Forms of ambivalence to "tabloid culture" in Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country.
Wharton's non-fiction writing frequently mentions the leveling effects of a mass print culture of cheap newspapers targeting immigrants and workers, the manufacture of public opinion, advertising, and the technologies that facilitate what she configures as an unprecedented and numbing cultural loudness, an opinion echoed by her friend Henry James. The Custom of the Country reflects on the forms, content, and effects of mass print culture, including fiction at odds with Wharton's conservative theory of literary value, as it identifies relays between media and Undine Spragg's subjectivity. Crucially, the novel is also a hybrid of the sensational news story, the popular romance, and highbrow literature, advancing a concern with print in many sections even as it engages in melodrama and hyperbole about the excesses of Gilded-Age materialism and trends such as divorce. It exemplifies Amy Kaplan's observation that "[t]he power of Wharton's social criticism stems not from the external perspective of a writer who resisted an incipient consumer culture, but from one whose identity as an author and whose narrative forms were shaped by her immersion in this very modern culture" ("Edith Wharton's Profession of Authorship" 453). Its satire regarding the pollution of a shared linguistic commons engages the breakdown of what Delaney calls the "stratification that established a stable division between high and low literary culture" (quoted in Gillies 25), and it leverages the possibilities for a culturally panoramic fictional chronicle enabled by this shift by making low culture and its readers a subject.
Wharton's 1906 letter to the novelist Robert Grant regarding a dramatization of The House of Mirth asserted that, "[a]ll the masterpieces of fiction have been pot-boilers, & I think the name a very honourable one" (Letters 103). Given the scale of her commercial success and reputation as a literary writer, Wharton's ambivalence toward modern media and promotional techniques that played a significant part in her sales is notable, especially in the case of the heavily advertised The Custom of the Country, a "magnum opus" (Letters 240) she felt was artistically better than the very successful House of Mirth. (2) While she griped that Americans are "told every morning, by wireless and book jacket, by news item and picture-paper, who is in the day's spotlight, and must be admired (and if possible read) before the illumination shifts" ("Permanent Values in Fiction" 178), promotion featured in her popular literary triumphs. Shafquat Towheed's work on the relationship between the author and Macmillan, Wharton's British publisher, offers a full portrait of the author's interest; she complained, for example, to Frederick Macmillan about the lack of advertising of The Custom of the Country: "May I take the opportunity to suggest that you might make use of some of the English notices of 'The Custom of the Country' to advertise the book a little more than you have been" (38). Such badgering of publishers was typical, although Macmillan subsequently "presented the aggrieved novelist with an astonishing itemized ledger of Macmillan's advertising expenditures for the novel" in "96 different newspapers and journals, encompassing the entire spectrum of British readers" (Towheed 38). Her intense interest in marketing shows her understanding of its importance, and she sought to monetize her authorship to the highest degree possible. (3) In 1902 she urged William Crary Brownell at Charles Scribner's Sons to "add [to The Valley of Decision] that undefinable Wanamaker Touch that seems essential to the booming of fiction nowadays" (Letters 58), calling for an appropriate merchandising of her fiction. The Custom of the Country benefited, too, from advertising in modern venues. Frederick Macmillan wrote to Wharton that the novel was "now being advertised with Hardy Hewlett & Stephens on the Placards in Tubes" (Towheed 157). Of a kind with a wireless mode of promotion associated with speed of transmission, such modern advertising is an aspect of "the day's spotlight" Wharton disparaged while insisting that it shine on her product.
Edith Wharton's reactions as a novelist and critic to the mediation of attention is characteristic of a longstanding interest in the commodification of the individual, one that includes a willingness to explore the experiential formation of character in an increasingly technologized and profit-oriented cultural context. Her engagement with tabloid culture in the depiction of Undine Spragg is part of a theme that finds potential citizens to be politically inert functionaries of consumerism. The overtaking of the institution of literature by the profit motive strikes Wharton as limiting authorial engagement with phenomena such as new media and its effects on identity formation, partly because a broadening, profit-oriented print sphere makes it difficult to advance finely drawn, sociologically rendered subject matter into a literary marketplace intent on selling intellectual "breakfast foods" rather than complex truths, as Wharton put it in her 1908 story "The Descent of Man" (360). Wharton's negotiation in her narrative with her perceived writing situation, which includes a belief that fiction can address pressing social issues, and the representation of Undine as a misguided reader illustrates difficulties along the chain of artistic creation, advertising, and consumption. The analysis of these difficulties yields insight into her reactions to an evolving print culture and its relation to character formation subject to technology and the profit-focused print world emblematized by the "potboiler" and an ethos of "cinema obviousness."
Wharton's writing situation becomes clearer when one apposes her positive valuation of novels that cater to popular taste and are written for money, her ambivalent representation of the changing print culture, and The Custom of the Country's probing of its psychologically determinative influence. The novel observes the encroachment into the public sphere of for-profit print and the formative effect of mass culture on Undine Spragg, who is both "passionately imitative" (34) and hooked on newspapers, gossip sheets, "thrilling [...] society novels" (205), and "fashion papers" (449). It examines the consequences for the American striver of finding taste, social guidance, and what passes for political engagement in the papers as it appeals to the consumer of such forms from a literary posture poorly insulated from its subject. Tonally, the narrative's satire of such forms laments the commodification of public dialogue in Kaplan's "incipient consumer culture." In aligning potboilers and literary masterpieces in 1906, Wharton had her recent experience of The House of Mirth's phenomenal sales and thematic complexity from which to draw. The subsequent depiction of media in The Custom of the Country assays a market-related American language (4) and the uses to which it is put, yet the novel strives to entertain as it edifies, appealing to forms of popular writing and the tools of promotion to benefit its accessibility.
The logic of profit at the heart of tabloid culture relates to the attitudes of Undine Spragg, whose life story is inseparable from a mediatized self-image, beginning when her hometown paper the "Apex Eagle [...] headlined [... her] 'The child-bride'" (109) on the occasion of her youthful first engagement. Thus begins a lifelong interaction of media power and its mode and manner with Undine Spragg's mutable personae. This is similar to the analysis in The House of Mirth of the resistance to and workings of power involved in Lily Bart's rejection of gender expectations by refusing serially to marry unsuitable men, such as the effete collector of Americana, Percy Gryce. Undine Spragg may master the game that Lily dies playing, but she is subjugated by power that wipes from the popular imagination what Wharton described as "that impalpable dust of ideas which is the real culture" ("The Great American Novel" 156). Undine Spragg is misled, too, as she seeks fulfilment through acquisition of goods and husbands, guided by that which is "in the papers" (Custom 68) away from her intellectual capacities.
The Custom of the Country's concern with newspapers and their mediation of power anticipates Jurgen Habermas's concept of an ideal "domain of our social life in which such a thing as public opinion can be formed" ("The Public Sphere" 231). One aspect of the novel's sociological work is its look at the colonization of public spaces and private lives by market-oriented print, the latter evident in Ralph Marvell's treatment at the hands of the papers after his divorce from Undine. Authorial concern with the context within which abstract thought possessed of social utility becomes convention engages with an unrealized, ideal public sphere, the development of which Undine's socialization by "the papers" impedes. Ralph Marvell has a sense of what is private not adapted to emergent cultural conditions attributable to modern media. "The idea of touching publicly on anything that had passed between himself and Undine had become unthinkable" (298) as he considers a response to her divorce suit. Undine, however, "bathed again in the bright air of publicity" when she moves from her marriage to Raymond de Chelles to the side of Elmer Moffatt (479). Undine is a character habituated to media attention. The examples of her visibility, made possible by "publicity" and the "spotlight," add up to a portrait of cultural attention misappropriated from those at the margin whose conditions deserve consideration, although from another angle it is Undine and her potential to participate in the political evolution of inclusiveness that is set aside by mediated superficiality.
As part of a critical overview of Habermas's notion of the public sphere, Mary Esteve writes that, "Nancy Fraser and Michael Warner argue independently that the bourgeois public's deployment of abstraction excludes in principle (not simply in malpractice) from public forums the sociopolitically marginalized, whose identities as such are determined by bourgeois standards of race, class, gender, and so forth" (13). Submitting this criticism to Wharton's narrative highlights a process of identity formation subject to such standards. This fringe narrative exists in depictions of a public forum in the process of reformulation, foregrounding its pseudo-inclusiveness and openness to changes that marginalize even the seemingly powerful Undine. The Custom of the Country's concern with a culture of publicity zeros in on the absence of abstractions regarding equality and rights and a "commodification of social intercourse" (Dimock 784) that takes the place of bourgeois standards, especially of gender, which Undine, to her credit, violates. One element of the authorial ambivalence toward the "real culture" threatened by Undine is the way her media-fueled perspective actually creates difference and disturbance, even if it is symptomatic false empowerment rather than the outcome of assent.
So too does the historian Joad Raymond's analysis of the limits of Habermas's model bear on an understanding of Wharton's lament for the lost possibilities of a technologically enabled public sphere in her time. Raymond calls for renewed attention to "the material underpinnings of opinion, publicity, popularity, [...] the material object of a book, the reading practices with which words are consumed" (8), which describes one facet of The Custom of the Country's work. Important too is Wharton's interest in "the material underpinnings of opinion, publicity, popularity," which form part of her prescient representation in The Custom of the Country of a process observed in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Joad characterizes it as, "the way that in the twentieth century the media came to threaten the influential mode of public opinion that it formerly created, by turning it into a forum not of debate but of manipulation" (3). This is a point of contact between Wharton's exploration of media effects and the project of linking rationality to a just society. Undine Spragg, a character with a "press agent" (Custom 181), represents this transformation, while the authority over her of the "Society Column" (Custom 45) and "On a Society Woman's Day" (Custom 52) symbolizes changes to conditions in which reason, diminished by "strips of newspaper" and "clippings" that aggrandize personalities (Custom 499), might play a role in the formation of public opinion.
Wharton's comment about readers "insensible to allusiveness and irony" ("Permanent Values in Fiction" 179) frets over their incapacity to perceive literature's subtle configurations of social problems. The Custom of the Country focuses on the delegitimizing, personified by Undine, of the "real culture" as it proffers the novelistic genre as a means (5) rationally to engage with subjects such as divorce and the new woman obscured by tabloid stereotypes. Despite concerns over the erosion of privacy and the growing consonance of business and political interests resulting from the commercialization of state and society, the novel is, again, mixed in its valuation of a tradition capable of countering such trends. Cultural unpredictability defies analysis. The chimera of progress manifest in both Undine's amalgam of unwomanly attributes and the difficult task of directing rationality toward equitable ends that do not marginalize disempowered groups is a casualty of a Gilded-Age ethos of exploitation decoupled from old certainties. There is a causal link between Undine's "passionate poring over the daily press" (41) and her competitive urges to "hurt and destroy" (470) people and ideas that might interfere with her media-fed desire to acquire social power and consumer goods. Often satirized, Undine's reading, and the behaviour her reading and its interpretation facilitate, nevertheless frees her from already destabilized gender roles and the conservatism of a "real culture" Wharton both values and loathes. Undine casts off unsuitable relationships and is overtly sexual, a new woman. She is a sensational anti-heroine placed before readers apparently robbed of their critical faculties, but Undine inhabits a novel that brackets and abjures the papers and subliterary fiction, even as it seems to celebrate their dialogic potential.
Wharton's position on tabloid culture, then, is not merely condemnatory. Her recognition of the potential for print to integrate different social elements into a cohesive whole acknowledges the social power of the potboiler, as well as the consequences of media devotion to profit. Despite her view of Harriet Beecher Stowe as one of many "pleaders of special causes," Wharton took to "that unhappy hybrid, the novel with a purpose" and found it, as did Stowe, "immensely remunerative" ("Permanent Values in Fiction" 175). Avoiding Stowe's overt sentimentality and her pleading, direct address to the reader, Wharton nevertheless tunes her writing to its venues in ways demonstrative of her attention to genre idioms. Hermione Lee writes that "Wharton's revisions between publication as a serial and as a book--minute, but continual--are all in the interests of toning-down any romantic magazine-touches and making the whole thing drier" (427). Comparisons of serial and book versions translate the effects of the marketplace on Wharton's literary forms and contribute to an understanding of her control of genre and the reading situations they signal. But an author, of course, is not the only factor in achieving market success.
Scribner's Magazine, the venue for the serialized version of The Custom of the Country, pitched the story as if it were about a Gibson girl, (6) minimizing as a consequence its social criticism. Scribner's was a step up from the "picture-paper," yet it touted the serialized version of the novel as the chronicle of "a Beautiful Ambitious American Girl, [which] Forms a Graphic Revelation of American Society To-Day" (Scribner Book News). The description downplays the powerful satire and Undine's unsympathetic nature, much as a New York Times editorial reproduced in the magazine seems intent on misrepresenting Wharton's method, stating that she has "no disposition to deal with the so-called 'problems' [examined in the novel] in a sociological way" ("Mrs Wharton's The Custom of the Country"), (7) despite the presence of Charles Bowen, a character capable of viewing the New York scene from the perspective of a "sociologist" (Custom 249). No less directed toward creating sales than anything advanced by the means of "wireless and book jacket," the advertising of the novel deflects attention away from the perception at Scribner's of a commercially difficult seriousness. (8)
Thomas Schlereth's claim that there is "a strong interrelation between physical objects and human behavior" (3) correlates with the novel's linkage of the material, information-rich environment and Undine's progress from small-town beauty to billionaire's wife. Wharton connects types of content with various print forms; cheap fiction on cheap paper undermines fixed associations between class and literature. The solidity of "rows of books from floor to ceiling" in the Fairford's house (Custom 44) connects knowledge and the ideological perpetuation of class power, changes to which are mused upon by Charles Bowen, who feels "the pang of the sociologist over the individual havoc wrought by every social adjustment" (249). The novel links that which Undine consumes--"the 'powerful' novels which Popple was fond of lending her" (318) and other such items and experiences--and that which she becomes. The fact, however, that, from one angle, she is successful indicates the presence of a literary naturalism in which the contemporary linguistic "environment" is determinative of a self that from the perspective of the overarching narrative is inauthentic. Undine would be merely an epiphenomenon of new media in her focus on sensation and success if she did not in turn sustain it. A naturalism attentive to the print environment explores Undine's vulnerability to its patterning of identity. Her labile personae ultimately express a triumphant superficiality that expresses a text-made self. She is not a singularity but a new woman who is also Wharton's most difficult-to-reach reader. A product and enabler of consumerism, print is a life circumstance for her. Commodities offer a type of control over self-definition, as when Undine's "attention was drawn to a lady in black who was examining the pictures [at a museum] through a tortoise-shell eyeglass.[...] It seemed suddenly plebian and promiscuous to look at the world with a naked eye" (Custom 57). As she stares at an admirer of visual art, an image of a traditional kind of cultural experience, and an example of the Whartonian trope of characters watching others watching, she notes its authority and aspires to possess its outward form. Purchases express freedom to conform. Undine, though, is confused about what she wishes to attach to; she desires to emulate tradition while her behaviour undermines it. Whether eyeglasses or print products, acquisitions channel her into a system where seeming action is an enactment of market logic.
Mediating macro-economic trends and Undine's sense of normal behaviour and attitudes, the forms that undermine the values of old New York possess their formulative influence because the
power of the marketplace,[.] resides not in its presence, which is only marginal in The House of Mirth, but in its ability to reproduce itself, in its ability to assimilate everything else into its domain. As a controlling logic, a mode of human conduct and human association, the marketplace is everywhere and nowhere, ubiquitous and invisible. (Dimock 783)
More focused on the "power of the marketplace" than the earlier novel, The Custom of the Country finds its "controlling logic" not only "ubiquitous and invisible" but materially present in mass print culture products that exert a determinative effect on Undine Spragg. Her formulation of familial relations provides one example of this. Watching her son, Paul Marvell, walking toward her on a railway platform after forcing Ralph Marvell, the boy's father, to send him to her, Undine considers "what an acquisition he would be" (414). She enacts a "controlling logic" able to draw even biological familial connections into a marketplace oriented "mode of human conduct." These connections are clear to the reader because of the incremental way in which Wharton builds the relay between easy to assimilate print forms reductive of complexity and Undine's psychology, which echoes the logic of profit and loss central to stories about getting ahead socially she encounters in her reading. She personifies the consequences of poor education, about which more will be said shortly, and the logic of the marketplace by introducing the latter into formerly sacrosanct contexts. Wharton further develops her portrait of the power of the marketplace showing mass-culture representations of the aristocratic and the new rich, Ralph Marvell and Elmer Moffatt among them, that circulate as material signs in a tabloid economy of social value, contrasting the rising stock of Moffatt with Marvell's diminished stake of high-minded ideas.
I have suggested that the print environment in which Undine lives limits her potential to contribute to the polity. She is part of a public that, as Henry James writes in The American Scene, "goes upon its knees
to be humbuggingly humbugged" (459). Yet, this same environment has the potential to undermine the authoritarian, patriarchal economy of ideas trafficked in by the old-guard class she first seeks to join, then disrupts, even if, as James suggests, those like her are deceived. Gentry "aborigines" propagate a tradition that succumbs to the creed of capital held to by an "invading race" (Custom 77) informed by representations of upper class individuals as items to be consumed in the context of their presentation as types or displaced according to the logic of social Darwinism. Undine participates in the dilution of tradition by the materialized ideas of the power of the marketplace, representing "mediated and socialized forms of power" (Dimock 784) manifested in her attitudes and actions. These forms exist in a tabloid loudness and invasiveness embedded in the novel as "the coarse fingering of public curiosity" (Custom 300), which, like James's humbugging of the reading public, is an image of violation. She is subject, too, to the conditions of knowing imposed by her informational context. The abjection implicit in her emergence as a dominant but non-contributory personality is to her invisible. Undine's use of and use by mass print culture, her role in the destruction of Ralph Marvell, (9) the eventual irrelevance to Undine's aspirations of Raymond de Chelles aristocratic lineage, and the ascent of Undine and Elmer Moftatt confirms her viability within a context uninterested in considering matters such as the Progressive-era complexities around the social contract prompted by immigration, race relations, or suffrage. Her interest in melodramatic novels illustrates a vulnerability to having her vitality and intellect co-opted by print messages. These lead her to define success as "beauty and romance" (Custom 475) at one moment, while at the next she sharpens "her old weapons of aggression" (Custom 454). Such plasticity defines the relativism of social actors unmoored from "the real culture" that must perforce yield primacy and relevance to the "speed of cultural production" and its manipulation of public focus at the expense of debates regarding social renewal.
Undine's seemly and feminine disempowerment, when she adopts the demure attitude modeled for her in the press, is a cautionary message, signaling a reduction by corporate media of female potential. Instead of agitating for change, like Inez Boissevain upon her white horse at the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913, the same year The Custom of the Country was published, those benumbed like Undine thrill at the "delicious sense of being 'in all the papers'" (97). In another mode, Undine is aggressive, unemotional, and un-maternal, but her will and intelligence are vital, although wasted resources. She appropriately demonstrates knowing her place early in her quest, but such learned passivity creates quasi-functional citizens. The interplay between her psychology and tabloid culture demonstrates the influence of laissez-faire capitalism's immersive infotainment. Gossip sheets, the promotional squibs of the book jacket and advertising, and other profit-driven messages, together form Wharton's material context for the constitution of Undine's subjectivity by print. While she is, as a serial spouse, a product for sale and thus alert to the desires of her audience--it is "instinctive with her to become, for the moment, the person her interlocutors expected her to be" (355)--this is also true of her creator's fiction.
Important to Wharton's development of the formal means with which to represent mass print culture and its consequences for Undine Spragg is her short story "The Descent of Man." The story foreordains The Custom of the Country's interest in print culture when it satirizes the influence on serious intellectual pursuits of the market for popular books. The story narrates the interaction of an eminent biologist named Professor Linyard with a publisher of bestsellers uninterested in "the concentrated essences" of serious works (360). "The Descent of Man" is also an early depiction within Wharton's work of the audience for popular books, a subject that receives fuller treatment in The Custom of the Country's detailed representation of mass print culture's effect on consumers (Ohler 41). "The Descent of Man" also foreshadows challenges related to the expression of thematic content faced by Wharton resolved in The Custom of the Country. Chief among these is the expression of a thematically complex depiction of print and its effects, one that moves beyond the presentation of a single situation and into character psychology in a commercially successful novel.
The Custom of the Country answers the challenge articulated in "The Descent of Man." It does so by facing "the new spirit of limitless concession" (Custom 269) not with passive nostalgia for the "reserves and discriminations" (269) of the old ways but with active concern for a modern society whose members are typified by Undine, a woman who "never opened" (269) a book. The lost, guiding potential found in books Undine should, apparently, read limits citizen engagement. Related is the novel's inference that the immigrant and working classes, lacking a stake in the development of any polity, let alone one that is ideal, will be entertained rather than heard. The inference has precedent in Wharton's many unprivileged characters; in The House of Mirth one finds the working-class Gerty Farish and impoverished Nettie Struther and, late in the novel, the deteriorating, pathetic Lily. Justine Brent, a nurse, is a central character in The Fruit of the Tree. The orphaned Charity Royall in Summer comes from margins both socioeconomic and geographic. Despite her eventual material wealth, Undine Spragg resembles Lily Bart in being a product of a system designed to make her as a type; she is subject to a naturalistic determinism no less than Lily. Undine is subject not to the system of the marriage market, which she exploits, but one that makes her in the image of the information she consumes. Focusing on Wharton's representation of a tabloid culture whose forms circumscribe the realization of a unity of public ends through a rational process of "premise and deduction" ("Descent of Man" 360) reveals two things: her ambivalence toward a gentry system that values deliberation and rationality yet is sexist, passive, and unable to counter a superficial focus on whatever is placed in "the day's spotlight," and Wharton's effort to create a narrative that promotes social continuity and print forms such as the novel that support an engaged and flexible ideological continuity. The novel uses its presence in the marketplace to judge the devaluation of "traditional society [...] one of man's oldest works of art" ("The Great American Novel" 155) by a tabloid culture that erodes the possibility of a sphere wherein "legality was to issue from morality" (Habermas, Transformation 170). Embedded as it is in satire, it is nevertheless in Wharton's hope for Undine that inclusiveness in an arena that considers gender and class issues, for example, and constructs abstractions that evade the power of the marketplace to formulate them, that the seriousness of the satire lies. In this sense, Undine is "sociopolitically marginalized," as Esteve expresses it, although in a way materially different than the charwoman Lily Bart passes on the stairs as she leaves Selden's apartment in The House of Mirth. "Limitless concession" is a product of a system that trades on awareness of style over art to attain profit rather than insight into the conditions made possible by "concentrated essences" of scientific truth or Wharton's sociological insights.
The depiction of mass culture as the obverse of rationality and its ends accompanies the displacement of a real culture to which Wharton is not completely sympathetic. Within this theme she establishes a link between a profit-oriented tabloid reconstruction of social relations as emulation, celebrity, and melodrama and the Hearst-Pulitzer method of using modern production, advertising, and distribution methods. One ramification to which the novel is sensitive is a change in public language. Habermas contends that
the new ideology [that is, technocratic consciousness] damages [...] an interest that is linked to one of the two fundamental conditions of our cultural existence: the interest in language or, more precisely, in the form of socialization and individualization that takes place through colloquial communication. This interest extends to the preservation of an intersubjectivity of understanding, and to the production of a form of communication that is free of domination. ("Technik und Wissenschaft als 'Ideologie,'" quoted in Wiggershaus 639)
Mass culture alters, in ways the novel imagines, the "socialization and individualization" Undine experiences. Edith Wharton's reference to the "nightmare weight of the cinema close-up" (A Backward Glance 97), the source of which is present in The House of Mirth's mention of a "cinematograph syndicate" (87), relates to another element of technology-enhanced media commented on by her, a "universal facility of communication" ("The Great American Novel" 154) the function of which subsumes or actually erases difference and thus the possibility of dialectical exchange. As a metaphor for a society without reasoned conventions, Wharton juxtaposes the urban starkness of "swirls of dust in the cracks of the pavement, the rubbish in the gutters" (Custom 406), perceived by Ralph Marvell as the new reality, with an upper-class ill-adapted to a contemporary marketplace whose products have more authority than the literature or reasoning that preserves the distinctions between gentility and wealth as a basis of class. A darkly intelligent anti-heroine emerges liberated by a new colloquial that is a form of communication unresponsive to the possibility of reflecting in political values a consensus regarding personal contributions to them.
Representation and reality collapse into one for Undine. Social progress is her career, and before arriving in New York she studies the "social potentates whose least doings Mrs Spragg and Undine had followed from afar in the Apex papers" (Custom 27). Undine comes to know "all of New York's golden aristocracy by name, and the lineaments of its most distinguished scions had been made familiar" (Custom 41) by her newspaper reading. She is, though, ignorant of the selectivity inherent in journalism and the sociopolitical compass bearing a golden aristocracy might ideally provide, although it seems a remote possibility, and ignorant too of the accompanying shifts in the meaning and ends of journalism as a feature of democracies. She learns about "the smartest dinners in town" from the manicurist and hairdresser Mrs Heeny's "newspaper cuttings" (Custom 25). From the papers she also learns self-representation, acquiring "the instinct of adapting herself to whatever company she was in, of copying 'the others'" (Custom 150). Moreover, as it pertains to Undine, the idea of copying shifts registers to suggest a mass production of subjects. New media and its emergent ethos of populism trivialize old distinctions between class types based in socioeconomic heritage. Undine comes to interpret media depictions of old-guard elite life as factual. To participate in that class stratum one need only buy and consume the papers in which the Marvells and Dagonets figure then mimic the debased representations. She sees no connection between culturally contributory impulses such as Marvell's defeated desire to be a writer and the traditions they might perpetuate. These are displaced by a new "intersubjectivity" dominated by market forces and the modes of communication that arise from their functioning.
Undine has the power to defuse the negation of powerful market forces instanced in the papers, asserting "herself as the dominant figure of the scene" (Custom 48) in which Marvell's dispirited, class-based artistic tendencies whither. Unlike Marvell, who wishes to merge "the personal with the general life [through] the releasing powers of language" as a literary writer (Custom 134), Undine looks to a different linguistic regime for guidance. This makes her numb to the teachings of art; "allusions to pictures and books" escape her (46), and she is unable to "remember anything about the pictures she had seen" in a museum (59). Instead, the tabloids teach her about the social environment she occupies. "Undine's first steps in social enlightenment" (39), once she arrives in New York, find her seeking "in vain for the originals" she has encountered in the papers (41). She instead finds variances between media portraits and what experience delivers. There is a gap between tabloid social reality and its referents, and the slippage reveals a contested real in which what symbolizes the elite misrepresents the signified by focusing on style instead of ideas. Thus, style and visibility equate with high status in Undine's mind. She does not perceive the association between stabilizing or, to acknowledge Wharton's double-mindedness, ossifying high culture of the kind Marvell wishes to advance and the classification of the "originals" she seeks solely through outward forms.
There is another element in her making, though. Having missed an education of the type her aristocratic and gentry acquaintances have experienced, her "mind was as destitute of beauty and mystery as the prairie schoolhouse where she had been educated" (Custom 139-40). Undine's incisive intelligence is not engaged with the wider world, as her narrow, class-bound learning predicts. At the Fairford dinner, she recalls "the old circulating library at Apex [... with its] gas-log, or a polished grate with electric bulbs behind ruby glass" (44). The association of the circulating library with falseness is telling. Representations "destitute of beauty" from the narrator's perspective register with Undine's sensibility, which is invariably attracted to the cheap. Her hosts light an old-fashioned wood fire, which seems to her like "pictures of 'Back to the farm for Christmas'" (44). This misapprehension is of a kind with the Fairford and Dagonet representations, the originals of which disorient Undine, as they are not what she anticipated. The hearth provokes the memory of a reproduction, referencing her standard of homey authenticity--a cliche-ridden tableau. Similarly, her tabloid-derived notions of elite architecture and food are elicited by the lack of "lavish gilding" and the plain meal, causing Undine to wonder whether her hosts are unaware of "all the hints in the Sunday papers" (44). Undine imagines domesticity, the central image of which is the fire that warms the Fairford's guests and lights the exchange of substantive ideas Undine barely comprehends, in terms of the "Christmas-chromo sentimentality" (62) she has been exposed to elsewhere. The mediation of her perception by advertising images and the democratization of knowledge that seems anything but from the vantage of the novel, has a parallel in Wharton's short story "Friends." Here, "dingy books" with an "odor" inhabiting "a shabby looking building [...] the People's Library" (200) suggest a disrespect for matters of the mind within Undine's class stratum, although Wharton seems unready to acknowledge the intensive use of such facilities.
The images of dirt and decay associated with the People's Library in "Friends" parallels the vacuity of Undine's outlook, one in tune with the "key of the world she read about in the Sunday papers" (37). This key is sounded by the opportunistic painter of the new socioeconomic elite Claude Popple, whose portraits are "not pictures of Mrs or Miss So-and-so, but simply of the impression Popple thinks he's made on them" (47), and the womanizing Peter Van Degen. The latter figure is a "hero of the 'Sunday Supplements' [... and] the Society Column" (58), adrift from the "finer sense of values" (Custom 168) associated with the dust of an authentic, old-world culture. Undine, on her honeymoon to Italy with Marvell later in the novel, refers to her beautiful surroundings as "dirty and ugly" (144). Undine is uncertain of Popple's social place initially, but she learns that the fact that, as Mrs Peter Van Degen states, "He's doing everybody this year" is "a Van Degen reason" from the perspective of Charles Bowen (47). "As if that were a reason" (47), Mrs Fairford retorts to Mrs Van Degen, expressing her disgust at fashionable, unreflective emulation. Representation as an activity capable of expressing an otherwise concealed or fragmented truth is a compromised premise in the context of decoration presented as art. The vapid supplements that pass for news are another facet of the same thing. The novel, though, can present the verity of such culture-defining ignorance. Undine's "sensitiveness to new impressions, combined with her obvious lack of any sense of relative values" (Custom 86) and the damage they might do, relates her to a customer-driven model of news: "[h]er quickness in noting external differences had already taught her to modulate and lower her voice, and to replace 'The i-dea!' and 'I wouldn't wonder' by more polished locutions" (92). Like the papers she reads, her attractive form is a function of an adaptive self-presentation receptive to the desires of her consumers. Undine possesses the same "lovely lines" (Custom 22) as the mechanically lineated newspapers, and she is a subject made of texts who vocalizes not a stable self but a collocation of tabloid derived, ready-made attitudes about the elite, literary and visual art, and the feminine. She is a modern subject alienated from her cultural heritage and constituted by fragments gathered from the surface of her time. A blaring megaphone of the new, she lives at the humorously named "Hotel Stentorian" (Custom 21). As a manifestation of tabloids and novels, her "physical radiance" (Custom 272) accompanies an assemblage of mental habits characteristic of one "who could not help modeling herself on the last person she met" (Custom 34). In her gleaming strength, voracious materialism, and ventriloquizing mutability she is both a new kind of modern woman and a vector for new forms of communication.
Like the "universal facility of communication" that bruits its forms at the cost of conversation directed toward rational, and for this reason improbable, social conventions arising within the co-opted public sphere, Undine responds to the perceived whims of consumers and ignores politics. The emblematic "Society Column" short-circuits existing relays for the circulation of ideas, such as those offered in literature, which is swamped by a tide of disposable newsprint responsible for anxiety about the conditions of cultural development permeating the novel. So-called light reading is a carrier wave of anti-intellectualism eroding the authority of Ralph Marvell's "doomed" class (Custom 78). It empowers the pulp-minded yet intelligent anti-heroine and underwrites her values, elevating her to a prominence which sees her press "clippings" (Custom 89, 140, 276, 500) serving her, and others such as Mrs Heeny, as an alternative to rational discourse about divorce, motherless children, questions about the social utility of art, moral reasoning, and the maintenance of a framework within which to address these issues. Created in part by mass-culture forms that project, in their status as throwaway objects, a world ephemeral and disposable, Undine locates fragments for the formation of new identities in the press and "in the glowing pages of fiction" (Custom 68) dissimilar to the novel in which she appears. Also affected by that which makes Undine, Wharton recreates her authorial situation as a participant in, and subject of, the regime of print that shapes her character.
A beneficiary of the technologically enabled print culture she decried, but whose riches she reaped, (10) Wharton was immensely proud of her success, which rested in part on her ability to negotiate the complexities of the marketplace through her careful attention to audience and awareness of the role in sales of publisher and critic. Labouring intensely through "the hard grind" (Letters 303) of the final chapters of the novel for its serialization in Scribner's Magazine, she finished a work that made a subject of middlebrow venues in which she published, such as The Youth's Companion of Boston where the already mentioned "Friends" appeared. The new economic model of mass publishing, as I have shown, had a role in shaping the cultural "background" that Wharton sought to make "part of the action" (quoted in Wegener, "Enthusiasm" 18). The presentation of that action as the influence of media on subjectivity and mass print culture's impact on literature must be added to current notions of the novel's multiple interests, which consist of marriage and divorce, business, and transformations to the relative power of social classes, among others. The concern with book publishing and the market present in "The Descent of Man," moreover, is also a subject of "Expiation," a story from the same 1904 collection.
William Randolph Hearst owned Cosmopolitan Magazine, in which Wharton published "Expiation" in 1908, demonstrating her willingness to appear in publications that did not possess the prestige of Scribner's Magazine and were exemplars of a publishing model dependent on advertising as much as sales. Like "The Descent of Man," "Expiation" deals with an author and the market for popular fiction. The protagonist is Paula Fetherall, a successful novelist whose "insignificant little books had a way of going into five or ten editions" (209). Fetherall's uncle, a bishop, is also a writer, although of optimistic, spiritual works that do not achieve high sales. "Expiation" contrasts the bishop's latest book, Through a Glass Brightly, with the protagonist's, a serious work titled Fast and Loose to which she assigns a sensational title, and depicts the role of promotion in the sales of each. Fast and Loose is also the title of Wharton's juvenile novella of 1877. Hildegard Hoeller finds evidence in Wharton's Fast and Loose of "her close relationship to sentimental writing" (38) and in the mock reviews Wharton appended to her text, a sensitivity to the idea "that writing had to do with business, criticism, and the audience" (50). Wharton's reuse of her title for a story in which a book reviewer's words are anticipated to be "the sensational comments of an illiterate journalist" (211) and which the protagonist hopes to manipulate readers into buying her work situates the story within the ambit of The Custom of the Country's interest in the commodification of discourse and the challenges faced by authors who wish both to sell books and address relevant social issues. Paula Fetherall, responding to her friend Mrs Clinch's suggestion that Fetherall "get him [the bishop] to denounce 'Fast and Loose'" to increase its sales, states halfheartedly that "every book must stand or fall on its own merits" ("Expiation" 225). In replying, Mrs Clinch summarizes a central concern of the story by remarking of readers,
At first they read the reviews; now they read only the publishers extracts from them. Even these are rapidly being replaced by paragraphs borrowed from the language of commerce. I often have to look twice before I am sure if I am reading a department-store advertisement or the announcement of a new batch of literature. The publishers will soon be having their "fall and spring openings." (225)
The bishop denounces Fetherall's book in return for funds to complete the chantry window in his church, and the positive sales result is expressed in an image of "a placard surmounting the counter and emblazoned with the conspicuous announcement: 'Fast and Loose.' New Edition with Author's portrait. Hundred and Fiftieth Thousand" (228). This is an ironic moment, for Fetherall is a writer wary of "the ignominy of bowing down to the idols of the market" (207). Yet, like her creator, she must reckon with the mechanisms that disseminate what Fetherall deems "the message I had to deliver [which] was not for myself alone, but for all the other women in the world who have felt the hollowness of our social shams" (207). In "Expiation," as in The Custom of the Country, countering the "market" and its preference for the inoffensive "pretty story" ("Expiation" 224) involves enclosing in melodrama discussion of bourgeois gender standards and critical commentary about permitted forms of authorial expression.
Towheed discloses that in 1934 Wharton, "exasperated in her attempts to secure a contract with Harry Burton, the new editor" of Cosmopolitan Magazine, engaged the literary agent James Pinker's firm to negotiate with him (27). This put her in contact with a new breed of literary agent whose "attitude was more closely aligned with that of the younger generation of the 1890s and 1900s that was challenging established individuals and institutions for the various forms of capital at stake in the [print culture] field" (Gillies 93). This fact is germane to understanding Wharton's interest in print forms that offered a wide readership and good financial terms, even though such publications, like the papers, became more devoted to selling commodities than considering ideas. One need only scan the many pages of advertising in each number of Scribner's Magazine, Collier's, Harper's Monthly, Cosmopolitan, or The Youth's Companion to perceive the pressure to generate revenue exerted on publications in all market segments. Wharton understood the realities of the marketplace, as is clear from stories that address them (and her own success), and she knew sensation and sentiment sold. She had the capacity to carefully modulate her fiction to meet market demands, and she often depicts, as she does in "Expiation," writers confronted by the same dilemmas she faced. Wharton's "stories about writers often set the true creative gift against the perils and temptations of the marketplace" (Lee 403), and these are frequently writers like herself.
The thread of the novel's analysis of the print-culture products Undine consumes generates a shadow-narrative of the demands made by the market on Wharton's practice as a novelist and her ambivalence toward a weak culture of the hereditary elite The Custom of the Country praises and condemns. Serialized in Scribner's Magazine, then produced in volume form, it is self-referential insofar as it details the material circumstances bearing on its existence in a market competing with writing created primarily for commercial purposes. These are present in the cataloguing of down-market titles, the linking of varieties of semantic content to specific print forms, the depicted class affiliation of individual readers and what they read, and the enclosure of tabloid culture by critical representation of it within her own hybrid of the potboiler and the "novel with a purpose." Marvell hopes to write a treatise on Walt Whitman; Undine reads Town Talk. On that egalitarian mode of transport, the subway, a working-class man reads a "heavily head-lined paper." In close contact, and therefore in contrast to the upholstered Marvell, "the unshaved occupant of the next seat held [the paper] between grimy fists" (300). Marvell's fellow passenger reads about the divorce from Undine. The paper destroys Marvell's privacy, an emblem of gentility, and fosters contact between upper-class values of cultural continuity and the grubby, incoherent loudness of the low. Here, the medium of the newspaper dictates Marvell's experience, and enclosing this objectification of Marvell is the novel's depiction of a culturally determinative print world within which it attempts to function as something more.
Discussing The House of Mirth in A Backward Glance, Wharton recalls that "[n]ovelists of my generation must have noticed [...] as one of the unforeseen results of 'crowd mentality' and standardizing, that the modern critic requires every novelist to treat the same kind of subject, and relegates to insignificance the author who declines to conform" (937). As a novelist caught up in the standardization of literature while working to attenuate the cultural sameness she feared, she can believably portray Ralph Marvell's failure to create original literature: "when she [Undine] suggested Ralph's taking up his novel he answered with a laugh that his brains were sold to the firm" (252). However, the presence of a "well-known magazine editor" (252), who informs Undine of the riches available to the successful novelist willing to compromise artistically in ways Marvell will not, foregrounds Wharton's authorial situation too. Standardization is a feature of what she characterizes as the "alarming and ever-increasing bulk" of English fiction," smothering "the outnumbered forces of criticism" ("The Criticism of Fiction" 120). The popular overwhelms acumen by virtue of its technologically facilitated volume. Publishing in popular venues, Wharton negotiated their politics and economics by maintaining her focus on the social foundation assailed by the idea of "buying taste in the tabloids" ("French Ways and Their Meaning" 55). While Undine excitedly glimpses social celebrities recognized "from their portraits in the papers" (68), what Wharton finds there is a portrait of the way publicity, its voluminous production, and political muteness are entangled.
Undine's "melting grace" (88), linked to her familiarity with "the old circulating library at Apex" (44), creates her as a character that, like the papers, is both physically beautiful and intellectually befouled. In 1917 Arnold Bennett described books held by circulating libraries as "repulsively foul, greasy, sticky, black.[.] Can you wonder that it should carry deposits of jam, egg, butter, coffee, and personal dirt? You cannot. But you are entitled to wonder why the Municipal Sanitary Inspector does not inspect it and order it to be destroyed" (quoted in Hammond 41). Such libraries enabled readers unable to afford books to access them, but there is in Bennett's statement a sense that library users pollute the ideas in the books they physically contaminate. Undine poses a danger because what she reads promotes idleness and frivolity, and her depiction as a library patron has her reading melodramas such as "Oolaloo" and "The Soda-Water Fountain" (Custom 48) which "had filled her mind with the vocabulary of outraged virtue, and with pathetic allusions to woman's frailty" (327). Easily influenced, reading alters her self-conception, swaying her from aggressor to victim and back. She is a character that amplifies mass-culture effects, particularly the occlusion of a threatened real culture by the loud, capital-letter pervasiveness of magazines, newspapers, and the growing bulk of fiction. Wharton's readiness to depict a "potential leakage between popular books and bodies [... by which] certain fictional forms could be carried like a disease from book to reader" (Hammond 10) also moves in the other direction as Undine's ideology functions as a corrosive mindset carried from reader back to a high culture characterized by the beliefs of Raymond de Chelles and Ralph Marvell. The power of popular books and papers to acculturate Undine and distort the priorities of an ideal public sphere demonstrates their capacity to foster an "atmosphere of sentimental casuistry to which she [Undine] had become accustomed" (Custom 214).
Such casuistry throttles the circulation of ideas by reducing the visibility of social problems subverted to melodramatic representations of trends such as easy divorce. Marvell again encounters the depiction of his split from Undine already mentioned "in a Family Weekly, as one of the 'Heart problems' propounded to subscribers, with a Gramophone, a Straight-front Corset and a Vanity-box among the prizes offered for its solution" (300). This reconfiguration of Marvell's private agony nullifies the real ramifications of divorce and makes inconsequential the end of privacy. Wharton depicts the sentimentality familiar to a magazine-reading audience, but the tone ridicules the trivialization of Marvell's plight. He will feel more pain later, when upon the engagement of Undine to the French aristocrat Raymond de Chelles he encounters a headline that reads
New York Beauty Weds French Nobleman
Mrs Undine Marvell Confident
Pope Will Annul Previous Marriage
Mrs Marvell Talks About Her Case (372)
The reproduction in the text of bold newspaper lettering resonates with Wharton's view that some readers are "curious only to discover which of the heroes and heroines of the 'society column' are to be found in" a novel (A Backward Glance 943). It foregrounds this curiosity as a perverse trait of readers misled by news that is not, by Wharton's standards, newsworthy, and it depicts Undine's appearance in the papers with which she has now symbolically merged. The appearance of newspaper typography also calls to mind John Dos Passos' Newsreel segments in his U.S.A. trilogy. These segments depict a non-grammatical newspaper shorthand for real events, violating unities of chronology and geography, conflating, in one case, executions in a faraway land and positive economic conditions at home: "600 put to death in Canton / SEE BOOM YEAR AHEAD" (The Big Money 1133). Wharton's brief focus on the newspaper page (11) presents a reductive journalese that truncates meaning, reinforcing what is lost to the economic contingencies it serves and presenting Undine in a disembodied way consistent with her obsession with form over substance.
Although Wharton distanced herself from the work of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and other leading figures of literary Modernism, she "did not suspect [...] the extent to which many of the modernist writers she came to disparage shared her dissatisfaction with mass culture[...]. Modernist writers, in the main, were opposed to industrial and consumer culture" (Peel 118). Wharton's particular hybridization of the sentimental and the serious acknowledges the forms demanded by industrialized writing's requirement of a wide readership. Her use of the basic strategies of serialized writing--the cliffhanger, romantic language, (12) and caricature, among others, demonstrates this demand. Yet she is critical of alternative literary forms that might have offered a way to gain critical distance on her subject, even if doing so would have undermined her popularity. In The Writing of Fiction, Wharton objects to the "meaningless precision" of "[t]he stream of consciousness method [... whose] very unsorted abundance constitutes in itself the author's subject" (12-13). Cautioning against "confusing imaginative emotivity with its objective rendering" (The Writing of Fiction 15), her commentary on the stream-of-consciousness method is similar to her complaint about tabloid culture, for she finds that both forms lack interpretive judgment. She unfairly suggests, then, a loss of selectivity in the method, despite the intense criticism of industrial and consumer culture in Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway (1925), for instance. It is the unsorted, under-interpreted "abundance" of stream-of-consciousness writing that, like the papers, stokes Wharton's fear that "when mediocrity has achieved universal diffusion [...] it become[s] completely unpaintable" ("The Great American Novel" 154). The difficult abundance of observation and an absence in some Modernist narratives of perceptual ordering by the logic of grammar provokes Wharton's ill-considered conflation of contemporary literary currents and media forms.
Wharton's views on tabloid culture and stream-of-consciousness writing emerge from beliefs about traditional culture that are strained in The Custom of the Country. At her most intolerant, she is committed to observing the consequences for individual psychology of something like Henry James's opinion of the papers in "The Question of Our Speech," where he confronts an
uncontrolled assault [...] upon what we may call our linguistic position.[...] As to any claim made for the newspapers,[...] I recall to you that contribution to the idea of expression which you must feel yourselves everywhere getting, wherever you turn, from the mere noisy vision of their ubiquitous pages, bristling with rude effigies and images, with vociferous "headings," with letterings, with black eruptions of print, that we seem to measure by feet rather than inches, and affect us positively as the roar of some myriad-faced monster [...] ranging over the whole gamut of ugliness, irrelevance, dissonance. (40-43)
James further contends that the papers are not equal to the "vigilance and criticism in the absence of which the forms of civility, with the forms of speech most setting the example, drift out to sea" (44). The "vigilance and criticism" James cites links his position with Wharton's views on tabloid culture, but his attack lacks any admiration, present in Wharton's understanding of the reach and power of the "ubiquitous pages," for the ability of the already potentiated "myriad-faced monster" to integrate social communities.
While the dry-as-dust title of Marvell's projected volume, "The Rhythmical Structures of Walt Whitman" (88), might seem designed to avoid arousing the interest of the marketplace, it at least suggests, in taking Whitman as its subject, potential solidarity between classes high and low and diverse ethnicities in the age of mass immigration. Simultaneous literary engagement with social ills and the satisfaction of the profit motive is possible, though. In The Fruit of the Tree the cotton-mill manager John Amherst imagines the reaction of the muckraking press to dangerous factory conditions. Amherst wishes "a yellow reporter would go through these mills, and show them up in headlines a yard high" (71), demonstrating the possibility that media may attend to the material reality within which the lives of the workers unfold and in so doing modify bourgeois abstractions undergirding notions of class. The story, although sensational, would report on the inequities of factory life and the workings of capital. In The Custom of the Country, however, mass print culture performs a politics of abnegated equality, despite its capacity to found a public sphere through its technologically enabled reach. Marvell's pronounced affinity with Whitman is a worthy impulse, but it is a contribution to egalitarianism undone by his ties to office work and his inability to extricate himself from James's "gamut of ugliness" The damage wrought by the displacement of Marvell's class seals an ostensible repository of cultural memory and aesthetic achievement. Charles Bowen calls this creature of the old New York landscape "Homo Sapiens Americanus" (188). The suicide of Marvell, the representative of this species, indicates its imminent extinction. Literary narrative able to work within the marketplace in a way Marvell cannot frames the actions of newspapers that commodified Marvell's divorce and contributed to his humiliation and suicide.
Ultimately, Undine's view of the "damask," "gilt," and "onyx" (21-22) world is a product of attitudes about Marvell's class derived from her reading. Wharton's materially focused, sociological analysis decries a lost, ideal "critical discussion of a reading public" that results merely in "exchanges about tastes and preferences" (Habermas, Structural Transformation 70). It does so by attending to the material circumstances of a profit-driven mass culture that disperses abstractions related to common cause with a frivolity wherein "the correct thing was to be animated in society, and noise and restlessness were her only notion of vivacity" (Custom 36). Undine is "insensible to the touch of the heart" (210), and her insensibility prevents a connection to causes and people alike. While she affiliates herself in marrying Elmer Moffatt with a destructive "Wall Street code" (233) that fosters a "chaos of indiscriminate appetites" (78), the reader discovers a negative and positive valuation of the print-shaped environment and the dazzling new figures it supports. Undine is unaware of the probable impairment of "premise and deduction" as a factor in the formation of a public space for debate that may result from the relativism she perceives and enacts. In making Undine subject to a form of what Paul Virilio calls "industrial mediatization" (60), a process represented in the novel's references to Undine's reading and its authority over her, Wharton fashions a protagonist stripped of an understanding of rights by communication technologies that cause people, as Virilio relates, to "think of themselves more as contemporaries than as citizens; they may in the process slip out of the contiguous space [...] of the old Nation-State (or City-State), which harbored the demos" (60). The authority over Undine of The Radiator, Town Talk, and other tabloids signifies undiscovered capacity on the part of media to facilitate a coherent dialogue in the struggle for consensus around shifts in social conventions created, for example, by divorce.
Illustrative of media facilitation is the scene in which Mrs Heeny wields a fistful of newspaper clippings at Undine's young son: "Paul listened, fascinated. He had the feeling that Mrs Heeny's clippings, aside from their great intrinsic interest, might furnish him with a clue to many things he didn't understand, and that nobody ever had time to explain to him" (500). The lost connection between parent and child after Undine and Marvell end their union emphasizes Undine as an individual apart from the demos and its familial social unit. It signifies a loss of the means to socialize the new generation except as adjuncts of a media-facilitated, coercive patterning of values that posits commercially defined individualism, achieved through the consumption by Undine of goods and people, as the real thing. Like his mother before him, Paul looks not to institutions such as his defunct family for answers to his questions, but to the papers. As he listens to Mrs Heeny read to him from one of her clippings about his stepfather Elmer Moffatt, Wharton suggests the constancy of the need to connect when Paul states, "I'd rather hear about my mother" (500). The novel's depiction of mass print culture finds Undine, despite her intellect, unable to contribute to the evolution of abstractions that have the potential to underwrite sound conventions regarding parenting and her own liberation from oppressive, materialistic striving.
Undine incarnates a new reading public. Her making by print is part of a story about the conditions of authorship; writer and reader, as the depiction of mediated subjectivity makes clear, exist in a relationship that may potentiate social action, despite the failure of the dynamic in the novel. As an author working in a context subject to the conditions that, from one perspective, elevate Undine and her focus on style and visibility, Edith Wharton presses to reify literature as a print form endowed with cultural capital by "traditional society." The author's achievement here exists in an unassailably literary thematic complexity and an effort to make her novel's commodity status part of a counter-narrative to the "industrial mediatization" that produces Undine. This is a significant dimension of The Custom of the Country, as I have argued, for its depictions of print's expansion into a boundary zone of mixing forms during a period of a dissolving cultural stratification present both the vanishing world of Ralph Marvell and the ascendency of the conditions that shape Edith Wharton's reform-minded, Progressive-Era fiction.
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--. The Custom of the Country. 1913. New York: Scribner's, 1997.
--. "The Descent of Man." 1904. The Collected Short Stories of Edith Wharton. Vol. 1. Ed. R.W.B. Lewis. New York: Scribner's, 1968. 347-63.
--. "Expiation." The Descent of Man and Other Stories. New York: Scribner's, 1904. 201-39.
--. French Ways and Their Meaning. New York: Appleton, 1919.
--. "Friends." 1900. The Collected Short Stories of Edith Wharton. Vol. 1. Ed. R.W.B. Lewis. New York: Scribner's, 1968. 197-214.
--. The Fruit of the Tree. New York: Scribner's, 1907.
--. "The Great American Novel." The Uncollected Critical Writings of Edith Wharton. Princeton: Princeton up, 1996. 151-59.
--. The Letters of Edith Wharton. Eds. R.W.B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis. New York: Collier, 1988.
--. "Permanent Values in Fiction." The Uncollected Critical Writings of Edith Wharton. Princeton: Princeton up, 1996. 175-79.
--. The Writing of Fiction. London: Scribner's, 1925.
Williams, Jason. "Competing Visions: Edith Wharton and A.B. Wenzell in The House of Mirth" Edith Wharton Review 26.1 (Spring 2010): 1-9.
Wiggershaus, Rolf. The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Social Significance. Trans. Michael Roberston. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995.
Kwantlen Polytechnic University
(1) Mary Ann Gillies's arguments about the ways "an increase in the demand for reading material at all levels of society [...] subtly began to alter print culture itself" (15) have shaped my analysis of Wharton's fictional analysis of these trends. Wai-Chi Dimock's discussion of Wharton's interest in "mediated and socialized forms of power" (784) in The House of Mirth led me to seek the nature of Wharton's refinement of this focus in depictions of media authority and its influence on her characters in The Custom of the Country.
(2) Writing through her secretary to Oxford University Press, which had hoped to publish an edition of The House of Mirth, Wharton expressed her disappointment "that you should have fixed on The House of Mirth. She thinks The Custom of the Country a much better book (Wegener Uncollected Critical Writings n269-70).
(3) Wharton's letters offer many examples of her attempts to manage the advertising and promotion of her work. She complained to Brownell in 1899 about the firm's handling of her collection of short stories The Greater Inclination:
I do not think I have been fairly treated as regards the advertising of "The Greater Inclination." [...] I have naturally watched with interest the advertising of the book, & have compared it with notices given by other prominent publishers of books appearing under the same conditions. I find that Messrs. McMillan, Dodd & Mead, McLure, Harper, etc., advertise almost continuously in the daily papers every new book they publish, for the first few weeks after publication [...]. Certainly in these days of energetic & emphatic advertising, Mr. Scribner's methods do not tempt one to offer him one's wares a second time. (Letters 37-38).
In addition to the letter quoted above, another 1902 letter to Brownell took issue with "the lettering of the title" for The Valley of Decision and suggested that the book be sold "for a little less than $2. If it could be sold for $1.75 it seems to me that it would make a great difference" (Letters 47-48). A rich source for those interested in Wharton's close attention to matters of advertising and the presentation of her work in the context of British editions of her work is Shafquat Towheed's The Correspondence of Edith Wharton and Macmillan, 1902-1930. Towheed's introductory essay to the volume offers the most informative analysis of these matters to date.
(4) Frank Luther Mott writes that newspaper editorials of the period "were not long and never hard to read. Short words, sentences, paragraphs were the rule. Complex subjects reduced by symbol to the lowest common denominator" (581).
(5) This claim builds on Amy Kaplan's observation that the novel subordinates mass print culture to a literary comprehensiveness capable of telling "the real truth behind the gossip" (85) of the materials Undine reads.
(6) Martha Patterson describes Undine as a new type of woman who, as "the icon of unregulated, dangerous energy [...] suggests not merely Wharton's own anxiety about the feminization of larger cultural anxieties over an unregulated marketplace and American power more generally but also her anxiety about the New Woman as a sexually and socially transgressive figure" (81).
(7) See Bender, Bentley (1995), Kassanoff, Ohler, Preston, Saunders, and Tichi for a range of discussions related to Wharton's fictional sociology and sociobiology.
(8) This had happened previously. Wharton's reaction to the marketing of the volume version of The House of Mirth is instructive because it reveals her desire for it to be perceived differently than the serialized version. When Scribner's presented the book as a sensational inside narrative of elite New York, Wharton wrote to her editor William Crary Brownell to demand that he remove "that dreadful ad on the paper cover of the H. of M.: 'for the first time the veil has been lifted from N. Y. society by one who' etc. etc." (quoted in Aaronson 8). She also communicated to Brownell her displeasure at recollecting the moment "when I sank to the depth of letting illustrations be put in the book" (Letters 94), despite the fact that illustrations accompanied the novel in its serialized version. She ultimately expressed the view that "I wish I hadn't" (Letters 94). See the recent article by Jason Williams on this subject for a detailed discussion of Wharton's "vehement reaction" to A.B. Wenzell's illustrations in Scribner's Magazine and the volume version of The House of Mirth.
(9) This is not to suggest that Ralph Marvell is (like Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence) anything but a dilettante, but what is significant is his thwarted potential to write and the utter defeat visited by Undine on his desire to contribute artistically to his threatened culture.
(10) In reference to The House of Mirth Lewis relates that "[t]en days after publication Brownell notified Edith Wharton gravely that 'so far we have not sold many over 30,000'[...]. Edith observed in her diary that 20,000 more copies were being printed by October 30, and 20,000 more on November 11" (151).
(11) Other representations of newspaper stories exist, but none are given the visual representation of this example.
(12) These elements are identified by Lee and are just one aspect of her highly informative considerations of the relation between serial and volume forms of Wharton's fiction.
Paul Ohler teaches in the English department at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, British Columbia. His publications include Edith Wharton's "Evolutionary Conception": Darwinian Allegory in her Major Novels (Routledge 2006).
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|Publication:||English Studies in Canada|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2010|
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