There are four prophecies contained within the two chapters of the book of Haggai (whose named means something akin to “my holiday” though the root word in Hebrew means something like “to make a pilgrimage”). The text is believed to have been written after the Babylonian exile, during the reign of Darius, the Persian emperor, as stated at the outset of the book.
Each of the four prophecies, come from the Lord to Haggai, and in total they are a passionate plea to the people of Israel to stop dragging their feet and rise up to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Cyrus, a predecessor to Darius, conquered Babylon and freed the Jews. The Persian support for the Jews to practice their own customs and rebuild the temple was instrumental to Haggai’s efforts. According to the text, why does Haggai want the temple to be rebuilt in the first place? Because God will take “pleasure in it” (1:8) and for the “glory” of Judah (2:9). Otherwise, if the people do not rebuild the temple, a great drought will continue to spread across the land from God.
Haggai bookends his text with a praise of the then-governor of Jerusalem, Zerubbabel. He pays deference to the politics of his age, and thereby cloaks his biases from persecution.
The Book of Zephaniah clearly states its context: during the reign of Josiah, the son of Amon, King of Judah. It is a short book, containing three chapters, and it expounds upon the “word of the Lord” which comes to Zephaniah (his name means something like “YHWH is hidden”). As with other minor prophets, our knowledge of Zephaniah is minimal. Some suggest he was a contemporary of Isaiah, and perhaps a forerunner to Jeremiah.
In the vision to Zephaniah, The Lord brings a series of threats against Israel for their disobedience, culminating in a future day of destruction: “great day of the Lord” (1:14) which will be a day of “wrath”, “trouble and distress”, “wastedness and desolation”, “darkness and gloominess” (1:15). However there is still hope for the people to “gather” themselves and seek a “meek” life so they can be hid when the day of the Lord’s anger comes down upon the nations. God will bring great destruction to everyone, except for a chosen few who can conceal themselves. Contrast this with Jonah’s inability to hide himself from God.
Interestingly, harking back to the Tower of Babel in Genesis, the Lord claims He would like to bring his indignation down upon the nations of the world (particularly nations like Assyria) and bring utter destruction by “sweeping away” the peoples. Recall God’s desire to destroy humankind through a great deluge, and then His covenant made with humans in Genesis.
Curiously, the text ends with a song of hope (3:14-20) as the author instructs the people to shout and rejoice at the Lord, and his love for his chosen people. Perhaps on the “day of the Lord” He will destroy only the enemies of Israel, since He still favors his chosen people, despite their political failings.
Published in 1917, Ernest Poole’s His Family was the winner of the first Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1918, and it is a surprisingly delightful read. The book has been largely out of print in recent years, much like other early winners of the Pulitzer Prize.
His Family tells the story of the relatable but sometimes-curmudgeon Roger Gale who runs a “media clipping” service in New York City (a media clipping service was a business that provided selections of particular headlines relevant to a client’s business needs. Today, this job has long since been eliminated, tossed by the wayside in the age of automation). Like the company he runs, our protagonist, Roger Gale, is something of a relic. He is a widowed, middle-aged father of three daughters. Years ago, it was his wife’s dying wish that Roger remain close with his daughters while the city around him is transformed. In a certain light, the novel can be read as one long reflection about the changes and growth of New York City, for better or worse, as experienced through the microcosm of Roger’s life.
Roger’s daughters are: Edith (the eldest who is married with four children), Deborah (a school principal for inner-city children, primarily immigrant children), and Laura, who suddenly announces a surprise engagement to an unknown man named Hal Sloane. Edith has a fifth baby around the same time that Laura gets married and embarks on her European honeymoon. Before leaving, Laura loudly proclaims she will never have children, which dismays Roger. Meanwhile Deborah has been working frantically for her school and she eventually contracts tuberculosis. To help her recuperate, the family relocates to rural New Hampshire on the family farm. Edith’s anxious husband, Bruce, spends his time racing around the farm’s acreage in his new “automobile.” Upon their return to New York, Roger orchestrates a marriage proposal for his daughter Deborah to a doctor named Allan Baird.
Before the wedding, Edith’s husband Bruce is struck by an oncoming car in New York and he tragically dies, leaving her a widow with 5 children (anxiety about the advent of the automobile is prevalent among the early 20th century winners of the Pulitzer Prize). The wedding of Deborah and Allan is then further delayed by the outbreak of World War I, which causes financial strain across the nation, including for Roger’s business. Many clients cancel their contracts. Instead of closing the business, Roger takes out a second mortgage on his home and he brings Edith’s children home to be tutored by Deborah. Suddenly, Laura returns home from Europe. She has fallen in love with another man, her husband’s business partner. She divorces her husband and then elopes with her new Italian lover, against Roger’s objections. Money troubles grow worse and Roger sells his antique collection of rings, meanwhile Deborah raises large sums of money for her school, over the objections of her sister, Edith, who questions Deborah’s priorities: why focus on other people’s children when her own family is struggling? A debate surrounding the issue of women’s suffrage emerges and it grows ever-present throughout the novel, along with other “new” ideas concerning socialism, progress, and technology.
In the end, an exhausted Roger retires to his farm in New Hampshire, while his young Irish-boy immigrant employee, John, miraculously saves the business in New York by finding a new source of clientele. Sadly, the boy dies shortly thereafter causing Roger great sorrow. The novel ends as Roger dies peacefully in New Hampshire on his farm, and his three daughters all make amends.
His Family is less of a dark tragedy like Shakespeare’s King Lear, and more of an exploration into the mind of a man whose three daughters grow and change with time, much like the rapidly industrializing city around them. Roger wonders if all these changes happen for better or worse. Like Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, each of the three daughters represent a different type of character – a mother (Alyosha or Edith), an activist (Ivan or Deborah), and a free spirit (Dmitri or Laura). Additionally, each daughter opens up a new part of Roger’s character as we experience his greatest joys, and his deepest sorrows.
The 1918 Pulitzer Prize Apparently the 1918 Novel Jury consisted of the same three people as in 1917 but I was unable to determine who they were. In 1918, the Novel Jury also considered Bromley Neighborhood by Alice Brown, the story of two rural families whose lives are transformed by World War I. However, the majority decision sided with His Family. Much speculation has been made about whether or not the award was actually intended to honor Ernest Poole’s earlier and more celebrated novel, TheHarbor.
Who Is Ernest Poole? Born in Chicago and educated in journalism, Ernest Poole took an early passion for the great Russian fiction writers of the 19th and 20th centuries. He lived in New York City for most of his life and he became a writer for local magazines. Eventually Poole pursued the life of an activist in the socialist movement. He was a sympathetic defender of the Russian Revolution, and he wrote about it rather extensively. He married and had three children. His first foray into fiction writing utterly exhausted him and he left the city to to visit his family’s farm in New Hampshire, much like the farm in HisFamily. At the same time, The Harbor was published in 1915. The Harbor, Poole’s most financially successful book, demonstrated his socialist leanings. It was a coming-of-age novel about a New Yorker who spends his life gazing out over the harbor and ultimately finds his inner advocacy of labor unions. Curiously, there is a sense in his second novel, His Family, that the growth of poverty and tenements in New York City is over-crowding people like Roger Gale, and the growth of labor is more of a concern than a mark of progress. His Family does not share the same apology for socialism that Poole presents in The Harbor. Some have suggested that Poole’s win in the first ever Pulitzer Prize award was as much for The Harbor as it was for His Family. Ernest Poole continued to write until he died of pneumonia in 1950 in New York City.
Poole, Ernest. His Family. New York, Grosset & Dunlap, 1926.
The title of Edith Wharton’s most famous novel is most 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 painting reproduced numerous times over.
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 a child of immense privilege, preferring to spend of her time studying and touring Europe. In adulthood, 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 foisted 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 communication reveals a passionate love affair. Edith Wharton and Walter Berry buried beside one another at Versailles in France.
Published in 1920 following the death of Wharton’s close friend, Theodore Roosevelt, and amidst the fresh scars of World War I, 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 Victorian aristocratic values. It was the milieu in which Edith Wharton, herself, was raised, but she was not entirely fond of. Wharton writes the novel in the twilight of her life, as a reflection upon her upbringing. In a curious way, Wharton longs for the virtues of the old order, the way things were before the Great War. However, she does not truly wish to return to the Gilded Age. She merely captures the epoch now that it has passed. Her novel is an exploration, not a polemic.
In the novel, we see Edith Wharton reflected in part by the role of the Countess Ellen Olenska, a woman seeking a divorce from her European husband. Olenska lives an independent life, which flies in the face of old New York conventions. She represents a new shift – a woman freed of her husband. In some ways, Edith Wharton splits herself between two characters: 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 becomes trapped in his own duties and entanglements. Newland chooses familial duty, convention, obligation, safety and security instead of a love for Ellen that would, no doubt, cause 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 and appropriate 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 marriage will close the door on his yearning for Ellen. However, 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 and boring marriage as he slowly loses all interest in his wife, May Welland, though she was once clearly the proper choice according to 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 developed into pneumonia. Newland is now in his 50s. His son is engaged to the child of the Beaufort family -Julius Beaufort was at one time one of the disreputable people courting Ellen Olenska. Since Newland and his son are now together in Paris, Ellen Olenska receives them both to bestow congratulations on the young Archer’s pending nuptials. However, when they arrive at her residence, Newland Archer decides not to go up and visit her. Instead he sits on a bench outside. “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 once loved nothing more than the idea of Ellen Olenska 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 gossiping between 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 era would have allowed people to confront their hopes and fears directly with one another, then perhaps Newland and May’s marriage would have been a greater success, rather than another “stay together for the children” situation. 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 true conflict – anything to avoid an alarming and confrontational scene. We begin to sense this tension building into an explosive release with the coming world 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 happens. 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 image most beautifully invoked 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 yet, 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, and Edith Wharton was the first female to win. The Pulitzer Prize Jury had actually favored Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, a satire of provincial American life, to win the award, but the Pulitzer Advisory 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 portraying the “wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” Several Pulitzer Jury members protested in strongly worded articles that were published 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 (feel free to read my review of Babbit here). 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 Arrowsmith (read my reflections on the novel here), 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.
Less than ten years after winning the Pulitzer, Edith Wharton mocked the award as the “Pulsifer Prize” in her 1928 novel, Hudson River Bracketed.
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.