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Friday, October 18, 2013

Wendy Wasserstein: Edith Wharton’s “desire to love & to look pretty”

Born sixty-three years ago, on October 18, Wendy Wasserstein (author of such plays as the The Heidi Chronicles and The Sisters Rosensweig) was taken from us much too soon. In 2001 she was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy and had to scale back her speaking engagements and workload. Then, in 2007, after battling lymphoma, she died at the age of 55.

First page of Wendy Wasserstein's speech,
found in the LOA files. (Click to enlarge.)
While organizing a trove of files for the Library of America archives, we came across the typescript for a speech by Wasserstein, with her handwritten notes over each of its three pages. A decade ago, on April 8, 2002, Wasserstein was one of six prominent writers who delivered a few remarks at the LOA’s twentieth-anniversary celebration, which took place at the The Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. Joining her on the stage were Gail Buckley, Michael Cunningham, Elmore Leonard, Richard Price, and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. The presenters were asked to speak about writers from the LOA series for whom they feel a special affinity. Wasserstein chose Edith Wharton, and her remarks appear below. (She opened with a reference to Henry Adams, the subject of Schlesinger’s comments.)

* * *
I think, I hope, that Henry Adams would be happy. I’m going to talk about Edith Wharton tonight, but first I want to say that Terrence McNally came by my house yesterday and he saw my shopping bag from The Library of America full of books and he said to me, “They are the best publishers of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, and I can’t tell you how much those volumes have meant to me.” So he was very jealous at first when he saw the shopping bags and then when he saw it was Edith Wharton, he calmed down.

The other thing I want to apologize a little bit for is my speech; I currently have Bell’s palsy and I was thinking tonight, what would an Edith Wharton character do in this case? And I thought Undine Spragg would think, who’s on the guest list tonight, and should I come there to be socially and literarily ambitious? And then I thought May Welland would have done the proper thing and taken to her bed. So actually what I do at most times in these cases is consult Edith Wharton herself. I actually have a letter of Edith Wharton’s that I keep above my desk, and I will read this letter to you. It is a letter she wrote after she received a request from the American Women’s Pen Association. She answered them:

Dear Madam,
I have received your kind note in behalf of the League of American Pen Women inviting me to the authors’ breakfast which you are to hold in April in Washington. Unfortunately, I had to postpone my visit to America and see no way of my being there this spring. Would you kindly tell your committee how much I am gratified by their invitation and how greatly I regret being unable to accept it. Please believe me.
Yours truly,
Edith Wharton
So in my mind, Edith Wharton did what she really wanted to do. Following Edith’s lead, my feeling was, I really wanted to come to The Library of America tonight, and therefore am here.

Future generations of readers have benefited from Edith Wharton’s ability to write “believe me” letters and stay home to write. Edith Wharton’s life spanned two centuries. She was born in 1862 in New York, and died in 1937. She lived in Paris for the last three decades of her life as an ex-patriot. Looking over her work in Library of America editions, what is remarkable is how prolific she was. She was the author of more than 40 published volumes, including novellas, poetry, war reporting, travel writing, and books on gardens and house décor. Recently, we’ve come to know Edith Wharton as almost an American Jane Austen, a basis for Merchant-Ivory and Martin Scorsese period films. Her works have become the costume dramas of a kind of Masterpiece Theater cinema. But if you read Edith Wharton, it’s far deeper and richer than that.

I first came across Edith Wharton when I was in high school. I frankly had no idea that there was a New York woman writer of that era who had written so much and written so well. In high school we had read Jane Austen. But we had never read Flannery O’Connor or very many other American women novelists, and on top of that I went to a women’s high school. I found Edith Wharton on my own actually, in Scribner’s bookstore. And when I came across her that first time, I read The House of Mirth, and I was amazed by it. I thought, I can’t believe someone did this and got the city so well, and pictured it so acutely, and I also remember thinking, I can’t wait until I’m older and I really know that this is right. And I read her again in college, The Age of Innocence, and again I went to a women’s college, and we weren’t really studying very many women writers then either.

And so Edith Wharton became more and more of a beacon light to me. As I read more Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, those authors who were thought to know about class and money, to my mind Edith Wharton knew just as much and more. To my mind, she was like Chekhov, because she knew about a society in which class was changing. She knew about a society, beginning with details like spoons and forks, place-cards, and suddenly expanding to the much larger aspects of life and how that society was changing. As I began writing plays, Edith Wharton’s knowledge of a New York dinner party seemed to me like Chekhov’s knowledge of afternoons at a Russian dacha, and who came to sit and have tea and how things changed regarding love and marriages, all beginning with those smaller moments.

What I came across as I was looking through Edith Wharton in the Library of America collection was the autobiographical fragment [“Life and I”] that had never been previously published, and I’m just going to read a little bit of this to you because I thought it was extraordinary. It begins:

My first conscious recollection is of being kissed in Fifth Avenue by my cousin Dan Fearing.

It was a winter day, I was walking with my father, & I was a little less than four years old, when this momentous event took place. My cousin, a very round & rosy little boy, two or three years older, was also walking with his father; & I remember distinctly his running up to me, & kissing me, & the extremely pleasant sensation which his salute produced. With equal distinctness, I recall the satisfaction I felt in knowing that I had on my best bonnet, a very handsome bonnet made of a bright Tartan velvet with a white satin ground, with a full ruffling of blonde lace under the brim. Thus I may truly say that my first conscious sensations were produced by the two deepest-seated instincts of my nature—the desire to love & to look pretty.
She then goes on to say that that yearning to be pretty was not vanity, but rather an idea to look at the world as harmoniously composed. And I thought that yearning for both love and prettiness could be discarded in a politically correct manner of the writing of a privileged woman, or you could look at it in another way, of a woman actually telling the truth, and saying that this is what I see in this world. And as I look at photos still in style pages, on party pages, documenting life in New York, I think, Edith Wharton knew somewhere there is a subtext of looking for love and wanting to look pretty. And it’s an honor to talk about her tonight. Thank you very much.

Previously on Reader’s Almanac
Elmore Leonard: John Steinbeck “set me free”

Arthur Schlesinger Jr.: Henry Adams's predictions for the future

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