinion on gender roles and social reaction to literary criticism.  "Xingu" is perhaps the most timeless piece of Wharton's that I have read.  A scathing look at the pretension of money masquerading as intellectual and moral worth, "Xingu" is both biting and laugh out loud funny.  The best story in the collection, however, is "The Dilettante".  Seriously, if in 1994 – or more likely '95, as it would have given me some time to reflect – someone had set this story before me and simply said "get it?" afterwards, I wouldn't have spent the late 1990s and emotional wreck.  There is nothing glorious in being an asshole, and Wharton found a way to perfectly dissect the emotionally manipulative man down to the scared, weak creature he really is.
     I remember going off the college thinking that most female authors had nothing important to say.  Well, stupid me (of course).  But I also want to fault the school systems that wanted to force Austen and the Brontë sisters upon me and act as though they were as insightful as Wharton, Cather, or even Kate Chopin.  I have more Wharton on my to-read list – we'll see if I can hack a whole novel of her writing – and I look forward to it much more than I would any George R.R. Martin (I didn't enjoy his 'New' Twilight Zone episodes) or Anne McCaffery books.

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