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Monday, January 24, 2011

Is Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence the greatest novel about New York?

Writing in New York Magazine earlier this month, Sam Anderson made the case that the “best novel about New York” is not one of the “encyclopedic ambition bombs that attempt to capture, New Yorkily, the full New Yorkiness of New York”—he puts Manhattan Transfer, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Underworld, Invisible Man, Winter’s Tale, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay in this category. Instead, Anderson finds that “the single greatest New York novel is the exact opposite.”
[The Age of Innocence] builds itself, obsessively, out of all the essential New York themes. The necessary (but often terrifying) seesawing between change and stasis. The constant drama of taste and class; the connoisseurship of gossip. (One man, preparing to dispense a particularly juicy bit, gives “a faint sip, as if he had been tasting invisible Madeira.”) The shiny lure of fantasy versus the sharp hook of reality. The giant shell game of phoniness and authenticity. The existential strain of distinction versus assimilation—that yearning to be free (one of Wharton’s keywords) but also to belong to a social tribe (another of her keywords). The agonizing, paradoxical struggle to feel like a special individual in a city of millions.
In her acclaimed biography of Edith Wharton (whose birthday is today), Hermione Lee offered some other clues on why The Age of Innocence may resonate with readers today:
Her survey of the age uses, and describes, surveillance. Like The House of Mirth, this novel is all about being watched. It describes a society of spies and observers, and attempts at secrecy and concealment. It is a drama with spectators (in a society dedicated to inaction and leisure) which starts in an opera house with an audience watching itself more than it is watching the stage, and ends with the figure of a solitary watcher, unable to act. . . In the very small theatre of activities that is 1870s New York, privacy is a figment.
Lee also identifies the appealing “double act” the narrator performs:
Wharton is like one of the watchers in the novel who applies to the affairs of his friends “the patience of a collector and the science of a naturalist.” . . . The page is thick with knowing allusions to details of the time, swiftly footnoted so as at once to familiarize us with vanished customs, and to make fun of them . . . The narrating voice is knowingly, even affectionately, close to what it describes (“the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy”) yet has a historian’s remoteness and a taste for (still applicable) ironic generalizations: “Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.”
So does this resolve the question of which is the greatest New York novel—or is there an argument to be made for another candidate?

Also of interest:
  • The Huffington Post recently posted a slide show of its editors’ sixteen candidates for “the greatest New York novel”
  • Read how Edith Wharton skewers women’s book clubs in “Xingu, the current Story of the Week
Related LOA works: Edith Wharton: Novels, Novellas, Stories, and Other Writings (4 volumes—plus a free book)


  1. Although Fitzgerald's eternal classic "The Great Gatsby" is not a New York novel, per se, it immediately springs to my mind whenever a discussion of New York in literature is brought forth. Here, for example, are some of narrator Nick Carraway's musings about NYC:

    “I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye. I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove ... At the enchanted metropolitan twilight, I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others.”

    Nick, Jordan Baker, Tom and Daisy Buchanan lunch at the Plaza Hotel, and they later drive through the Valley of Ashes and across the Queensboro Bridge:

    “Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.”

  2. Hm. I think I would go with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos. :)


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