The Stratford Man

Faint Praise (Edith Wharton, Willa Cather

Kelly Jane Torrance believes that while "Experimentalism — successful or not — has often counted highly in making a literary reputation," fortunately "there are signs that literary modernism. . .is not aging well."

Torrance provides no evidence for this assertion, aside from her own impatience with William Faulkner and a recent book listing the "favorite" books of 125 current writers. Curiously, Torrance claims that "The closest thing to a modernist book on the list is Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby," when in fact The Top Ten includes both Proust's In Search of Lost Time and Nabokov's Lolita. This already suggests that Torrance has a somewhat. . .incomplete understading of what "modernism" refers to, but she is correct to suggest that modernist fiction initiated an emphasis on "experiment," and it's obvious enough she doesn't think much of it. (Whether she dislikes the stylistic gymnastics of Proust as much as she does those of Faulkner remains unclear.)

Unfortunately, Torrance is incorrect in maintaining that "Experimentalism counts for a lot" when it comes to judging works of fiction. While the passage of time has made it impossible for us to discount the work of Joyce or Proust or Faulkner, whose books will remain on all serious readers' reading lists, "experimentalism" in current fiction is more likely to be dismissed by reviewers in much the way Torrance does in this article. For the most part, American fiction is dominated by writers engaged in standard-issue storytelling influenced by modernism only--when at all--in the use of "psychological realism" as a device for representing events subjectively (from a character's limited perspective) rather than objectively through an omniscient narrator, or for pretending to portray "how we think." If Kelly Jane Torrance believes otherwise, she needs to read more contemporary fiction.

Regrettably, Torrance launches these fusillades against experimentalism in defense of Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and Dawn Powell, all of whom are allegedly undervalued by canon-makers and deserve to be placed among the very best modern writers. (Torrance compares them only to other 20th century writers, so I presume she's leaving writers such as Hawthorne, Melville, and James--experimentalists all, at least in the context of their time--for another attack.) I don't myself need to be convinced that Wharton and Cather should be included on Modern Novel syllabi and should be considered the literary equal of contemporaries such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald. (I'd even judge them superior to Fitzgerald, who has always seemed to me a writer whose reputation is built more on the facts of his biography than on the quality of his work. His fiction is mostly noteworthy as social history rather than literature, as is, frankly, the work of Dawn Powell as well. ) I don't think too many other readers of American fiction need to be convinced, either, and thus Torrance's attempt to elevate them by simultaneously diminishing their supposed modernist rivals is a particularly egregious zero-sum move. Their work isn't better than we thought because we've suddenly discovered that Faulkner's is worse.

In fact, Torrance does a disservice to both of these writers in insisting they be considered rivals with Hemingway or Faulkner or Proust, as somehow anomalous figures in early 20th century fiction. Really the best she can do with Wharton is to celebrate her prodigious output (more prodigious than Hemingway's or Fitzgerald's) and her avoidance of "booze-fueled antics," and in discussing Wharton's great book The House of Mirth she can give us only this lame account:

The novel is a profound exploration of American society through the story of one woman trying to hang onto her soul. It's all there — the pursuit of wealth, the American dream of social mobility, social expectations versus individual desire, the plight of women.

"It's all there"--all the great "themes" stuffed into the novel like an overlarge pillow into its case. Nothing about the way in which Wharton rather daringly plays with the convention of the "rogue" character, substituting a woman protagonist for the usual male figure to be found in many 19th century novels. Nor is there any mention of Wharton's modernist-like preoccupation with matters of form and style. As Herminone Lee herself says in a recent interview: "She was wedded to the idea of objectivity, control, shape, form -- she's a great shaper of sentences, sentence by sentence on the page; at her best she's a remarkable stylist." Similarly with Cather, Torrance doesn't mention the Wharton/James-inspired craftsmanship of Alexander's Bridge, the manipulations of perspective in My Antonia, the formal "shapeliness" of a book like A Lost Lady. Instead, she gossips about Cather's purported lesbianism and gives us a few platitudes: Cather's work explores "the spirit that built America"; it "has so much to do so directly with the most central problems of living," or so says Joan Acocella, quoted by Torrance. Why would any of this provoke those who haven't read Wharton or Cather to do so, except as a gesture aimed against "modernism"?

Experimental fiction attempts to explore the unexploited possibilities of fiction beyond its established function as a medium for prose storytelling. The fiction of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather is not self-consciously "experimental," but neither is it merely prose storytelling these writers fastened on "to chronicle the American psyche," as Torrance also puts it. Torrance underestimates the extent to which both of these writers regarded fiction first of all as an aesthetic form to be "shaped" in distinctive ways. This conception of fiction's purpose, that it is available to the literary artist as a form without pre-established limits, I take to be one of the guiding principles of literary modernism. What good does it do to the "reputation" of either Wharton or Cather to suggest they rejected this principle?


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