Sunday, March 15, 2009

Tribal Codes and Customs

Edith Wharton, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for "The Age of Innocence", is one of my favorite authors. She had the rare ability to tell a story with amazing prose, detailed character development and descriptions that brought a time and place, long gone, to vivid life. In 1924, she wrote four short novels in a collection called "Old New York". The stories are set in New York City in the last four decades of the 19th century. The stories deal with Edith Wharton’s well known themes of infidelity, illegitimacy, jealousy, the plight of women in the 19th century, and the rules and decorum of society in New York in the 1800’s.

The first story "False Dawn :The 'Forties", is the sad tale of a young man who is sent by his domineering father on the customary year of travel to enter manhood. His father gives him an honored task to undertake on his travels and all the money he needs to accomplish the task. The young man discovers himself as he travels and uses his new found confidence to accomplish the task with creativity and courage. But when he returns to New York he learns that the world he comes from has no room for creativity and free thinking.

The best known story of the collection is "The Old Maid: The 'Fifties". It is vintage Wharton. A young woman of tenuous social standing has an illegitimate daughter. Her cousin, who has married well, convinces the distraught young woman to let her raise the child. What happens as this mother watches her child grow up and become entangled in the social mores and decorum of old New York is told in the wonderful, intimate and singular style of Edith Wharton who herself was raised on Fifth Ave. in New York in the late 19th century.

"The Spark: The 'Sixties", is the story told by a young man who emulates an older man in his social set. He is not certain what it is about him that he finds so interesting. As the story unfolds we find that the older gentleman was a soldier wounded in the civil war. While recuperating in a hospital in Washington a man came to visit him. It was this chance encounter with a famous man that helped form Mr. Delane’s character and gave him a special aura that set him above the other men in that social set in New York in the 1860’s.

The last story and possibly the most interesting is "New Year’s Day: The 'Seventies". A fire breaks out in the famed Fifth Ave. Hotel. Across the street the esteemed Parrett family are celebrating New Year’s Day. As the large family gathers at the windows to watch the fire they observe a young married woman of their social set hastily leaving the hotel with a man not her husband. The story that follows is one that grips the reader as they learn why Lizzie Hazeldean was in that hotel on that day with Henry Prest. Edith Wharton understood the plight of woman in society in this time in history. She gives her woman characters choices and often the determination and strength to live with those choices.

Edith Wharton was a masterful observer of the customs and codes of New York society in the late 1800’s. I really enjoyed revisiting Edith Wharton with her unique talent to tell a great story.

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