The Age of Innocence on Trial

The title of Edith Wharton’s most famous and Pulitzer Prize winning novel is most likely derived from a famous 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, the modern art museum in London where it remains today. It was a popular work reproduced numerous times.

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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. In it, she presents a complex glimpse of the past: one that is not necessarily glamorous or nostalgic. Yet it is also not bitter. It simply was an epoch which Wharton intended to capture in her novel, an age that was later destroyed by the Great War and the passing of a generation. It 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. 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 upper-crust of Manhattan. She was erudite, witty, and always curious. It has been said of Edith Wharton that her one downfall was that she was not a pretty woman. She was married once, into a less than happy marriage with Teddy Wharton, which eventually ended in divorce. It was called a “sexless” marriage, an accusation which she did not deny but blamed on her mother enforcing a strict code of morality upon her as a child. She took one additional lover after her failed marriage, but otherwise lived her own life. Her lover was a famed bachelor, Walter Berry. No one knows the extent of their relationship, after his death Edith Wharton burned most their correspondences. However, what remains reveals a passionate love between the two. They are both buried next to each other at Versailles.

In the novel, we see Edith Wharton mirrored in The Age of Innocence 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 values of old New York. She represents the new shift in values – a woman freed of her husband. In addition, Edith Wharton seems to split herself between the Countess Olenska, as well as 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, whjile Newland becomes trapped in his own duties and entanglements.

Newland Archer, an upper-crust New York attorney and the complicated main character of the novel, is set to be engaged to the pretty but predictable May Welland. However, at the entrance of Ellen Olenska, he is enamored. All throughout the book, he attempts to balance his duty to the rigid social mores of the old New York elite by continuing to court May Welland in the most proper ways, without fully succumbing to his undeniable fascination and eventual love 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. Yet what ultimately forces him to commit fully to his wife, May, 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 manner years later. Newland Archer’s wife, May, has passed away and he is in his 50s. His son has decided he wishes to marry the child of the Beaufort family, Ellen Olenska’s former husband. As they are together in Paris, Ellen Olenska wishes to receive them both to wish congratulations on the pending nuptuals. However, when they arrive at her residence, Newland Archer decides not to go up to visit her, preferring to sit 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 the eras they were raised in 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 of social faux pas and gossip about other well-to-do families. Every minute detail, no matter how insignificant, is studied and talked about by someone. The modern reader longs for transcendence from this Gilded Age. If only the age would have allowed people to confront their hopes and fears directly with one another openly, then perhaps Newland and May’s marriage would have been a greater success, rather than another “stay together for the children” pragmatic decision. If only they could have openly 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. In the old aristocracy, everything must appear to be 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 story – a story of an ‘almost affair’ that never actually happened. We look to cast blame on someone for wrong-doing in the story. However, perhaps the best villain is Newland, the man who marries a woman for political purposes while trying to bury his attraction to another more adventurous woman, at the same time. The age of innocence was not as innocent as one might think, though it may seem naive in contrast to present troubles.

Published in 1920 on the back 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 not entirely fond of, though she curiously longed for its virtues after the horrors of the Great War destroyed a generation. She wrote in the twilight of her life, as a reflection on her upbringing.

In closing, there is an odd story about the 1921 Pulitzer Prize award 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. So much so, in fact, that Lewis dedicated his next book Babbit to Edith Wharton. It was nominated by the Pulitzer jury for the award, but again overturned by the board of trustees. In 1926, Lewis finally won the Pulitzer for Arrowhead, but he declined the prize, noting his distaste for their employment of the word ‘wholesome.’ Wharton and Lewis continued to correspond, but eventually their relationship soured.

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We 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).  

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