The Age of Awesome


I've been thinking about Edith Wharton for the past couple of days, turning over the characters from The Age of Innocence in my head, and listening to this interview with Wharton biographer Hermione Lee. From other sources I've gotten the sense that Wharton was an imperialist and also vaguely racist. I thought about that for a bit, and then decided I didn't much care. It all feels kind of irrelevant. I believe in the right to love people through their work, and I see no reason why meeting you over drinks is any more superior than meeting you through art. I reserve the right to love the dead, regardless of who the dead, in a different time, deemed worthy of love.

With that said, what I love about Wharton--the Wharton who wrote Age of Innocence--is her empathy and ambivalence. I haven't read Wharton's other novels but there was some talk in comments alleging that her earlier work lacks those qualities. I'd hear more about that from the Horde. I think it's interesting that Wharton was almost sixty when she wrote Age of Innocence and could afford some distance from the "Old New York" she was portraying. Maybe that distance allowed for more empathy, for a more complete sketch of that world.

Let me back up some: Some time ago, in one of our conversations, a commenter asked if I could provide a quick "tip sheet" on the Civil War which they could whip out in order to best one of their bigoted uncles who insisted that the War wasn't about slavery. I declined to do so, and went to inveigh against a partisan, debate-team approach to history. (I know there are people who read this blog in order to arm themselves against their racist Facebook friends, but I don't much like it.) That's also what I was getting at in this Stanley Crouch piece, and in my general critique on the need to "demythologize" Malcolm X. I look at askance at any work which bills itself as a "corrective." There's something narrow and profane about the whole business. Paint us a complete picture and the correctives will flow naturally.

This is what I love about Innocence. I don't see Newland Archer as tragic. (The name "New Land" is itself interesting, given the themes of the book.) I don't see him as wrong. Wharton presents to us a deeply flawed world. But whereas a lesser writer would have stopped there, Wharton shows us how an honorable person, totally apprised of those flaws, might die for that world nonetheless. The subtle point beneath all of this is an arresting: Wharton turns the camera toward us and asks "Are you so much the genius that you can say you'd have done anything different?"

When Newland says to Count Oleska that he is searching for a world where "categories" like husband, wife and mistress don't exist, the much more worldly, and wiser, Oleska looks at him and says, "Oh my dear--Where is that country?" 

Where is that country.

I fucking love that line. It says so much about how we both underestimate, and overestimate, our imagination. I think some of the the Old Virginians must have thought much the same when faced with the beast of slavery--Where is that country.

What a wonderful book. I started reading it again last night. It's a very conservative (small c) novel. More to come.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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