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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Celebrate the centennial of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome

Edith Wharton began writing Ethan Frome as an exercise to improve her grasp of idiomatic French while she was living in Paris in 1907. Set aside for several years, it was the source of great pleasure when she returned to it in 1910, as she recalled in A Backward Glance (1934):
The book to the making of which I brought the greatest joy and the fullest ease was Ethan Frome. For years I had wanted to draw life as it really was in the derelict mountain villages of New England, a life even in my time, and a thousandfold more a generation earlier, utterly unlike that seen through the rose-coloured spectacles of my predecessors, Mary Wilkins and Sarah Orne Jewett.
She seemed bemused by what she was creating, writing to Bernard Berenson that the story had become:
That ridiculous nouvelle, which has grown into a large long-legged hobbledoy of a young novel. 20,000 long it is already, and growing. I have to let its frocks down every day, and soon it will be in trousers!
Wharton completed the work early in 1911, and it was serialized in the August through October issues of Scribner’s Magazine. She made further revisions and corrections in the proofs for the book, which was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons on September 30.

The publication of A House of Mirth in 1905 had caused a sensation and by 1911 Wharton had developed a devoted following—but Ethan Frome was something different: a frame-tale of marital unhappiness, with an ending of shattering violence, as biographer Hermione Lee describes:
For readers more familiar with The House of Mirth or The Custom of the Country, Ethan Frome comes as a shock, and this is not just because of the dramatic switch from her usual territory to the remote hills and poor farmers’ lives of nineteenth-century New England. What is just as startling is its quietness, what Henry James admiringly called its “kept-downness.” Ethan Frome is a story of silence and speechlessness. Voices and feelings are all “snowed under.” (The first French translation, which she oversaw, was titled Sous la Neige.) The characters live inside “dumb melancholy” and “secretive silence,” broken by sudden outbursts of long-repressed emotion.
Shortly after publication, Wharton was  indeed delighted to receive Henry James’s assessment:
I exceedingly admire, sachez Madame, Ethan Frome. A beautiful art & tone & truth—a beautiful artful kept-downness, & yet effective cumulation. It’s a “gem”—& excites great admiration here.
Another fan, Theodore Roosevelt, wrote her that the novel was “one of the most powerful things you have done.”

Ironically, many reviewers praised Ethan Frome specifically because they found it so unJamesian. The reviewer for The Nation wrote “we might have been reasonably content to rank her as the greatest pupil of a little master, were it not for the appearance of Ethan Frome.” And in Current Literature: “She has long been supposed, as the New York Sun puts it, to worship Henry James on her knees. Now, says that paper, she is standing on her feet.”

Other reviewers, however, like England’s Saturday Review, found the ending too upsetting: “Having read the story, we wish we had not read it. The error is in the end. There are things too terrible in their failure to be told humanly by creature to creature.”

Initial sales were slow, just 4,000 copies by mid-November and Wharton complained to her publisher, Charles Scribner, about the lack of advertising, poor distribution, and bad typesetting. Scribner responded by pointing out that fiction of a nonstandard length was always unpopular and unprofitable. Wharton would have her revenge, satirizing him in Hudson River Bracketed (1929) as the publisher Mr. Dreck who “didn’t know a meaner length” than forty-five thousand words.

Of course, selling well is the best revenge and the story has proved one of the most popular of Wharton’s works and over the years has been adapted for stage, television, film, and opera.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Edith Wharton: Novellas and Other Writings (includes Ethan Frome)

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