INCORPORATING THE NEW WOMAN IN WHARTON'S THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY.
--Edith Wharton in a letter to Edward "Teddy" Wharton, May 30, 1911
Written during the course of Wharton's break with her husband, her affair with Morton Fullerton, the sale of her beloved home, the Mount, and growing tension with Scribner's, her long-time publisher, The Custom of the Country (1913) reflects Wharton's own marital, domestic, and financial anxiety.(1) A crisis of managerial control is at the heart of many of these anxieties--how would she manage Teddy, her sexual transgressions, her career, and her growing wealth? Wharton's self-described "great American Novel" illustrates the consequences of not developing managerial tactics in a rapidly incorporating American culture, a culture that "promulgated its message of unity through subordination."(2) Throughout The Custom of the Country, Wharton validates a shift from entrepreneurial to managerial values that reflects her own concerns as well as progressive reformers' demands to regulate a vicissitudinous Wall Street. Attentive to contemporary debates in social science, Wharton creates a "cultural dialogics" of evolutionary discourse to legitimate this shift.(3) She transforms her novel's central protagonist, Undine Spragg, from an unregulated corporate force into a well-managed corporate employee.
That the icon of this unregulated, potentially dangerous energy is Undine Spragg, arguably Wharton's most developed "new woman" protagonist, suggests not merely Wharton's own ambivalence toward sexually and socially transgressive women but her feminization of larger cultural anxieties over unregulated corporate power. In many respects, Undine embodies what Walter Benn Michaels has theorized as the "corporate personality" at the turn of the century. It was the corporation's ability to act as an intangible person, intangible in its insatiability for wealth and person-like in its power to act, that made it a source of cultural anxiety: "To writers like James `Cyclone' Davis and Henry D. Lloyd, it was this combination of personhood and intangibility that conferred upon corporations `unprecendented' powers--above all, the `power to act as persons, as in the comission of crimes, with exemption from punishment as persons.'"(4) With her relentless appetite and status as simultaneously person, product, and abstract "force," Undine is like a corporation in which she owns all of the capital stock. As a person, she lies and misleads; as an abstract force of nature she seems exempt from punishment. If her seemingly inhuman voraciousness makes her culturally unlocatable--she continually propels herself and others into unfamiliar social and moral terrain--it also makes her theoretically overdetermined. As a corporate entity, Undine is at once consumer of others, producer of herself, and vehicle through which products and commodities are parlayed.
Indeed, in her fiction prior to World War I, Wharton represents her new women protagonists foremost as desiring subjects who defy easy categorization. Their social ambitions create a kind of moral indecipherability that frustrates the anthropologist's reading. In Wharton's novella Sanctuary (1903), the antagonist Clemence Vemey is "patently of the `new school'" because her ambition overrides any commitment to traditional moral precepts; her "feverish activities and broad-cast judgments ... made her hard to define."(5) In The Fruit of the Tree (1907), Justine Brent is "so free and flexible in all her motions that she seemed akin to the swaying reeds and curving brambles which caught at her as she passed," a flexibility that when extended to the ethical arena suggests a disconcerting ability to reconcile selfless corporate idealism with a conceivably selfish act of euthanasia.(6) The "awfully modem," sexually experienced Sophy Viner in The Reef (1912) is potentially even more threatening to established social orders because her questionable moral judgment may be traced to general shifts in American racial inheritance. Seeing her unexpectedly on the docks before his departure to France, the ambassador George Darrow struggles to classify this "fluid type":
She was clearly an American, but with the loose native quality strained through a closer woof of manners: the composite product of an enquiring and adaptable race. All this, however, did not help him to fit a name to her, for just such instances were perpetually pouring through the London Embassy, and the etched and angular American was becoming rarer than the fluid type.(7)
Undine, of course, is the most fluid of types, as her name denotes water sprite and wave motion. She is at once new species, new product, new money, new morality, and new woman, an emblem of American prosperity and moral degeneration.(8) Vibrant and empty--a product of her nouveau fiche father's ambition and her mother's dullness--Undine is a tremulous new species liable to revert if left to her own resources. The novel's "ad-hoc sociologist," Charles Bowen, may try to locate her as a "monstrously perfect result of the system" of American marriage, but she remains remarkably unsubstantial, both product and process, never quite created.(9) Named after a "hair-waver father put on the market the week she was born" (Custom, 80) and evoking the eponymous water nymph, Undine only lives and exudes her "beauty" as she actively consumes and produces herself. With her "sensitiveness to new impressions combined with her obvious lack of any sense of relative values" (Custom, 83), Undine relishes the Nouveau Luxe, a garish resort devoted to the shallow and fleeting entertainments demanded by the nouveau fiche. Feeling trapped by one of the illustrious marriages she finagles and unhampered by the old New York ideals that sabotaged Lily Bart's marital machinations in The House of Mirth, Undine deftly obtains one divorce and then another while acting as a false signifier of both gentility and maternity. She loathes maternity, in fact, unless her child--an unfortunate consequence of her second marriage--may be used successfully as a prop or pawn.
Wharton provides ample evidence that she loathes the "new ethic"--quick marriages, easy divorces, avarice, and imitation--that Undine embodies, and most Wharton scholars agree that in The Custom of the Country Wharton offered her most explicit indictment of the "capitalist-patriarchal America" that created the rapacious Undine.(10) Indeed, as Debra Ann MacComb notes, "The divorce industry must have seemed particularly galling to Wharton because [of] its reputation for encouraging `rotary marriage' along the lines of the period's pervasive `rotary consumerism.'"(11) Yet Wharton also continually and emphatically reminds readers of Undine's vitality. As her name suggests, Undine undulates, rising and falling like the stocks on Wall Street, riding the waves, so to speak, and coming up on top. As Cynthia Griffin Wolff observes, Wharton never condemns Undine's energy as such: "Only `free-floating' energy is monstrous. Energy that has become divorced from human concerns is vitiated; energy that has been contaminated with insatiable hungers is emotionally distorting."(12) Suffering only periodic bouts of carefully orchestrated "nervousness," Undine thrives in this marketplace of potentiality. Certainly, the excitement of that motion--the rapid dynamics of Undine's moral descent in conjunction with her financial ascent--helped sell Wharton's novel.
Undine's character in fact reiterates the dominant narrative of the waning Gibson Girl she resembles. Tall, distant, discerning, and beautiful, with loosely coiffured, voluminous hair and corseted waist, Charles Dana Gibson's conception of the American girl sold a seemingly safe version of the New Woman to a rapidly growing number of working and middle-class women at the turn of the century. While rarely depicting women working in the marketplace, his images frequently satirized women as voracious consumers in that marketplace. To subsidize their shopping, Gibson Girls act as sirens, luring their diminutive fathers and awe-struck suitors to their financial doom. Although Gibson's images sanctioned women's participation in athletics and in a heterosocial environment, they would seem to have been deployed to undermine "New Woman" efforts to gain political and economic reform. Intent on acquring the latest man or the latest fashion, the Gibson Girl may play tennis, but she never played politics.(13)
Like the Gibson Girl's elaborate but enticingly loose coiffure, the vitality of Undine's red hair suggests the wave-like motion of her desires. In love with her own image, Undine too has an insatiable desire for both material goods and social prominence, desires that threaten to bankrupt her father as well as her mates. Yet Wharton's construction of Undine evokes the Gibson Girl image only to exacerbate the cultural fears she embodies, and consequently to undermine the values on which the status of her image depends. When Undine marries the French nobleman Raymond de Chelles, she makes the frequently satirized Gibson Girl mistake of marrying for title rather than love, thereby shirking her responsibility to inspire American men. Charles Dana Gibson had assured readers that the Gibson Girl's material desires would result in matrimonial and maternal success, a process that shored up the power of the American nation. The Gibson Man works ever harder for the Gibson Girl, and she, as an icon of bourgeois white womanhood, promises to alleviate Rooseveltian fears of race suicide by having a large family. Undine offers no such assurances. Although she promises her own demise--reluctant to reproduce herself, her tenure as a new woman and a new species seems destined to be short-lived--she threatens the paternal legacy of her morally and intellectually more "advanced" husbands.
Indeed, if in the Gibson Girl narrative marriage promises to manage the threat of uncontrolled female sexual and consumer desire, then Undine's perpetual speculating and sudden devaluations remind readers of their own insecurity in an economy increasingly subject to a volatile Wall Street. When Wharton began her "great American novel," the country was still recovering from the crash of 1907. By late November of that year forty leading stocks were selling $52 a share on average below their 1906 peaks, and in December of the next year Charles Evans Hughes, governor of New York, appointed a commission to determine if state laws were needed to regulate speculation in securities and commodities.(14) With the publication of the Hughes report in 1909, however, stock market speculation on the Exchange was, for the most part, vindicated, though the report did suggest that the Exchange be incorporated to "bring it more completely under the authority and supervision of the State and the process of the courts."(15)
Weakened by endogamy and outmoded social codes, Undine's two old-monied husbands suffer from the exigencies of Wall Street natural selection as soon as they marry her. The up-and-coming Elmer Moffatt, on the other hand, learns to speculate successfully. Shrewd, straight-forward, and occasionally compassionate, Moffatt survives and eventually triumphs. Only Moffatt makes the business alliances necessary to the formation of the kind of corporate culture Wharton favors. As Martin Sklar has observed, during the shift from entrepreneurial to managerial capitalism "increasingly enfeebled appeals [were made] to dog-eat-dog social Darwinism: It was cooperation that now made firms, economies, and nations fit to survive."(16) Unlike Undine's prior husbands, who purchase her solely for their own personal viewing pleasure and thereby evince a proprietary capitalist ethic, Moffatt puts Undine to work, using her social connections to help him increase and diversify his portfolio. Only a properly managed Undine, like a properly managed Teddy Wharton, promises material growth.
To legitimate the management of Undine, Wharton employs the discourse and methodology of evolutionary thought. She had long been fascinated by Darwin and the works of Thomas Henry Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and Jean Baptiste de Lamarck, among others.(17) Her autobiography, A Backward Glance, eulogizes her longtime friend Egerton Winthrop as the first to introduce her to the "wonder-world of nineteenth century science. He it was who gave me Wallace's `Darwin and Darwinism,' and `The Origin of Species,' and made known to me Huxley, Herbert Spencer, Romanes, Haeckel, Westermarck, and the various popular exponents of the great evolutionary movement."(18) In her short story collection The Descent of Man (1904), Wharton had offered an earlier critique of the ways in which women figure in the dominant Darwinian narrative. The title story of the collection follows the ethical descent of a Professor Linyard, who compromises his scientific standing for the financial rewards of producing popular pseudoscientific sentimental essays, essays relished by his primarily female reading audience. Mary Suzanne Schriber has observed that Linyard's descent reflects Wharton's fear that the feminization of American culture was bringing about its intellectual and moral decline. Wharton, Schriber maintains, essentially adopts Darwin's arguments concerning the intellectual and moral inferiority of women, who don't have to compete in natural or sexual selection; moreover, "Wharton saw the segregation of the sexes as a vicious circle perpetuating its own worst features by furthering the female's narrowness and hence the male's wanderlust."(19) Schriber's argument echoes Wharton's unfavorable depiction of "sheltered" American women some fifteen years after The Custom of the Country in French Ways and Their Meaning (1919):
It is because American women are each other's only audience, and to a great extent each other's only companions, that they seem compared to women who play and intellectual and social part in the lives of men, like children in a baby-school. They are "developing their individuality," but developing it in a void, without the checks, the stimulus, and the discipline that comes of contact with the stronger masculine individuality.(20)
Schriber neglects to consider, however, that Linyard creates his own ideal female companion and consumer of his ideas. His imaginary female confidante, a woman who has "to the utmost this quality of adaptability," always listens to and encourages him.(21) By satirizing the ease with which Linyard rationalizes his own moral descent--a descent manifest in his creation and cultivation of female companions who only reflect rather than contradict his ideas--Wharton challenged Darwin's assumptions of innate female frivolity. That frivolity then appears as an acquired social characteristic rather than an inviolable biological fact.
Wharton's construction of Undine, however, seems to legitimate Darwin's claims of innate female behavioral characteristics. Undine's intuitiveness, imitativeness, and vanity are all characteristics that Darwin saw as women's hereditary legacies. In The Descent of Man he maintained that "women are everywhere conscious of the value of their beauty; and when they have the means, they take more delight in decorating themselves with all sorts of ornaments than do men."(22) Yet Undine also represents the very struggle for existence that in Darwin's view prompted evolutionary development. Quickly recovering from her bouts of "nervouseness" (Custom, 40), Undine as sheer energy fuels the 500-plus pages of the novel. Undine does not merely adopt Darwin's ethic of survival of the fittest in the marriage marketplace, she is the very "eternal flux of Nature" that prompts evolution.(23) As her undulating desires represent the fluctuations of Wall Street, changing fashions, and social rules, they also compel natural selection to occur.
During the course of writing The Custom of the Country, Wharton was also directly influenced by contemporary challenges to Darwinian theory. Sailing back from Europe to the United States in May 1908, she read Vernon L. Kellogg's Darwinism To-day (1907) and Robert Heath Lock's The Recent Progress in the Study of Variation, Heredity and Evolution (1906).(24) Kellogg argued that although Darwin's theories of natural selection may explain the continuous changes of evolution, they did not sufficiently explain the formation of new species.(25) While recognizing the challenge that DeVries' mutation theories posed to natural selection arguments, Kellogg eventually embraced an essentially Lamarckian perspective in which the transmission of acquired characteristics was primarily responsible for new species formation:
... when species differences and adaptations are identical with differences and modifications readily directly producible in the individual by varying environment, are we not justified, on the basis of logical deduction, to assume the transmutation of ontogenetic acquirements into phyletic acquirements, even though we are as yet ignorant of the physico-chemical or vital mechanism capable of effecting the carrying over?(26)
Lock, on the other hand, used the arguments of the Mendelians and Mutationists to herald Francis Galton's eugenic vision. Using Mendel's gene theories, Lock argued that variations in behavior are ultimately the result of inherited good or bad genes, the presence of which could be easily deduced by observing behavior. At the end of his study, Lock praised Galton for suggesting the preeminence of nature over nurture and warned that the "Unfit" were reproducing far faster than the "Fit." Citing English birthrate figures compiled by his fellow eugenicist Professor Karl Pearson, which revealed that "the mentally defective class is reproducing itself about twice as rapidly as the intellectual class," Lock warned: "Surely if these people understood the irrevocable laws of heredity--if they only knew--they would be themselves unwilling to hand on a tainted existence to future generations!"(27)
While lending itself to eugenic arguments, Mendelian gene theory did work to dismantle some of the sexual and racial stereotyping forwarded in Darwinian narratives. As Cynthia Eagle Russett notes, Mendelian genetics undermined recapitulation theory, which read evolutionary development into the growth of the adult from the fetus. Recapitulation theory had often been used to promote race and sex hierarchies, a vision in which women had ceased their evolutionary development somewhere between child and man.(28) Adherents of Lamarck, who argued that all characteristics acquired during the lifetime of each parent were transmissible to the child, were also challenged by the renewed attention given to Mendelian theories. As Russett points out, such attacks undermined Darwin's arguments about the inheritance of mental capabilities according to sex. In The Descent of Man, Darwin maintained that in the struggle for survival and efforts to attract a mate, male intelligence developed further than female, an increase that tended to be passed to the male offspring alone.(29) If women were viewed as able to acquire mental traits from their fathers as well as their mothers, any assurances of male intellectual superiority were put into question. Discrediting the Lamarckian notion that acquired characteristics could be inherited, however, also undermined arguments in favor of women's higher education. As Russett argues, "Neo-Darwinism thus taught an ambivalent lesson. While it dispelled the notion that men and women were evolving in different directions, it also denied the hope of a shortcut to enhance feminine braininess through educating the maternal stock."(30)
In The Custom of the Country Wharton appears ambivalent about the hereditary logic of such eugenic arguments. By creating characters such as Undine, Marvell, and de Chelles who are ultimately products of their genetic legacy, Wharton validates race-bound laws of inheritance. Yet the fact that Undine "derived her overflowing activity" (Custom, 119) from her father could be a hereditary possibility made logical by Mendelians, a sign of environmentally produced degeneracy to Lamarckians--her "masculine" energy exacerbated by a frenetic American culture--or an atavistic throwback to a more savage age according to Darwinians. And Undine's arguably worst quality, her rending of traditional family structures, is genetically untraceable. By the standards of Darwin's moral hierarchy, Undine appears stuck on the lowest rung of the moral ladder, since the "higher moral rules" according to Darwin are
founded on the social instincts, and relate to the welfare of others. They are supported by the approbation of our fellow-men and by reason. The lower rules, though some of them when implying self-sacrifice hardly deserve to be called lower, relate chiefly to self, and owe their origin to public opinion, when matured by experience and cultivated; for they are not practiced by rude tribes.(31)
Undine's father and Ralph Marvell, by contrast, appear to have cultivated the "higher moral rules," which their failure on Wall Street only confirms. Mr. Spragg's moral vision, a vision "murky" in business matters but loosely based on a system of "personal obligation," is resolutely clear in his "private rules of conduct," which, like Marvell's, depend on traditional patriarchal notions of family structure (Custom, 260, 239). The fact that these two characters from different social strata share an inability to compete and a roughly similar personal code of conduct--mandating self-sacrifice in maintaining female dependents--undermines a eugenic reading. In addition, Wharton gives the successful Elmer Moffatt virtually no ancestral history besides suggesting that he is from modest means and outside the centers of power. His rise to fortune as well as his ethical plummets are genetically untraceable, which again suggests the limits of Wharton's eugenic methodology.
Incorporation, I would argue, supersedes eugenics as a means of social control in Wharton's fiction of this period. In The Fruit of the Tree (1907), the novel that immediately preceded Wharton's first sketches of The Custom of the Country, Wharton celebrates the corporate vision of her New Woman and New Man protagonists. A financially and critically unsuccessful novel, The Fruit of the Tree takes on labor reform, euthanasia, and the woman question, in addition to corporate restructuring. The novel begins with the efforts of the idealistic John Amherst to reform the debilitating labor conditions at the local cotton mills where he is assistant manager. Longing to create systemic change in the hierarchical relations between owners and workers, Amherst initially appears to offer a direct indictment of the corporate system:
The disappearance of the old familiar contact between master and man seemed to him one of the great wrongs of the new industrial situation. That the breach must be farther widened by the ultimate substitution of the stock-company for the individual employer--a fact obvious to any student of economic tendencies--presented to Amherst's mind one of the most painful problems in the scheme of social readjustment. (Fruit, 48)
Amherst disavows the corporate system, however, only as it acts as a family proprietary enterprise--the owner of the mills only visits his property occasionally--siphoning rather than reinvesting the wealth. Amherst's plans for the mill's recuperation, in fact, directly employ restructuring methods. Hoping to hire according to merit rather than nepotism, to create recreation facilities and incentives for employee advancement, and above all to maintain an efficient base of operations, Amherst longs to implement his own corporate ideals.(32)
The efficiency ethic is actually the hero of the novel. It was Amherst's love of the standardized machine that compelled him to forego his leisure class opportunities and enter into mill management:
It was not only the sense of power that thrilled him--he felt a beauty in the ordered activity of the whole intricate organism, in the rhythm of dancing bobbins and revolving cards, the swift continuous outpour of doublers and ribbonlaps, the steady ripple of the long ply-frames, the terrible gnashing play of the looms--all these varying subordinate motions, gathered up into the throb of the great engines which fed the giant's arteries, and were in turn ruled by the invisible action of quick thought and obedient hands, always produced in Amherst a responsive rush of life. (Fruit, 36-37)
As the machine and its hierarchy of interlocking parts are anthropomorphized, so the bodies that run that machine become scientifically managed, virtually invisible as part of the larger social machine.
Amherst's opportunity to implement his reforms comes when the absentee owner of the mill dies and his widow comes to inspect her property. Hoping to spur a social consciousness in the Gibson Girl-like Bessy Westmore by showing her firsthand the misery on which her luxurious lifestyle depends, Amherst takes her on a tour of the mills. While he derives pleasure from the carefully managed energy of the machines, Bessy hears unrelenting noise generated by "the interminable ranks of meaningless machines" (Fruit, 59). Unable to connect a worker's suffering with the systemic conditions at the mill and unable to sustain attention beyond her own immediate situation, Bessy expresses only a fleeting empathy with the individual worker's misfortunes. While evincing none of the social-Darwinist struggles for advancement that Undine embodies, Bessy is likewise a parasite of the proprietary capitalist activities of the male members of her family enterprise. By contrast, the sober reflections of the sometime nurse, Justine Brent, reveal her profound sympathy with Amherst's efforts. She seems in fact to be the moral focus for much of the book; her renunciations are invariably selfless (tellingly, Wharton's working title for the novel was "Justine Brent"). While Justine, like Undine, is characterized as having limitless energy, that energy is tied to a seemingly unthreatening natural world. Her selflessness, community idealism, and capacity for regeneration are in direct proportion to Undine's self-absorption and tendency to reversion. Like Amherst, Justine always reinvests her earnings from the company.
Yet Justine too must be managed. When she euthanizes the injured Bessy, who for some time has been unhappily married to Amherst, her actions suggest a moral independence too easily read as self-serving and therefore needing containment. Narrowly escaping murder charges, Justine is exiled from the family. Amherst's vision of the mills, however, is realized at the end of the novel when he inherits Bessy's fortune, enabling him to enact the reforms he and Justine planned:
Westmore prospered under the new rule. The seeds of life they had sown there were springing up in a promising growth of bodily health and mental activity, and above all in a dawning social consciousness. The mill-hands were beginning to understand the meaning of their work, in its relation to their own lives and to the larger economy. And outwardly, also, the new growth was showing itself in the humanized aspect of the place. Amherst's young maples were tall enough now to cast a shade on the grass-bordered streets; and the well-kept turf, the bright cottage gardens, the new central group of library, hospital and club-house, gave to the mill-village the hopeful air of a "rising" residential suburb. (Fruit, 621)
Justine's energy, reflected in the passage's organic metaphors, is now subsumed by Amherst's larger managerial vision. With Bessy's death and Justine's banishment, those unsettling elements of the new morality are quelled and corporate restructuring flourishes.
As a corporation, then, it appears Undine is not so new. Untethered to abiding moral and religious precepts while rapidly adjusting her opinions and self in hopes of material gain, Undine Spragg represents an earlier generation's feverish quest for acquisition. Compared to her male fictional contemporaries, whose sexual desires mirror their desires for capital--like Frank Cowperwood in Dreiser's The Financier--Undine's desires are markedly asexual. Preferring to capitalize on the desire she elicits, Undine essentially disembodies herself in her relationships with men. On her honeymoon with Marvell, she "had never shown any repugnance to his tenderness, but such response as it evoked was remote and Ariel-like, suggesting, from the first, not so much the recoil of ignorance as the coolness of the element from which she took her name" (Custom, 152). Conceiving of her relationships as a series of delicate Wall Street maneuvers, Undine shows a businesslike detachment in their cultivation. Having received a substantial loan from the unsavory Peter Van Degan, which he hopes to collect in sexual favors, Undine carefully manages her disgust:
It was easy enough to rebuff him, the easier as his physical proximity always roused in her a vague instinct of resistance; but it was hard so to temper the rebuff with promise that the game of suspense should still delude him. He put it to her at last, standing squarely before her, his batrachian sallowness unpleasantly flushed, and primitive man looking out of the eyes from which a frock-coated gentleman usually pined at her. (Custom, 230-31)
This detachment not only gives Undine the power of sexual choice--thereby refuting Darwin's premise of women's passive role in human sexual selection--but also enables her to vie for ever better deals. In this way, Wharton revises the threat of the New Woman's sexuality as an economic one. Undine's desexualized, pragmatic attachments suggest all of the tenuousness of relationships within proprietary capitalism.
Yet Wharton both promises and warns her reader that Undine's ambition carries with it her eventual demise. While Undine has inherited her mother's dullness--both women share a sharply limited range of intellectual energy, preferring the sycophantic ministerings of manicurist Mrs. Heeny in moments of emotional distress--Undine shares none of her "proper" maternal concern. In much of Wharton's fiction, maternal devotion is a moral saving grace, demanding selflessness and connection in a self-absorbed consumer culture. In Wharton's "The Mission of Jane" (in The Descent of Man, 1904), for instance, Lethbury suddenly realizes that his wife has suffered her maternal longings to remain unassuaged:
Maternity was no doubt the supreme function of primitive woman, the one end to which her whole organism tended; but the law of increasing complexity had operated in both sexes, and he had not seriously supposed that, outside the world of Christmas fiction and anecdotic art, such truisms had any special hold on the feminine imagination. Now he saw that the arts in question were kept alive by the vitality of the sentiments they appealed to.(33)
The "mission" of the child, Jane, is to unite the estranged couple. Similarly, in The House of Mirth (1905), Lily Bart's imaginary embrace of Nettie Struther's baby at the end of the novel is depicted as a kind of primeval return to a "natural" state (mother love was the highest form of love, according to Darwin). As she enters her drug-induced sleep, she feels the "tender pressure of its body ... still close to hers: the recovered warmth flowed through her once more, she yielded to it, sank into it, and slept."(34) Undine, by contrast, cries bitterly at the news of her pregnancy and later uses her son as leverage in an act of extortion. Such "unnatural" behavior suggests the extent to which she is subject to reversion. While her desire to imitate old New York society and the French aristocracy represents a significant break from the stolid provincialism of her parents, her evolutionary hold as a new species appears tenuous. A fluke of nature, she is liable to revert to an earlier and more primitive form if she ceases movement. Like all the other New Woman figures in this novel, gallivanting about Europe and the waterholes of the North East, Undine is effectively committing "race suicide."
Her young son, Paul, offers no redemption and no promise of eventual family cohesion. With the inherited disposition of his father, Paul wanders lost and confused about the great Moffatt house at the end of the novel, unwilling to be comforted by Mrs. Heeny's vision of experience as a series of acquisition coups. After Mrs. Heeny reads to Paul the newspaper clippings describing Undine's speedy divorce and remarriage to Moffatt, a description punctuated by a "dazzling" account of Undine's wedding gifts, "one fact alone stood out for him--that she had said things that were untrue about his French father" (Custom, 586). Maintaining this moral vision in the midst of the lucrative and ethically dubious career in speculation Moffatt offers him promises Paul the same nerve depletion that mined his father. Undine's relative lack of interest in the future of her assets suggests the short-lived nature of her proprietary capitalist enterprise.
The novel's ad hoc sociologist Charles Bowen, by contrast, views Undine as merely a product of that capitalist enterprise. Much of the scholarly work concerning The Custom of the Country has privileged Bowen's comments--Cynthia Griffin Wolff, for example, claims him as "our most reliable guide"(35)--even though he fails to see Undine in her multiple roles as proprietary capitalist, commodity, and dynamic of exchange. Forbearing to condemn immediately Undine's relentlessly self-interested behavior, Bowen reads her actions anthropologically. He defends Undine as an unfortunate product of the American marriage system after she misses her son's birthday party at the home of her in-laws: "How much does he let her share in the real business of life? How much does he rely on her judgment and help in the conduct of serious affairs? ... It's normal for a man to work hard for a woman--what's abnormal is his not caring to tell her anything about it" (Custom, 206). His prescription for such doomed relationships is a return to the chivalric code of the medieval romance:
"Why does the European woman interest herself so much more in what the men are doing? Because she's so important to them that they make it worth her while! She's not a parenthesis, as she is here ... The answer's obvious, isn't it? The emotional centre of gravity's not the same in the two hemispheres. In the effete societies it's love, in our new one it's business." (Custom, 207)
According to Bowen, caring for women in "the old barbarous possessive way" is what the "poor deluded dears" really want. As Ellen Dupree has pointed out, Bowen's arguments are later contradicted by Undine's experience with Raymond de Chelles.(36) When Undine is forcibly domesticated in the Marquise de Chelles's castle, she reverts to an even earlier stage of evolutionary development; "barbarous possessiveness" only seems to compel Undine to adopt yet a different form of primitive behavior. Feeling the quite literal isolation of life at the castle where she is surrounded by a moat, and watching her beauty diminish, "odd atavisms woke in her, and she began to pore over patent medicine advertisements, to send stamped envelopes to beauty doctors and professors of physical development, and to brood on the advantage of consulting faith-healers, mind-readers and their kindred adepts" (Custom, 521-22). This tendency to reversion reminds readers that simply including Undine in more of the marriage's decisionmaking would in no way cure her inherited behavior.(37) Her essentially imitative qualities, her inability to adapt readily, suggest none of the imaginative skills necessary to succeed in the new corporate economy. As Vernon Kellogg wrote, "Selection will inexorably bar the forward movement, will certainly extinguish the direction of any orthogenetic process ... which is not fit, that is, not adaptive."(38)
Ironically, Undine's second husband, Ralph Marvell, suffers from similarly self-sabotaging inherited tendencies. Sheltered from workplace straggles too long, Marvell is unable to cope with the business world into which Undine's expenditures thrust him. He can only imitate the business dealings of the successful entrepreneur Elmer Moffatt, imagining none of his own. The stultifying, if ennobling, old New York rituals and ideals to which Marvell had clung, and which are his evolutionary legacy, ultimately become irrelevant in the face of the "chaos of indiscriminate appetites" that characterizes "modern" society:
Ralph sometimes called his mother and grandfather the Aborigines, and likened them to those vanishing denizens of the American continent doomed to rapid extinction with the advance of the invading race. He was fond of describing Washington Square as the "Reservation," and of prophesying that before long its inhabitants would be exhibited at ethnological shows, pathetically engaged in the exercise of their primitive industries. (Custom, 74).
While steadfast in adhering to his dictum of an overarching moral vision for business and domestic life, Marvell feels the evisceration of his limited nerve force in the face of Undine's mutability, her modern sensibility. Ill-equipped both morally and intellectually to deal with the crass, cut-throat, and occasionally exhilarating business maneuvers of Wall Street, Marvell's brief foray into speculation culminates in his realization that "he seemed to be stumbling about in his inherited prejudices like a modern man in medieval armour" (Custom, 469). When Undine eventually tires of his inability to secure enough money for her increasingly extravagant purchases and sues for divorce, Marvell refuses to risk scandal by contesting the terms. Realizing he has lost custody of his child, Marvell sees "that the weakness was innate in him. He had been eloquent enough, in his free youth, against the conventions of his class; yet when the moment came to show his contempt for them they had mysteriously mastered him, deflecting his course like some hidden hereditary failing" (Custom, 437).
Although Undine's third husband, Raymond de Chelles, and the French aristocracy he represents are seemingly more robust, under the test of her inherited nature they too appear on the verge of collapse:
If Raymond de Chelles had been English he would have been a mere fox-hunting animal, with appetites but without tastes; but in his lighter Gallic clay the wholesome territorial savour, the inherited passion for sport and agriculture, were blent with an openness to finer sensations, a sense of the come-and-go of ideas, under which one felt the tight hold of two or three inherited notions, religious, political, and domestic, in total contradiction to his surface attitude. That the inherited notions would in the end prevail, everything in his appearance declared, from the distinguished slant of his nose to the narrow forehead under his thinning hair; he was the kind of man who would inevitably "revert" when he married. (Custom, 276)
The fact that de Chelles has inherited acquired characteristics clearly revealed by his physiognomy demonstrates Wharton's dialogic play of both Lamarckian and Mendelian principles. Within the domesticated setting of marriage de Chelles, like Undine, reverts to the behavior of his ancestors.
Too long domesticated and cultivated, a victim of artificial selection like Marvell, de Chelles contains within him the seeds of his own more immediate destruction. As evolutionist Lock warned, "The modifications which occur under cultivation are in most cases decidedly weakly as compared with the original forms, as every gardener knows to his cost. They are only enabled to survive to a recognizable stage, because cultivation consists in the removal of competition."(39) Raymond de Chelles seems destined to have no heirs, while his philandering brother Hubert, married to the nouveau fiche American, Looty Arlington, immediately begets a child.
The tension in Undine's final marriage--the fact that Elmer Moffatt must produce money in order to consume Undine, while Undine must produce (maintain, imitate) herself in order to consume Moffatt's goods--is what fuels this relationship and ultimately acts as a metaphor for the larger market economy. The socially parasitic Popple and Undine's final husband, Moffatt, literally bulge with their acquisitive desire, be it of social glitterati or rare objets d'art. Although Moffatt visually displays all the signs of his social limitations--he is "thick yet compact, with a round head set on a neck in which, at the first chance, prosperity would be likely to develop a red crease" (Custom, 108)--his stout form suggests a market-place resilience. If his inability to imitate fully the social value of those objects which he has acquired makes him ugly, it also grants him independence. In the new corporate capitalism of the day, Moffatt quickly forms and reforms alliances, careful to avoid severing relationships, even after strain, when they may be useful in the future. The same James Rolliver who helped dissolve his original marriage to Undine will become his ally in his effort to gain monopolistic control over Apex City's public utilities (Custom, 537). Unlike Undine, whose success is primarily attributable to her beauty and her imitative abilities, Moffatt's success is attributed to his "jovial cunning," a cunning that enables him to relish Undine's value as currency in the marketplace and wisely reinvest her (Custom, 108). Indeed, as Debra MacComb notes, Moffatt "manages his interest in her like a stock investment, guarding the secret of their previous marriage so that Undine isn't compromised as `used goods' before she secures the Marvell name and outlining the plan by which she can leverage her son to gain the financial backing required for an annulment and, thereby, a new, even more prestigious name."(40) Yet Moffatt doesn't speculate merely to hoard capital. His acquisition of goods requires a managerial, "win-win" ethic evident in such coups as the successful acquisition of Raymond de Chelles' Saint Desert tapestries. Undine provides him the opportunity for viewing, for which she is rewarded, and since de Chelles refuses to sell Moffatt the tapestries directly, Moffatt hires an anonymous intermediary to act on his behalf. Relishing her husband's successful acquisition of the tapestries, Undine notices he is "looking stouter and redder than ever" (Custom, 592).
Wharton herself had made a less profitable alliance in her own marriage. She must have identified with her voracious protagonist; she gives Undine her own nickname "Puss" and expresses a similar devotion to energy in her personal correspondence. For Wharton such fervent energy was necessary to succeed in the new industrial age and to cope with the demands of her neurasthenic husband. Feeling both coerced and compelled to remain with Teddy during his frequent bouts of nervousness, Wharton's relationship with her husband was often what either distracted her from or drove her to her work.(41) Fearing Teddy's imminent departure from a Swiss sanitarium in June of 1910, Wharton wrote to her sometimes capricious lover, Morton Fullerton, "You don't know what it is to say to myself, as I do, that my work is, must be, my only refuge, my only raison d'etre, & then, as soon as I feel my wings, to be struck down again like this!"(42) Wharton usually wrote daily, socialized often, and traveled frequently, prompting Henry James to dub her life a "whirligig."(43) Fearing inclusion in one of her hectic motor trips throughout Europe, James compared her in the summer of 1912 to a raptor who "rode the whirlwind and played with the storm."(44)
And like Undine, Wharton was frustrated with her husband's inept business maneuvers and struggles to dominate their finances. In a letter to "Minnie" Mary Cadwalader Jones in February of 1912, Wharton writes in a voice that sounds like Undine's complaints about Marvell that "the assumption that Teddy is a homeless martyr, victimized by my frivolous tastes for an effete society, is a voluntary one, a deliberate part pris to relieve his family of any responsibility. They know his real condition and the impossibility of living with him, and have told people so, who have told me. Luckily all my friends understand."(45)
Yet Wharton must have found inspiration for Marvell, as a frustrated writer dealing with a spouse's seemingly petulant demands, in her own relationship with her husband. While fighting with Teddy for control of her financial estate in 1910, Wharton reminds him of his poor business decisions, announces her own financial success, and essentially offers to purchase his compliance:
... what you call "having to be a passenger for the rest of your days"--that is, not being able to manage my money affairs and decide about household matters--would make you dissatisfied and unhappy, [sic] whatever plan of life we tried to carry out together I can do nothing to alter these conditions, which are the result of your nervous breakdown, nor can I help the fact that your having lost a part of your fortune weighs with you more than the fact that, when you came back last year, I was ready to overlook everything you had done, and to receive you as if nothing had happened. ... I am so flush now, thanks to my `sage economics,' that I should like to offer you a small open car, like the kind you have always said you would prefer for such a trip.(46)
Fearing an indefinite tenure in his "passenger" status, Teddy, like Undine, hopes to gain control by allocating family resources; Wharton, like Marvell, struggles to placate through presents.
Like Wharton's uncertain domestic position at the turn of the century--the Mount had been sold, a sale that excited Teddy and depressed Edith--everything in The Custom of the Country seems to be moving away from its origins. The Marvell's sapphires, the Archduchess's pearls, and the Count's tapestries--all coerced away from their original owners--signify an artistry and tradition unappreciated by their new owners. Marvell is distressed less by his wife's lies about resetting the family jewels than by the thought "that she had been unconscious of the wound she inflicted in destroying the identity of the jewels" (Custom, 214). To obtain the rare objects Moffatt has learned to appreciate as an increasingly discerning and well-financed collector, he must wrench them from their often aristocratic owners and settings. A rare but transplanted art object herself, Undine reminds readers of the consequences of such removals. Even Undine's wedding gift--"a necklace and tiara of pigeon-blood rubies belonging to Queen Made Antoinette" (Custom, 586)--evokes the violence of new money wrenching the long-held prizes of the old. The final scene, in fact, is one of continual misrecognition. The acquisition of objects, husbands, and home are the "new" means of ordering experience and prove to be mere secondhand reports to be picked up out of a basket at will.
At once an exhilarating and threatening conduit for the reader's pleasure--both Undine and Wharton's readers revel in the materiality of the lavish objects they learn to desire--Undine reminds her audience that shopping also means being shopped for. In Scribner's advertisement for The Custom of the Country, Wharton herself appeared in lavish dress, the epitome of the genteel reader whom readers might become as they identified with Wharton's satiric voice and shared in her panoptic investigation--"the entire fabric of `society' is unrolled and spread out for view."(47) Yet that becoming is never wholly successful; the imitation is always discernible. Wharton may promise her readers that all "valuable" objects and the vast array of privileged experience they represent are available for purchase, but she also reminds them that these objects will never completely mesh with their decor. Undine looks "vainly for the originals" among Mabel's set and is besieged by fakes in Aaronson the riding instructor. Disappointed early in the novel at the Fairford dinner because the fireplace logs are real and the meat is discernible--"she thought it dull of Mrs. Fairford not to have picked up something newer"--Undine remains addicted to novel experiences and is never able to master a cohesive and convincingly old-moneyed interior. As "an exact copy of the Pitti Palace," Undine and Moffatt's home is filled with other families' ancestral portraits and heirlooms, a home rather like their favorite hotel Nouveau Luxe, with its "incorrigible habit of imitating the imitation" (Custom, 273).
The violence of acquisition and the primitiveness of imitation remind readers that the new ethic of incorporation carries with it not merely vestiges of the old proprietary capitalism--as in Thorstein Veblen's familiar argument--but new threats of monopolistic power. Roosevelt depended on J. P. Morgan, who had met his antitrust efforts with such arrogance in 1902, to bail out the financial markets in 1907. Moffatt's rapid accumulation of wealth in conjunction with his ability to control Undine suggests a similar power to influence, if not outright control, the market. Undine, then, as she represents both a trajectory toward social "reversion" and economic "advancement," requires and is threatened with managerial control.
Yet considering the fates of other privileged New Woman protagonists of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century fiction, like Sister Carrie, Edna Pontellier, and the narrator of the "Yellow Wallpaper," Undine appears a successful if shallow heroine. Neither dead, nor outcast, nor impoverished, nor insane, nor subject to any fleeting desires for moral uplift, Undine has reached the marital jackpot. Characterized by an inexhaustable desire that can both inspire and enervate, however, Undine represents an outmoded proprietary corporate ethic, which her susceptibility to reversion suggests. As an unregulated, entirely selfish corporate personality, Undine carries with her a volatility that disrupts many long-established marriage markets. With his apparently inexhaustable wealth, marketplace assurance, and dealmaking savvy, Moffatt promises a better-managed corporate entity, even as his bourgeoning waistline and priceless collections suggest the threat of monopolistic power. Having lost a good stake of her own corporate stock, Undine becomes essentially an employee. She helps Moffatt acquire de Chelles' tapestries, and she will continue to help him increase and display his capital. Her young son Paul similarly moves from exploitable asset, under Undine's care, to future business partner, under Moffatt's. By creating Undine as a voracious corporate personality bested at her own game, Wharton ultimately emphasizes the shift in patriarchal tactics from the old entrepreneurial to the new managerial corporate capitalism.
(1) Wharton began writing The Custom of the Country in late 1907 or the spring of 1908 and worked on it intermittently even after its serial publication in Scribner's Magazine began in January of 1913. During the intervening years she published Ethan Frome (1911), The Reef (1912), and a series of stories. Wharton partially blamed the relatively weak sales of Ethan Frome on Scribner's poor printing and advance advertising. When Scribner's didn't agree to her price for the serial rights of The Reef, she choose to publish the novel with D. Appleton and Company, under a contract that Morton Fullerton helped negotiate. She returned to Scribner's to publish The Custom of the Country the following year.
Due to his mental illness, infidelities, and financial blunders, Teddy was becoming increasingly unbearable to live with, and Wharton filed for divorce in 1913. (While Wharton was in Paris in June 1912, Teddy had sold The Mount rather abruptly.) Wharton began her affair with Morton Fullerton in 1908. See R. W. B. Lewis, Edith Wharton: A Biography (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), Cynthia Griffin Wolff, A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton (New York: Oxford Univ. Pres, 1995), and, most recently, Shari Benstock, No Gifts From Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton (New York: Scribner's, 1994).
(2) Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), 213.
(3) I am indebted here to Dale Bauer, who defines "cultural dialogics" as "the varying intensity of a writer's engagement with material history as revealed through the layers of cultural references with which a writer deepens her work; moreover, cultural dialogics reveals how internalized the cultural voices are even as the writers interprets and evaluates their directives in orchestrating among cultures a `dialogic encounter.'" Dale Bauer, Edith Wharton's Brave New Politics (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1994), 4.
(4) Walter Benn Michaels, "Corporate Fiction: Norris, Royce, and Arthur Macen," in Reconstructing American Literary History, ed. Sacvan Bercovitch (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1986), 194.
(5) Edith Wharton, Sanctuary (New York: Scribner's, 1903), 84.
(6) Edith Wharton, The Fruit of the Tree (New York: Scribner's, 1907), 300. Hereafter cited parenthetically.
(7) Edith Wharton, The Reef (1912; New York: Macmillan, 1987), 13. Undine was likely modeled after Selma White, the heroine of Robert Grant's best-selling Unleavened Bread (1900). Socially ambitious yet ever provincial, Selma rationalizes her own morally dubious ascent to social prominence. In a letter to the novelist, Wharton praised his own "objective" portrayal of certain American types: "Selma, I think her as good in her way as Gwendolen Grandcourt. Every stroke tells, & you never forget the inconscient quality of her selfishness; you never fall into the error of making her deliberately false or cruel ... `Unleavened Bread' in fact seems to me one of the best American novels I have read in years." R. W. B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis, eds., The Letters of Edith Wharton (New York: Scribner's, 1988), 41.
(9) Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country, (1913; New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1956), 208. Hereafter cited parenthetically.
(10) Josephine Donovan, After the Fall: The Demeter-Persephone Myth in Wharton, Cather, and Glasgow (University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1989), 71.
(11) Debra Ann MacComb, "New Wives for Old: Divorce and the Leisure-Class Marriage Market in Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country," American Literature 68 (1996): 767.
(12) Wolff, 244.
(13) See my article "`Survival of the Best Fitted': Selling the American New Woman as Gibson Girl," ATQ 9 (1997), 73-87.
(14) Peter Wyckoff, Wall Street and the Stock Markets: A Chronology (1644-1971) (Philadelphia: Chilton Book Company, 1972), 47-48.
(15) As cited in Sereno S. Pratt, The Work of Wall Street (New York: D. Appleton, 1912), 396-97.
(16) Martin J. Sklar, The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890-1916 (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988), 11.
(17) Benstock, 62.
(18) Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance (New York: Appleton, 1938), 94.
(19) Mary Suzanne Schriber, "Darwin, Wharton, and `The Descent of Man': Blueprints of American Society," Studies in Short Fiction 17, no. 1 (1980): 36, 38.
(20) Edith Wharton, French Ways and Their Meaning (New York: Appleton, 1919), 102-3.
(21) The Collected Short Stories of Edith Wharton, Vol. 1, ed. R. W. B. Lewis (New York: Scribner's, 1968), 347.
(22) Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871; Princeton: Princeton Univ. Prss, 1981), 372.
(23) Vernon L. Kellogg, Darwinism To-Day (London: Holt, 1908), 374.
(24) See letter to Sara Norton, May 29 , in Letters, 146: "On board ship I've been deep in Kellogg's Darwinism Today, which is admirably done (do you know it?) & am following it with Lock's Heredity & Variation."
(25) Kellogg, 73.
(26) Kellogg, 382-83.
(27) Robert Heath Lock, Recent Progess in the Study of Variation, Heredity, and Evolution, 4th ed. (New York: Dutton, 1916), 291.
(28) Cynthia Eagle Russett, Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1989), 158.
(29) Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, 2nd ed. (1874; Chicago: Rand, McNally, 1974), 225, 227, and 559.
(30) Russett, 160.
(31) Darwin (1874), 100.
(32) See Martin J. Sklar's The United States as a Developing Country: Studies in U. S. History in the Progressive Era and the 1920s (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988).
(33) Wharton, The Collected Short Stories, 368.
(34) Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth (1905; New York: Norton, 1990), 251.
(35) Wolff, 238.
(36) Ellen Dupree, "Jamming the Machinery: Mimesis in The Custom of the Country," American Literary Realism 22, no. 2 (1990), 5-16.
(37) Undine's susceptibility to reversion may also be due to the "crossing" of her parents. In his chapter "Mendelism," Lock writes: "The phenomenon of so-called reversion on crossing has long been familiar to biologists.... The phenomenon consists in the appearance, in the offspring of a cross, of a character which was not visibly present in either parent, and in many cases this character can properly be regarded as ancestral--it is a character which has been lost by both parents in the course of their divergent evolution from a common primitive form." Recent Progress, 202-3.
(38) Kellogg, 374.
(39) Lock, 35.
(40) MacComb, 782.
(41) Edith Wharton to W. Morton Fullerton [May 1910], Letters, 215.
(42) Letters, 220.
(43) Benstock, 270.
(44) Quoted in Benstock, 261.
(45) Edith Wharton, letter to Mary Cadwalader Jones, February 1912. Edith Wharton Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University.
(46) Edith Wharton, letter to Edward Wharton, July 6-8, 1910. Edith Wharton Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University. Wharton's literary earnings were considerable. According to Benstock, Wharton earned $42,790.06 in 1906, although only a third of that in 1907. She earned $14,000 in 1908. In October of 1913 Scribner's paid $6,000 for serial rights and a royalty advance of $7,500 for The Custom of the Country (Benstock, 284).
(47) Charles Scribner's Sons, adverstisement in The Atlantic Monthly, January 1913: "Edith Wharton's New Novel on Sale in Every Bookstore in the Country."
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|Author:||Patterson, Martha H.|
|Publication:||Studies in American Fiction|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1998|
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