The title of Edith Wharton’s most famous, Pulitzer Prize winning novel is likely derived from a popular painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The painting was created sometime between 1785-1788 (see below). Sir Reynolds did not actually title the painting, as the name was given to the work after his death. The painting was first presented to the National Gallery in 1847, and then to the Tate in 1951, where it remains today. It was a popular work reproduced numerous times and beloved by many.
Note the child’s bare feet, her bonnet, and the way the wind ruffles through her hair. She sits casually in a pasture, with a vast and open countryside behind her. Both hands sit loosely over her heart. She seems pensive as her gaze focuses off into the blurry distance. She is clothed in a billowy white dress caught by a particular light. We know very little about the painting – who is the main character? Why did Sir Reynolds’s decide to paint over his original Strawberry Girl? The mystery of the work persists.
At any rate, Wharton captures a certain degree of this mystery in her magnum opus, The Age of Innocence. She presents a complex glimpse of the past: one that is neither glamorous nor nostalgic, yet it is also not bitter. Wharton simply presents an epoch, an aristocratic age that was later destroyed by the Great War and its passing generation: the Gilded Age. This was the epoch in which Wharton was raised. She was born an unusual child of immense privilege, preferring to spend most of her time studying and touring through Europe. She lived lavishly as a socialite, and she was well-connected to some of the most influential men of her day (she much preferred the company of men to the idle chatter of women). She was fiercely conservative and a defender of the European way of doing things, which was different from the prideful upper-crust of Manhattan. She was erudite, witty, and always curious. It has been said of Edith Wharton that her one downfall was simple: she was not a pretty woman. She was married once, into a less than happy marriage. Their marriage eventually ended in divorce. It was even called a “sexless” marriage, an accusation which Wharton did not deny but which she blamed on her mother’s strict code of morality enforced upon her as a child. Wharton took one additional lover after her failed marriage, but otherwise she lived an independent life. Her lover was a famed bachelor, Walter Berry. No one knows the extent of their relationship because after his death Edith Wharton burned most their correspondences. However, what remains of their contact reveals a passionate love affair. They are both buried next to each other at Versailles in France.
Published in 1920 amidst the fresh scars of World War I and after the death of Wharton’s friend, Theodore Roosevelt, The Age of Innocence takes place in the 1870s during the Gilded Age of old New York City – a city ruled by a cohort of elite families and their old world aristocratic values. It was the milieu in which Edith Wharton, herself, was raised, yet she was not entirely fond of its rigidity. Wharton writes the novel in the twilight of her life, as a reflection on her upbringing. In a curious way, Wharton longs for the virtues of the old order, the way things were before the Great War destroyed a generation. However, she does not truly wish to go back. Her novel is an exploration, not a polemic.
In the novel, we see Edith Wharton mirrored in the character of Ellen Olenska, a woman seeking a divorce from her European husband and now living her own independent life, which flies in the face of the conventional values of old New York. Olenska represents a new shift – a woman freed of her husband. In some ways, Edith Wharton splits herself between the Countess Olenska, and the main character, Newland Archer, a man who longs to transcend his stale social status in the hopes of finding the world alive and full of color again. Both characters seek to push beyond their moral confinements, however only Ellen succeeds, while Newland only becomes trapped in his own duties and entanglements. Newland chooses familial duty, convention, obligation, safety and security over a love for Ellen that would, no doubt, have caused great turmoil and public scandal.
Newland Archer, the complicated main character of the novel, is an upper-crust New York attorney. He is set to be engaged to the pretty but predictable May Welland. However, upon the entrance of Ellen Olenska, Archer is enamored. All throughout the book, he attempts to balance his duty to the rigid social mores of old New York by continuing to publicly court May Welland in the most proper ways, without fully succumbing to his undeniable fascination and eventual desire for the new and independent woman, Ellen Olenska. In the end his commitment to the old world wins. He marries May Welland, while still captivated by Ellen Olenska. He hopes that his new marriage will close the door on his feelings for Ellen. Yet what ultimately forces him to commit fully to his wife is her unexpected pregnancy. From this moment on, Newland Archer never sees Ellen Olenska again. We see vague glimpses of his young marriage in boredom as he seems to lose all interest in May Welland, though she was the right choice by old New York standards. The last chapter of the book is perhaps the most significant. It takes place many years later. Newland Archer’s wife, May, has passed away from an infection that became pneumonia. Newland is now in his 50s. His son is engaged to the child of the Beaufort family -Julius Beaufort was one of the disreputable people courting Ellen Olenska when she initially returned to New York many years prior. Since Newland and his son are now together in Paris, Ellen Olenska wishes to receive them both to wish congratulations on the young Archer’s pending nuptials. However, when they arrive at her residence, Newland Archer decides not to go up to visit her, preferring to sit on a bench outside instead. “It’s more real to me here than if I went up,” he tells himself. He prefers to keep the fantasy of Ellen Olenska alive in his head – only the memory of his love and their bygone era will remain. He sits on the bench for a while and then he walks back home. Perhaps he loved nothing more than the idea of her those many years ago.
A great deal of time has been spent critiquing the particular virtues and vices of old New York, and to some extent this was Edith Wharton’s intent. Early chapters in the book are painstakingly long and filled with absurd details about social faux pas and endless gossip about other well-to-do families. Every piece of minutia, no matter how insignificant, is studied and discussed by someone. The modern reader longs for transcendence from this Gilded Age. If only the epoch would have allowed people to confront their hopes and fears directly with one another in the open, then perhaps Newland and May’s marriage would have been a greater success, rather than another “stay together for the children” decision. If only they could have transparently discussed Newland’s worries about boredom and his infatuation with Ellen Olenska rather than speaking in vague references only to mask the conversation with gossip about their friends and family – anything to avoid an alarming and confrontational scene. We begin to sense this tension building into an explosive release with the coming war. In the old aristocracy, everything is designed to appear perfect at all times. Is it Newland’s fault? The Countess Olenska? May Welland and her family? We cannot find one person to blame. Rather than putting the values of an entire age on trial, it is convenient to search for a villain in the novel – a story of an ‘almost affair’ that never actually happened. We look to blame someone for wrong-doing in the story. However, perhaps the best villain is Newland, himself, the man who marries a woman for political purposes while at the same time trying to bury his attraction for a more adventurous woman. ‘The age of innocence’ was not as innocent as one might have been led to believe, though it may seem naive in contrast to present troubles.
Perhaps the sense most beautifully captured in The Age of Innocence, is the feeling of nostalgia. First, we are brought deep into the political strife and conflicts of the old New York aristocracy, yearning to be free of these constraints; and then, many years later, we become sober as the Gilded Age has ended, but we are left with a sacred feeling of melancholy. The novel concludes on a somber and reflective note as the flame of an old generation has been snuffed out, never to be reignited again.
The Pulitzer Controversy
In closing, there is an odd story about the 1921 Pulitzer Prize decision for The Age of Innocence. It was only the third book to ever receive the prize. The Pulitzer Prize jury had actually had favored Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, a satire of provincial American life, to win the award, but the board overturned the decision, most likely led by Nicholas Murray Butler, the conservative President of Columbia University. He, among others, helped to usher in the revision of Mr. Pulitzer’s will from capturing the ‘whole’ of the American experience to the ‘wholesome’ American experience. This shift in values did not go unnoticed. Sinclair Lewis, while irate, wrote to Edith Wharton and congratulated her on the victory. In response she wrote the following:
“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 should 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 Columbia University trustees praised The Age of Innocence for its “wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” Several Pulitzer jury members protested in strongly worded articles featured in the New Republic. Wharton invited Sinclair Lewis to her home and they developed a budding friendship out of the ashes of the Pulitzer controversy. So much so, in fact, that Lewis dedicated his next book Babbit to Edith Wharton. It, too, would be nominated by the Pulitzer jury, but again overturned by the board of trustees. In 1926, Lewis finally won the Pulitzer for Arrowhead, a convoluted satire of American medicine, but he declined the prize, noting his distaste for the Pulitzer Board’s employment of the word ‘wholesome.’ Wharton and Lewis continued to correspond, but eventually their relationship soured.
The Age of Innocence was made into a memorable film in 1993 directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder. To read my review of the film click here.
I close with a passage from the final chapter of The Age of Innocence:
“…His days were full, and they were filled decently. He supposed it was all a man ought to ask.
Something he knew he had missed: the flower of life. But he thought of it now as a thing so unattainable and improbable that to have repined would have been like despairing because one had not drawn the first prize in a lottery. There were a hundred million tickets in his lottery, and there was only one prize; the chances had been too decidedly against him. When he thought of Ellen Olenska it was abstractly, serenely, as one might think of some imaginary beloved in a book or a picture: she had become the composite vision of all that he had missed. That vision, faint and tenuous as it was, had kept him from thinking of other women. He had been what was called a faithful husband; and when May had suddenly died – carried off by the infectious pneumonia through which she had nursed their youngest child – he had honestly mourned her. Their long years together had shown him that it did not so much matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty: lapsing from that, it became a mere battle of ugly appetites. Looking about him, he honoured his own past, and mourned for it. After all, there was good in the old ways.” (Book II, Chapter 34).
Wharton, Edith. Three Novels of New York: The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, The Age of Innocence. Penguin Classics; Deluxe, Anniversary edition, February 29, 2012.