The Touchstone by Edith Wharton

Title: The Touchstone
Author: Edith Wharton
Published in 1900

The Touchstone is Wharton’s first published novella.

Edith Wharton has long been one of my favorite authors. I first read The Age of Innocence on the heels of the Scorsese adaptation, starring Winona Ryder and Michelle Pfeiffer, which was released back in 1993, and fell in love with the rich interior lives of her characters. After a more recent reread, I added The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, Summer, and Glimpses of the Moon to my list.

One of my friends recently hosted a read-along of Wharton’s second published full-length novel, The House of Mirth. I didn’t participate in the read-along, but reading her posts, I realized that I wanted to get back to Wharton and finish off some more of her lesser works. The only major work that I haven’t already read is Ethan Frome, which has been on my TBR for years. Wharton, though, is one of those authors who can be read and reread endlessly. Her books increase in resonance and complexity on reread.

Years ago, when I was new to kindle, I bought one of those omnibus kindle editions that claims to be the “complete” works of Edith Wharton. It’s actually not – Wharton wrote far enough into the twentieth century that not all of her books are out of copyright, so some of her later novels/novellas are missing. In addition, as it turns out, I don’t really like reading omnibus editions. I like to be able to see where I am in the flow of book (beginning/middle/end) so that I can better understand where I am in the story. However, one of the benefits of the compilations is that I can access books that are otherwise fairly inaccessible. Some of Wharton’s late, forgotten novels, might be difficult to lay my hands on.

In any case, though, The Touchstone is long out of copyright, so it’s included in my compilation and that’s how I was able to read it. It was her first published novella, is around 125 pages long, and is the first of her stories set in “Old New York,” a location and era that she understood well. The book’s protagonist, Glennard, is a classic Wharton character – a young(ish) man, a bit on the fringes of the best old New York society, and a bit impoverished. He has fallen in love with Alexa Trent but doesn’t have enough money to marry. He has opportunities to invest, but lacks the money to take advantage of them.

As he’s reading a magazine one day, he sees that there has been an increasing interest in the letters of Mrs. Margaret Aubyn, an author with whom he carried on a long and very intimate correspondence. She was in love with him, he was not in love with her. Her story was a bit reminiscent of Mrs. Olenska, from The Age of Innocence – she had married unwisely, and was at least emotionally abused by her husband, whom she ultimately fled. Glennard sees an opportunity to make quite a bit of money by selling the letters for publication, and carries out a private sale. The letters are published in two volumes without an indication of who had received the letters, and are avidly read by his society circle, who are both titillated and condemnatory of the person who violated Mrs. Aubyn’s trust by publishing the letters.

There is a lot of depth to this short story. Glennard is initially uncomfortable about publishing the letters, and as he makes more money off of the breach of trust, his discomfort increases until it begins to destroy his marriage and his self-conception, both of which have been tainted by his decision to sell the letters. Both Glennard and Alexa are emotionally frozen and unable to work through the issues that arise – Glennard thinks that Alexa has figured out where his money comes from, but is unable to breach the subject with her because he is so ashamed and he is convinced that she will hate him if she knows. Alexa can tell that something is wrong, but isn’t aware what it is until she figures it out. We are pretty much only in Glennard’s head, so Alexa is the literary equivalent of a marble statue, which is pretty much how Glennard thinks of her. When Alexa receives her own copy of the book and reads the letters with great interest, the walls that Glennard has put up to shield himself from his own shame fall.

“He sank into a chair, staring aimlessly at the outspread papers. How was he to work, while on the other side of the door she sat with that volume in her hand? The door did not shut her out – he saw her distinctly, felt her close to him in a contact as painful as the pressure on a bruise.

The sensation was part of the general strangeness that made him feel like a man waking from a long sleep to find himself in an unknown country among people of alien tongue. We live in our own souls as an unmapped region, a few acres of which we have cleared for habitation; while of the nature of those nearest us, we know but the boundaries that march with ours.”

As always, Wharton’s writing is utterly exquisite. I don’t think that I’ve ever read anyone who writes with such detailed lavishness about the interior emotional lives – stunted, repressed, shamed – of her characters. She is like one of those medieval monks who does illuminations of tiny corners and single letters. Her understanding of a specific type human nature is immense. She couldn’t write the stories that someone like Willa Cather writes – all huge skies and open spaces. Both writers, though, excelled at demonstrating the complexity of human beings – Cather’s outwardly simple characters were, in actuality, deeply complicated.

Which brings me to the rest of this post, where I transition to comparing Wharton and Cather, because I always think of them as counterpoints to one another. I must not be the only one to have made this connection – the well-known literary biographer Hermione Lee has written books about both women. Their bodies of work couldn’t be more different, but at the same time, I can’t help but relate them to one another.

Edith Wharton was born on 1/24/1862, Cather a little more than ten years later, on 12/7/1873. Wharton published her first novel, The Valley of Decision, in 1902, Cather published her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, again approximately ten years later, in 1912. They won Pulitzers two years apart, Wharton first, for The Age of Innocence, in 1921, Cather for One of Ours in 1923. Wharton died on August 11, 1937 at age 75, Cather died ten years later, on April 24, 1947, at age 73.

I’ve intentionally decided to forgo reading challenges for next year, so that I can read whatever I want without regard to trying to check off boxes. When I first started blogging, I was a project reader, but I’ve fallen away from that in the last few years. Since I’ve got an open schedule, and a mind for a project, I’ve decided to do a Wharton/Cather project. Starting with The Touchstone, published in 1900, my general plan is to read the works of both women in the order in which they were published. Some of them will be rereads – I read a lot of Cather about four years ago, and I’ve held onto all of them. This rather front loads with Wharton, although a lot of those are quite short. It’s possible that I may jiggle the early order so that I can get to Cather’s work without reading 7 Wharton’s in a row. It also doesn’t include the short stories published by either woman, and I may just pick those up as the whim takes me.

In order:

1900: The Touchstone by Edith Wharton
1902: The Valley of Decision by Edith Wharton
1903: Sanctuary by Edith Wharton (novella)
1905: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
1907: The Fruit of the Tree by Edith Wharton
1907: Madame de Treymes by Edith Wharton (novella)
1911: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (novella)
1912: Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather
1912: The Reef by Edith Wharton
1913: O Pioneer by Willa Cather
1913: The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
1915: The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
1916: The Triumph of the Night by Edith Wharton
1916: The Bunner Sisters by Edith Wharton (novella)
1917: Summer by Edith Wharton
1918: My Antonia by Willa Cather
1918: The Marne by Edith Wharton
1920: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
1922: One of Ours by Willa Cather
1922: The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton
1923: A Lost Lady by Willa Cather
1923: A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton
1924: Old New York by Edith Wharton (4 short stories)
1925: The Professor’s House by Willa Cather
1925: A Mother’s Recompense by Edith Wharton
1926: My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather
1927: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
1927: Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton
1928: The Children by Edith Wharton
1929: Hudson River Bracketed by Edith Wharton
1931: Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather
1932: The Gods Arrive by Edith Wharton
1935: Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather
1938: The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton (unfinished)
1940: Sapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa Cather

As always, my reading projects are subject to change and are completely open-ended in terms of when (if) it will ever be finished.

Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather

Review previously published in January, 2014.

Title: Alexander’s Bridge
Author: Willa Cather
First published in 1912

Plot summary from Goodreads: Alexander’s Bridge, Willa Cather’s first novel, is a taut psychological drama about the fragility of human connections. Published in 1912, just a year before O Pioneers! made Cather’s name, it features high society on an international stage rather than the immigrant prairie characters she later became known for. The successful and glamorous life of Bartley Alexander, a world-renowned engineer and bridge builder, begins to unravel when he encounters a former lover in London. As he shuttles among his wife in Boston, his old flame in London, and a massive bridge he is building in Canada, Alexander finds himself increasingly tormented. But the threatened collapse of his marriage presages a more fatal catastrophe, one he will risk his life to try to prevent.

Barely more than a novella, Alexander’s Bridge is Cather’s first novel. It is always interesting to see the seeds of genius in an author’s early work, and this book is primarily interesting for that reason. The story itself is a bit of wish-fulfillment: set internationally, in London, Canada and New York, the main character Bartley Alexander is a man of accomplishment.

The preface to my edition was written by Willa Cather herself, in 1922, and beings:

It is difficult to comply with the publisher’s request that I write a preface for this new edition of an early book. Alexander’s Bridge was my first novel, and does not deal with the kind of subject matter in which I now find myself most at home. The people and the places of the story interested me intensely at the time when it was written, because they were new to me and were in themselves attractive. Alexander’s Bridge was written in 1911, and O Pioneers! the following year. The difference in quality in the two books is an illustration of the fact that it is not always easy for the inexperienced writer to distinguish between his own material and that which he would like to make his own.

The preface goes on from there, in the same insightful vein. Two things jump out at me in this passage. First, Cather herself is able to acknowledge that this book is qualitatively less as compared to her next book. I’ve not read O Pioneers!, although I plan to and soon, but having read My Antonia, One of Ours and Death Comes for the Archbishop, all later, and very different, works, I am in total agreement with her assessment. She did grow as a writer, and a great deal. I’m also fascinated by the fact that she referred to the writer in the masculine, when she herself is a woman, and is more or less talking about herself.

With respect to this book, it is worth reading because it was written by Willa Cather and Willa Cather is always worth reading. Having said that, she is at her best when she is writing about the prairie and men and women who are eking out a hardscrabble life on it. She is able to imbue their struggle with a nobility and beauty that is unique to Cather.

This book is ordinary, by comparison. It tells a story that, in essence, has been told hundreds of times before by dozens of skilled writers – a story of a wealthy man who builds great things in great cities, and who finds himself undergoing a rather trite and somewhat embarrassing midlife crisis that is inconsistent with his greatness. The middle aged man with feet of clay is a story that has been told before, and Cather brings little new or fresh to it. Bartley Alexander’s struggles with his penis and where he wants to put it, and his commonplace experience of being torn between two lovers, feeling like a fool, are as yawningly boring as the 1976 pop song that tells the same story, or the guy that you know on Facebook who just dumped his wife of twenty years for the girl he knew in high school because his wife just doesn’t understand him.

Conclusion: It’s Cather, so, yeah, it’s good. But her other stuff is so much better.

And, as an aside, these Vintage Classics editions are completely gorgeous!

Portrait of an Artist as a Young Woman

This is an old review from 2016. I am closing down a blog, and republishing book reviews that fit this blog theme prior to deleting the old one.

Title: The Song of the Lark
Author: Willa Cather
First published in 1915

Plot Summary from Goodreads: In this powerful portrait of the self-making of an artist, Willa Cather created one of her most extraordinary heroines. Thea Kronberg, a minister’s daughter in a provincial Colorado town, seems destined from childhood for a place in the wider world. But as her path to the world stage leads her ever farther from the humble town she can’t forget and from the man she can’t afford to love, Thea learns that her exceptional musical talent and fierce ambition are not enough.

It is in the solitude of a tiny rock chamber high in the side of an Arizona cliff–“a cleft in the heart of the world”–that Thea comes face to face with her own dreams and desires, stripped clean by the haunting purity of the ruined cliff dwellings and inspired by the whisperings of their ancient dust. Here she finds the courage to seize her future and to use her gifts to catch “the shining, elusive element that is life itself–life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose.” In prose as shimmering and piercingly true as the light in a desert canyon, Cather takes us into the heart of a woman coming to know her deepest self.

Richly imagined, Cather’s third novel is an exploration of the passion of the artist and the strength of youth. Her main character, Thea Kronborg, child of immigrants from Moonstone, Colorado, has all of the brazen energy and boundless potential of her prairie town. She is the exceptional child in a family of many children, the others quite ordinary, a girl so relentlessly herself that the triumphant arc of her life has a feeling of inevitability, in spite of the many obstacles that she must overcome with the force of her mind and character.

The early part of the book concentrates on her time spent in Moonstone. Even as a child, many of her friends and acquaintances seem to recognize in Thea something to be nurtured. Dr. Archie, the unhappily married town doctor, introduces her to great writers, and spends time with her – in an entirely uncreepy way, thankfully – helping her intellectual development along. Her mother ensures that she has what music lessons are available, and private space in which to practice, which is a luxury in a home of at least five children. Thea herself possesses all of the engaging hubris of the child, confident in her future.

Of this child, laying in her attic room, at home, Cather says:

Life rushed in upon her from that window – or so it seemed. In reality, of course, life rushes from within not without. There is no work of art so big or so beautiful that it was not once contained within some youthful body, like this one which lay on the floor in the moonlight, pulsing with ardour and anticipation. [page 129]

Thea is a character who bursts with possibility. I can’t help but contrast Cather’s writing with Edith Wharton, another woman who was writing very different books at nearly the same time, and compare Thea to Lily Bart. Where Lily is frozen and constricted, an expensive piece of carved marble, Thea is red-blooded and expansive, fully human. Where Wharton’s characters are limited by complicated societal rules, Cather’s characters, like her landscape, are boundless and free.

When Thea is 15, her family, along with Dr. Archie, arrange for her to leave Moonstone to study music in Chicago, after she inherits a small life insurance policy from a friend. She finds herself on the train, headed east:

She smiled — although she was ashamed of it — with the natural contempt of strength for weakness, with the sense of physical security which makes the savage merciless. Nobody could die while he felt like that inside. The springs there were wound so tight that it would be a long while before there was any slack in them. The life in there was rooted deep. She was going to have a few things before she died. She realized that there were a great many trains dashing east and west on the face of the continent that night, and that they all carried yong people who meant to have things. But the difference was that she was going to get them! That was all. Let people try to stop her! She glowered at the rows of feckless bodies that lay sprawled in the chairs. Let them try it once! [page 200]

Thea bursts off the page, with her her self-confidence, her fearlessness, and her prodigious talent. Cather writes the western experience better than any other author I have ever encountered, with the possible exception of Wallace Stegner. Growing up under open skies has an impact on her characters, and she ensures that the reader understands this. You look at the world differently when you’ve lived in a place where you can stand and mark the curve of the world untouched by signs of civilization.

It was over flat lands like this, stretching out to drink the sun, that the larks sang — and one’s heart sang there, too. Thea was glad that this was her country, even if one did not learn to speak elegantly there. It was, somehow, an honest country, and there was a new song in that blue air which had never been sung in the world before. [page 202]

Her time in Chicago moves her further along the path to musical success, and one of her teachers discovers that rather than piano, it is her voice that is truly remarkable. Ultimately, over the next several sections of the book, Thea leaves Chicago, studies in Germany, and returns to New York a fully-fledged opera singer. I am again reminded of Wharton – her Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Age of Innocence begins in an opera house, where Newland Archer is knuckling under to the societal pressure that he must marry, and he must marry a young woman who is, in many ways, the polar opposite of Thea Kronborg. When Cather speaks to Thea through Fred Ottenburg, Thea’s married lover and greatest supporter, she might be speaking about May Welland:

Don’t you know that most of the people in the world are not individuals at all? They never have an individual idea or experience. A lot of girls go to boarding school together, come out the same season, dance at the same parties, are married off in groups, have their babies at about the same time, send their children to school together, and so the human crop renews itself. Such women know as much about the reality of the forms they go through as they know about the wars they learned the dates of. They get their most personal experiences out of novels and plays. Everything is second hand with them. Why, you couldn’t live like that.” [page 327]

Among Cather’s longest books, The Song of the Lark moves quickly through Thea’s development as an artist and represents a remarkable character study of a young woman who is unbowed by convention. As I continue with my Willa in Winter project, I plan to return to some of the themes that Cather is developing in this book, as my understanding deepens through further reading. I’ll end this review with Thea’s words:

She rose impatiently and walked to the edge of the cliff. “It’s waking up every morning with the feeling that your life is your own, and your strength is your own, and your talent is your own; that you’re all there, and there’s no sag in you.” [page 290].

I can’t help but feel that Willa Cather had no sag in her, either.