Old New York: False Dawn, the Old Maid, the Spark, New Year's Day
by D. Appleton & Co. 1924. 4 vols. 12mo. $1.25 each, set, boxed, $5.00.. New York:
WHEN I take up a short story of the day I feel as an old stager might feel in watching a game of modern bridge. Most of the finesse is lost on me. The recent development of the short story in America resembles the progress of football; it has become a national sport, watched by thousands of erudite fans who have grown up with the rules and follow every point with passionate interest. The same thing is true of the movies. When I go to one of them I generally contrive to take with me a half-grown boy who knows the technique of the thing and shows me the high spots. Every now and then he nudges me and whispers, ‘Do you get it, Uncle John?’ and I pretend that I do.
The four short sketches which Mrs. Wharton has woven together — or at least has put together in a box, shaking over them some handfuls of local reminiscence, old furniture, and chiffons somewhat too carefully described—belong to the modern game. They represent, as I guess, themes that had occurred to Mrs. Wharton at various times and which suit her genius. For she is a highly accomplished virtuoso who has arisen out of a particular school (the school of Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, Henry James, and others), and through sedulous training of her brilliant intellect has arrived at a cold mastership very valuable, very interesting. These sketches give no idea of her powers, for they are hastily turned off. I have to confess that I think my nephew nudged me, and all but convinced me, during the ‘Old Maid’ story, which gives a powerful and accurate account of a lifelong duel between Charlotte and Delia as to who shall act as mother to the child whose father has been the seducer of one and the lost love of the other. But most of the characters in these tales are staged rather than studied and the historic coloring has been inaccurately splashed in. The causticity and pessimism which this branch of fiction affect have become with Mrs. Wharton almost a pose. One misses the masculine stomach and deliberateness of the greater writers of the school.
As for old New York it seems to me that Mrs. Wharton has given just such an account of it as must satisfy the imagination of the Middle West; but I doubt whether the place was ever quite so foolish as she would give us to think.
An odd fancy crosses my mind as I close the book. There have always been certain British novelists who were fascinated by the social distinctions, petty ambitions, and meannesses that come to blossom in an aristocracy. And when one of these novelists weaves melodrama into his plots and keeps the dark secrets of high life still in the foreground, he is apt to become the favorite reading of housemaids. We have few housemaids in America, but we have millions of good citizens in our suburban towns who look with curiosity on any account of old New York—a city which their romanticism peoples with a race of degenerate provincial nobles whom, perhaps, it is Mrs. Wharton’s function to create.
JOHN JAY CHAPMAN.