Memorial Boxes and Guarded Interiors
Edith Wharton and Material Culture
In Edith Wharton’s works, references to architecture, interior decoration, painting, sculpture, and fashion abound. As these essays demonstrate, art and objects are for Wharton evidence of cultural belief and reflect the values, assumptions, and customs of the burgeoning consumer culture in which she lived and about which she wrote. Furthermore, her meditations about issues of architecture, design, and decoration serve as important commentaries on her vision of the literary arts.
In The Decoration of Houses she notes that furniture and bric-à-brac are often crowded into a room in order to compensate for a "lack of architectural composition in the treatment of the walls," and that unless an ornamental object "adequately expresses an artistic conception" it is better removed from the room. These aesthetic standards apply equally to her construction of narratives and are evidence of a sensibility that counters typical understandings of Wharton as a novelist of manners and place her instead as an important figure in the development of American literary modernism.
Essays in this collection address issues such as parallels between her characters and the houses they occupy; dress as a metaphor for the flux of critical fashion; the marketing of Wharton's work to a growing female readership ; her relationship to mass culture industries such as advertising, theater, and cinema; the tableaux vivant both as set piece and as fictional strategy; the representation of female bodies as objets d’art; and her characters’ attempts at self-definition through the acquisition and consumption of material goods. All of Wharton’s major novelsThe House of Mirth, The Fruit of the Tree, Ethan Frome, The Custom of the Country, Summer, The Age of Innocence, and Twilight Sleepas well as her short stories, criticism, and essays are explored.
Gary Totten is Assistant Professor of English at North Dakota State University. His essays on Wharton and her contemporaries have appeared in American Indian Quarterly, American Literary Realism, College Literature, Dreiser Studies, and MELUS.
"In his introduction, Totten (North Dakota State Univ.) sets forth an intriguing theme: Wharton wanted 'to make of her life memoirs a memorial box for display.' Wharton's often-biting critique of the social milieu of 'old' New York earned her the Pulitzer Prize in 1921. This collection investigates Wharton's seemingly contradictory efforts to preserve, via her memoirs and her fiction, her New York past. The essays center mainly on the appearance of material culture in Wharton's fiction, notably in The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. Totten divides the volume into five sections: 'Authority and Professionalism,' 'The Body,' 'Consumerism,' 'Interiors,' and 'Technology.' In their contributions, Jamie Barlow, Jennifer Shepherd, and Karin Roffman scrutinize the impact of consumerism, Wharton's astute business acumen, and Wharton's popularity among women readers in the modern era. Roffman's discussion of the emergence of museums and Wharton's ambiguity about them, much like her conflicting emotions about old New York, demonstrates innovation and ingenuity. The reader will gain insights into the material culture that Wharton re-creates in her fiction and into the larger issue of Wharton's evolving view of the vanished society of her childhood. Summing Up: Recommended. Graduate students through faculty."
Individual essays ‘speak’ to one another, and the volume coheres as a whole. Scholars and general readers alike will welcome this study of Wharton’s engagement with material cultures of her time—Carol Singley, author of Edith Wharton: Matters of Mind and Spirit