On or around December 1910, human character changed. — Virginia Woolf
Modern fiction really began when the “action” of the novel was transferred from the street to the soul. — Edith Wharton
To some, including John Colopinto, it seems evident that Virginia Woolf is modern and experimental, while Edith Wharton remains dusty and conventional and, as Colopinto puts it, “an old fashioned writer.” He concludes that, “The Age of Innocence more closely resembles that of Jane Austen than the work of an avant-garde like Joyce.” However, it turns out that here as well as in William Carlos Williams’ famous wheelbarrow poem, “so much depends” upon how readers shape what is experimental and what is not.
Initially, Colopinto centers his article about an alleged feud between Wharton and Woolf. The idea of their entrenched personal rivalry went public when Woolf included Wharton in her disparagement of expatriate American writers in her 1925 “On American Fiction,” in which she faulted many contemporary non-British writers for becoming basically clones of the British. Woolf makes this unforgiving comment, quipping: “They do not give us anything we have not got already.” “They” here refers to what some have snidely denigrated as “these transplanted authors.” In consummate contrast, Woolf is full of praise for Walt Whitman, “the real American undisguised.”
Wharton was perturbed by this perceived attack from Bloomsbury, and specifically in an essay “Permanent Values in Fiction,” she responds to Woolf’s comments, “Mrs. Virginia Woolf writes a long article….to say that no interesting American fiction is, or should be, written in English, and that Henry, Hergesheimer [sic] and I are negligible because we have nothing new to give, not even a language! Well—such discipline is salutary.” Wharton denies being a blind follower of new European trends, “I was not trying to follow the new methods.” The essence of Colopinto’s essay is to make a point about artistic influence. His essay see-saws between support of Woolf’s experimentalism and his fascination with one unexpected scene in Wharton’s 1920 The Age of Innocence which fascinates him. The fact that this scene comes before Woolf’s 1927 To the Lighthouse convinces him that perhaps there is a lurking Wharton “influence” on Woolf’s celebrated novel.
He gives his version of Woolf’s complex response to Modernism, including her rather slow-coming acceptance of Joyce. Edith Wharton comes across here as invisible, aging and somewhat irrelevant, except for that one amazing scene. He continues the influence motif so far as to infer that perhaps Woolf “was sufficiently swayed” by Joyce ”as to attempt” Mrs. Dalloway, to try stream of consciousness and Joyce’s method of situating a novel in a day. He even comments that Woolf was perhaps “under the influence of another displaced American writer,” T. S. Eliot. The overall tone of this essay confirms for me that many Woolf readers simply automatically minimize the achievement of Edith Wharton, whose writing is formidable, far-reaching, and daring, as is her adventurous life. (Immediately, my 1960’s mind realizes that these are two Aquarian writers, born January 25 and January 26, who belong quite differently to the magical Age of Aquarius.)
Colopinto’s thesis in short is that Woolf must have read Wharton’s Age and been influenced by one major event in Wharton’s final chapter which he ecstatically praises as
a thrilling, disorienting leap across time… a breathtaking vault across thirty years that brings us, in the space of a single sentence from the library of Newland Archer’s Thirty-ninth Street townhouse to that selfsame library three decades later, and in which the readers learns that Archer’s wife, May, has died—a blow all the more stunning for the casual way in which it is revealed, almost as an aside, some four pages into the chapter, one so unique that he is not aware of anything so brilliant until six years later when something similar in Woolf’s To The Lighthouse appears.
In short, he, following in the tradition of Harold Bloom, attempts to convince his readers that Woolf must have read “aging-author” Wharton and been influenced by the ingenuity of her “stunning” conclusion. Without prolonging your suspense too long, this scene in The Age of Innocence refers to the belated, totally unexpected, announcement of the death of a major woman character which had occurred years before off stage. Colopinto is impressed indeed by “old fashioned” Wharton’s ability to surprise and shock us so cavalierly and smoothly. In Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsay’s death similarly is told about, but this time in a bracket. Colopinto incorrectly names this as parenthesis, which he does with respect to all the bracketed comments in Woolf’s central section, “Time Passes.” Actually the fact that these major events happen in thick brackets is significant to the traumatic events in Woolf’s unusual middle section. Colopinto finds it credible to believe that Woolf would have to have read Wharton’s novel since Wharton was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In short, he surmises that Woolf was influenced by Wharton to have Mrs. Ramsay die off stage, just as he suggests that she conceded to write Mrs. Dalloway in a single day like Joyce’s Ulysses and to use stream of consciousness also, like Joyce. In general, both women authors are treated bit as though they were two grand dames, and not the two highly educated mind-boggling major novelists each was. In spite of all such influence theories, both Aquarian writers excel differently in presenting simultaneous actions, mental and physical, in the most subtle exciting narrative ways.
In her major essay, “Modern Fiction,” in The Common Reader, Woolf states eloquently:
the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it.
Wharton and Woolf share this awareness of a new accent which shapes their writing profoundly in ways Colopinto’s influence comparison misses out on. First, stream of consciousness is a term much bandied about and often inadequately understood. People generally think of it as a free flow of one character’s wholly spontaneous inner perceptions. Instead, in To the Lighthouse, Woolf tries something more difficult, what Erich Auerbach once called “multi-personal representation of consciousness.” That is, we might get tidbits of one mind and immediately tidbits of another mind, all folding and interfolding into the great flowing of language in a giant narrative palimpsest. Remember that Woolf once wrote of connecting the caves of her characters’ interior thought. Throughout the rest of her writing, Woolf works with new ways of bringing what we know as now to the surface.
Similarly, for Wharton, “the accent” also “falls differently than of old.” Her improvisation is sometimes a bit harder to see. For reasons other than her supposed anachronism, she rejects purely Modernist techniques such as routine stream of consciousness for what she perceives as its lack of artistry, what she finds a kind of artistic clumsiness. She sees much of Modernist writing, including that of her beloved Henry James, as overwhelmed by artificial technique. She comments carefully here on why she is averse to following modernist methods of stream of consciousness:
The stream of consciousness method differs from the slice of life in noting mental as well as visual reactions, but resembles it in setting them down just as they come, with a deliberate disregard of their relevance in the particular case, or rather with the assumption that their very unsorted abundance constitutes in itself the author’s subject. (The Writing of Fiction, 12)
Wharton wants, like Woolf, an interconnected presentation of perception, not an “unsorted” one. What she achieved in The Age of Innocence has been seldom recognized–where she radically casts Newland Archer as her reflecting consciousness for the most part, thrilling the reader when they find nuanced inner thought and response on his part surrounded in parenthesis, ellipses, and italics. (Incidentally, I hope to write a book explaining how Archer is the narrative center. To date, I have convinced no one.)
Because so much depends upon how and what one sees, Colopinto’s anxiety of influence oriented conclusion seems to have obfuscated some of his perceptions. For instance, when Mrs. Ramsay dies in To the Lighthouse, and when Prue and Andrew die as well, we hear of it in the heavy-weight of impervious brackets. Colopinto refers these intentional brackets as a “parenthetical aside,” another as “a similarly offhand parenthesis.” Woolf and Wharton are two women writers who most determinedly seek to present a new way of knowing and a new way of being in spite of the limitations due to gender or personal tragedies. Woolf’s magnificence as conceptual writer is much better known than Wharton’s: her essays on modern fiction, her essay on Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, groundbreaking stories in” Monday or Tuesday” which write over predictable linear time and three-dimensional place.
Equally importantly, Edith Wharton created powerful critical studies regarding the writing of fiction, dreamily mystical, culturally astute, travelogues and some fabulous concepts of ways to see the world freshly, she gives, for one, the best definition I’ve ever seen of impressionism and proposes a magical zone she calls the Fourth Dimension:
That mysterious fourth-dimensional world which is the artist’s inmost sanctuary and on the threshold of which enquiry perforce must halt; but though that world is inaccessible, the creations emanating from it reveal something of its laws and processes….To the artist his world is as solidly real as the world of experience, or even more so, but in a way entirely different; it is a world to and from which he passes without any sense of effort, but always with an uninterrupted awareness of the passing. Unless he keeps his hold on this dual character of their being, visionary to him, and to the reader real, he will be the slave of his characters\ and not their master. (The Writing of Fiction 85, 120)
She had a life-long obsession with creativity, what she calls the “fine point of the soul,” “Exactly what happens at the ‘fine point of the soul’ where the creative act, like the mystic’s union with the Unknowable, really seems to take place? (Backward Glance 121). She also wrote one of the finest anecdotes about creative writing I’ve ever seen.
Every artist works, like the Gobelins weavers, on the wrong side of the tapestry, and if now and then he comes around to the right side, and catches what seems a happy glow of colour, or a firm sweep of design, he must instantly retreat again, if encouraged yet still uncertain; and once the work is done, and he hopes to contemplate it dispassionately, the result of his toil too often presses on his tired eyes with the nightmare weight of a cinema “close-up.” (Backward Glance 197)
Although Colopinto makes one mention of Wharton’s “startling originality,” on the whole, it is disappointing to find the scales so tilted against Wharton who was known as a powerhouse of energy and a startling intellect.
In writing this piece, I had to summarize way too much. The entire topic of what it meant to be a Modernist writer still has much sorting out to do in our time. For one thing, many still separate form and content, so that some writers are called experimental because of their fragmented characters and others experimental because of their fractured sentences. For all living back then in the early twentieth century (and now dare I add), the times they were a changin’, and the accent certainly fell differently than of old. The big excitement for us is to find out how these writers dealt individually with the new in that exciting adventure of their own writing.