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Posts Tagged ‘Edith Wharton’

Staff Picks: Surveillance, Silence, Pseudocide

August 12, 2016 | by

From Will You Dance with Me?

Our colleague Bobby sent me back to Edith Wharton’s novel of 1870s New York, The Age of Innocence. What struck Bobby (I’m paraphrasing) was the air of heavy surveillance: the action begins in an opera box, under the scrutiny of hundreds of eyes, and basically stays there. It feels oddly contemporary. At the same time The Age of Innocence is, very self-consciously, an historical novel. That’s what struck me: it appeared in 1920, almost fifty years after the events it describes, and belongs to that fun subgenre of novels—e.g., A Journal of the Plague Year, Middlemarch, Swann’s Way—that imagine what the grown-ups were actually up to when the author was a kid. —Lorin Stein 

When City Lights was preparing to publish the first edition of Julio Cortázar’s poetry in English in 1997 (it’s number fifty-three in the Pocket Poets series), Ferlinghetti wanted to produce a lean volume. In doing so, he cut the essay “For Listening Through Headphones,” which Cortázar begins by mourning the “pre-echo” on some records that mars “the brief night of the ears as they get ready for the fresh irruption of sound.” It’s funny that an essay that more than once uses the play of light and darkness to illuminate sound would be omitted from a book titled Save Twilight. But this month, City Lights is reissuing the volume, now heftier, thanks in part to the restoration of “For Listening” (and other poems that were left out from the original). In addition to being mesmerizing and utterly gorgeous (“now the needle / runs through the former silence and focuses it / in a black plush … a phosphene silence”), the essay links the experience of hearing music through headphones to poetry’s innate intimacy: “How not to think, then, that somehow poetry is a word heard through invisible headphones as soon as the poem begins to work its spell.” —Nicole Rudick Read More »

Steer Clear of the Hotel Know-It-All, and Other News

July 26, 2016 | by

It’s this easy!

  • I’m tired all the time, which is why I’m so popular. Reviewing Anna Katharina Schaffner’s new Exhaustion: A History, Hannah Rosefield unpacks the durable notion of exhaustion as a status symbol: “Many critics, even as they call for a cure, frame exhaustion as a mark of distinction. This idea dates back at least to Aristotle. ‘Why is it that all men who have become outstanding in philosophy, statesmanship, poetry or the arts are melancholic?’ he wonders in Problemata … The associations of exhaustion with prestige have crystallized in the form of burnout. First used in the 1970s to describe exhaustion suffered by workers in the social sector, burnout was characterized by increased cynicism and apathy, and a decreased sense of personal accomplishment. Since then, its application has widened to include all worn down, overburdened workers, especially in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, where burnout is a subject of regular media debate. Burnout, caused by workplace conditions rather than by a worker’s mental and physical composition, is depression’s more palatable, more prestigious cousin.”
  • I’d long assumed that one could never enter one’s average house cat in a pageant. Only the purebreds could know the thrill of the blue ribbon, I thought. The calicos and tabbies of this earth were doomed to the mundane. But I was wrong, as Omar Mouallem taught me: “I got over the stench of piss at the Edmonton Cat Show pretty quickly. It’s not so much my nostrils that adjusted but my eyes, to rows and rows of beautiful creatures. Plump British shorthairs smiled in their sleep and regal sphynxes owned their ugly … [The International Cat Association] has been showing and awarding titles to non-purebred domestic cats—even the maligned black ones—since its 1973 beginnings. It’s a stark contrast to the practices of the 110-year-old Cat Fanciers’ Association, which for decades didn’t even bother hosting the category. The association now emphasizes it like TICA, and in the last three years finally started giving non-purebred cats Grand Championship titles equal to pedigrees. The hope is that it will curb the cat fancy world’s declining entries and revenues.”
  • Today in old advice that’s still good advice: If you, an aspiring artist, want to take the road to success, don’t stop off at the Hotel Know It All, the Mutual Admiration Society, or the Always Right Club. Tunnel through Lack of Preparation Mountain and for God’s sake watch your step around the Holes of Illiteracy and Conceit. A 1913 allegorical map called the Road to Success “turns the figurative journey towards artistic triumph into a cartographic depiction of an actual climb towards victory … Taking shortcuts won’t get you anywhere except to the bottom of the River of Failure, which threatens to sweep away anyone who’s not up to the challenge of putting in hard work. And don’t just blow hot air, or you’ll end up in the clouds.”
  • Here’s the time-tested way to gin up your crummy sci-fi flick: pretend it’s a western. In Star Trek Beyond, writes Richard Brody, “the words Republic and Federation are intoned like mantras to position the mission in quasi-American terms; the name Yorktown links the space combat of Star Trek Beyond to the existential, the primordial, and the revolutionary—the fight to retain independence in the face of a force that would snap it back in, engulf it in a dictatorial order, and milk it as a mere source of sustenance … The self-celebration of a legacy property’s sequel has rarely been framed in such starkly civic terms: the link between the historical continuity of the American federation and the personal continuity of family is the cultural continuity of Star Trek and pop music—and, for that matter, of classic Hollywood. Buy a ticket, keep America safe and free.”

The Native Henry James

February 26, 2016 | by

February 28 marks the hundredth anniversary of James’s death.

Photo: Alice Boughton, 1916.

Henry James died in London, at the age of seventy-two, on February 28, 1916, in the midst of World War I. His funeral was held at Chelsea Old Church on March 3, with a mostly British congregation of mourners—though his sister-in-law Alice, widow of his brother, the philosopher William, was in attendance, having crossed the war-torn ocean when she heard of his illness.

The U.S. had not yet entered the war—the issue was controversial, and indeed, James and his old antagonist Theodore Roosevelt, who had long denounced him as un-American, had found common cause in their indignation at their country’s prolonged neutrality. This caused particular tension on James’s death, because the novelist had taken British nationality in July 1915, an implicit protest against America’s refusal to join the conflict. As he had written to his fellow American-in-London John Singer Sargent just after the event, “It would really have been so easy for the U. S. to have ‘kept’ (if they had cared to!) yours all faithfully, Henry James.” He had finally grown tired of waiting for America to end its neutrality, and felt he needed, by this gesture, to end his own detachment from the conflict. The memorial in Chelsea Old Church tactfully describes him as “a resident of this parish who renounced a cherished citizenship to give his allegiance to England in the first year of the Great War”—the “cherished” insisting from the grave that James had been a good American. Read More »

The Age of Innocence, and Other News

October 14, 2015 | by

Edith Wharton’s baby rattle.

  • Today in profligacy: for a cool $16,500, you could own Edith Wharton’s one-of-a-kind sterling-silver baby rattle, which she gave to the only child of Leon and Germaine Belugou on her christening in 1920. It’s got a whistle at one end with EDITH engraved on the lip. Oh, and it’s decorated with three bells. Oh, and it has a piece of coral at the end, which was apparently used for teething. Oh, and it’s housed in a custom-made black-cloth clamshell box lined with purple velvet with a black leather gilt-stamped label on the spine.
  • You know that famous photograph of Eve Babitz, the one Julian Wasser took of her playing chess in the nude against Marcel Duchamp? If you’re wondering, it was taken on October 7, 1963, at the Pasadena Art Museum, and she’s finally willing to talk about it: “I’m sitting there, smoking like crazy, pretending to be bolder than I am, and then Marcel shows up. He’s wearing this beautiful suit, and he has this gay little straw hat on that he must’ve bought in Las Vegas, and he has these charming eyes that were very detached. Julian says he’s ready and I drop the smock, and Julian must’ve been afraid that I was going to have second thoughts, because he kicked the smock way across to the other side of the room. Marcel and I sat down in front of the chess board, and he says, ‘Et alors,’ which means, ‘You go.’ And so I did, and he checkmated me in a single move. It’s called fool’s mate. And I was upset because I thought I had a chance because of my tits, but I didn’t.”
  • In last week’s staff picks I mentioned Mark Davis, who collected years and years of prerecorded in-store “Kmart Radio” tapes and then put them all on the Internet. Someone got the full story from him: “I was sixteen years old and Kmart was my first job, which lasted for ten years … When working in a retail store with a looping program, you hear the same songs over and over. And then you hear the same songs when you stop in to get your paycheck. And you hear them when you go to the store to visit friends when off the clock. Whether you initially like a song, artist, or genre or not, it really grows on you after hearing it over and over. That’s what happened to me at the store, and I started liking the songs as they were predictable and helped the day along. I loved Kmart as a company … I decided to go behind the service desk and look at the store’s sound system. I saw the October 1989 tape sitting next to the cassette deck and a reel-to-reel deck, which was decommissioned but still present. I thought to myself—why not take this tape as a keepsake for the first month at my first job?”
  • Why is it that the same people who drone on and on about the future of “digital storytelling” are the ones who pay no attention to video games as a vehicle for said storytelling? Don’t these people have eyes? “The forums, summits, breakout sessions and seminars on ‘digital literature’ [are] run by exceedingly well-meaning arts people who can talk for hours about what the future might be for storytelling in this new technological age … without apparently noticing that video games exist. And they don’t just exist! They’re the most lucrative, fastest-growing medium of our age. Your experimental technological literature is already here … Games often manage to be both great art and an economic powerhouse; we’re doing ourselves and the next generation a disservice if we don’t take that seriously.”
  • It’s never too late for a takedown. Here’s a broadside against Henry David Thoreau, 153 years after his death—because what was with that guy, anyway? “The most telling thing he purports to abstain from while at Walden is companionship, which he regards as at best a time-consuming annoyance, at worst a threat to his mortal soul. For Thoreau, in other words, his fellow-humans had the same moral status as doormats … The poor, the rich, his neighbors, his admirers, strangers: Thoreau’s antipathy toward humanity even encompassed the very idea of civilization … Why, given Thoreau’s hypocrisy, his sanctimony, his dour asceticism, and his scorn, do we continue to cherish Walden?”

The Death of the Pay Phone, and Other News

September 22, 2014 | by


A man in a Miami retirement community uses a pay phone, 1973. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

  • It’s Banned Books Week. Read something that some prudish bureaucrat condemned as mind-polluting trash. The options are nearly endless
  • Woolf v. Wharton: “Critics exalted Dalloway as an important advance in literature. In the Saturday Review, the critic Gerald Bullett unfavorably compared Wharton’s latest, A Mother’s Recompense, with Mrs. Dalloway, calling Woolf ‘a brilliant experimentalist,’ while Wharton was ‘content to practice the craft of fiction without attempting to enlarge its technical scope.’ ” Wharton was stung by the slight, and disapproved of modernist experimentalism—but it may have goaded her into attempting a “stunning narrative maneuver” in The Age of Innocence.
  • Among Nabokov’s “menagerie” of pet names for Véra: Gooseykins, Pussykins, Monkeykins.
  • Graham Greene’s 1952 open letter to Charlie Chaplin, defending him against trumped-up charges from the House Committee on Un-American Activities: “I suggested that Charlie should make one more appearance on the screen … He is summoned from obscurity to answer for his past before the Un-American Activities Committee at Washington—for that dubious occasion in a boxing ring, on the ice-skating rink, for mistaking that Senator’s bald head for a rice pudding, for all the hidden significance of the dance with the bread rolls … at the close of the hearing Charlie could surely admit to being in truth un-American and produce the passport of another country, a country which, lying rather closer to danger, is free from the ugly manifestations of fear.”
  • Doomsday for NYC pay phones: “Next month in New York City, a contract will expire that requires the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) to maintain the city’s 8,000 remaining pay phones.”


Cover Your Eyes—Pubes! and Other News

July 15, 2014 | by


Leena McCall’s Portrait of Ms Ruby May was recently removed from a gallery for its supposedly offensive depiction of pubic hair. Image via Slate

  • Ninety-eight years ago this month, Edith Wharton published Summer, a steamy novella “with a plotline that includes sex outside of wedlock, an unplanned pregnancy, and a truly disturbing relationship between a teenage girl and her guardian.” It was not well reviewed.
  • Nor, apparently, was When Harry Met Sally, which, though it eventually ascended into the rom-com pantheon, was widely dismissed when it came out twenty-five years ago. Terrence Rafferty wrote, “The debate, of course, is too shallow to engage us, but they might have tried providing a little plot … When Harry Met Sally positions itself comfortably in the middle of nowhere and casts knowing directions in all directions.”
  • On Virginia Woolf’s conception of privacy: “Many people accept the idea that each of us has a certain resolute innerness … What interested Woolf was the way that we become aware of that innerness. We come to know it best, she thought, when we’re forced, at moments of exposure, to shield it against the outside world.”
  • Today in prudery: in London, the Society of Women Artists’ annual exhibition featured a portrait by Leena McCall, which depicted—trigger warning!—a bit of pubic hair. But don’t worry! Calm down! The painting was summarily removed because it was “pornographic” and “disgusting.”
  • In the nineties, Prodigy was one of the most successful Internet companies around, an “interactive personal service” that finally went belly-up in 1999, taking with it “the written record of a massive, unique online culture, including millions of messages and tens of thousands of hand-drawn pieces of digital art.” Now one man has recovered some of that early Web culture.