So, we are ready for serious book talk once again. And, really, Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” is a great place to start this.
Beside the ominous “Year Without a Pulitzer” in 1920, there’s a reasonably streamline transition between the 1919 winner (reminder: Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons) and Wharton’s. Both center on well-to-do families, each very caught up with their role in society—and furthermore, the role of other families in society. And additionally, at the end of each novel we have members of these very high class, wealthy families struggling to understand how the world has changed around them, thus changing the entire way their known society operates.
I suppose this makes sense. While the narratives do not take place at the same time, Tarkington and Wharton were writing at nearly the same time. They were living in a world that was changing. They were living through changes in society, class, and industry. It is natural, then, that their literature would reflect this. It probably only seems to strike suck a reminiscent chord now because it is not the time we live in (though, we are going through our own changes—which, I guess, will be evident to future generations from our own writings).
Now, if I recall correctly, the qualifying factors we have talked about thus far in our Pondering the Pulitzer process, we want our books to be timeless and applicable to the masses. On some points, yes, Wharton’s 1921 winner passes the test. However, there are also several points of miss on timelessness and wide appeal. There is no doubt that no matter the time period or circumstance, there are human emotions we may always echo. We understand jealousy, distrust, shame, and love just as Wharton’s characters do. Though, I suppose it doesn’t matter to us quite as much if someone wears their brand new clothes right away or not (apparently, in The Age of Innocence circles, you ordered dressed from Paris, then waited two years to wear them appropriately).
Wharton’s ending does shed a light on this. Main character Newton Archer’s children are grown, experiencing a different world, and one that is a far cry from his only thirty years earlier. Gee, the world does change dramatically. Archer, surprisingly, just sort of goes with the flow. Maybe this is because in his relative youth, he was so apt to want to break social norms…though he never really does. The fact that Archer is aware of a different life, and does not wind up following this path he wanted to blaze for himself, is a huge point of the novel. And Wharton’s ending, while initially glazed over me, is actually really wonderful. I made a paragraph of notes about it. I think it works on many levels, and I wonder how many Wharton intended.
Overall, I enjoyed this. It was a grower. Originally, I just languished through it. But by midway, I wanted to stop other things I was doing to read it. I wanted to be around May and Countess Olenska, and even Archer…though, I began to dislike Archer more and more. Then, at the end, he regained my smile.
This was great. I suggest it. And what makes me very happy about it is this: Wharton is our first woman Pulitzer for Novel winner, but far from the end. Just wait: this decade of the 1920s is packed with women, and I mean that in not a dirty way, and it makes me happy.
But, first, before the ladies, we are ready to go back to Booth Tarkington one more time next week.
If you want to talk to me about my Pulitzer reading (or anything really), you can contact me at LauraPondersthePulitzer@gmail.com or twitter ( @l_hallman )
Happy reading, doves!