Saturday, July 05, 2008

Rebecca West review of The Glimpses of the Moon: "As Dust in the Mouth"

I thoroughly enjoyed Edith Wharton's The Glimpses of the Moon but there have been too many real life distractions this week for me to work up a decent post for the discussion. I'm providing instead (in lieu of in addition to) a review Rebecca West wrote about the book back in 1922 in hopes that the rest of you haven't moved on and still feel like discussing it.

The West review is harsh as were most of the reviews at the time of publication. According to James W. Tuttleton in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, "[w]ritten for the Pictorial Review, a slick periodical aimed at American housewives, The Glimpses of the Moon marked a steep decline in Mrs. Wharton's powers. While some reviewers gave the obligatory nod to Wharton's stylistic powers, Ruth Hale memorably defined the critical view that would seal the book's fate: 'Edith Wharton has no business to be writing such trash.' "

The book sold more than one hundred thousand copies in six months.

Notes on Novels: The Glimpses of the Moon

Every now and then some writer--either critic or novelist--announces that the novel is an art-form that is played out. The statement is, of course, not true.... But one can understand the mood of despair that makes people declare that all is up with the novel when one reads Mrs. Wharton's The Glimpses of the Moon.

Nothing more competent than this book could possibly be imagined. Mrs. Wharton has left undone nothing which she ought to have done; and on the other count, of doing nothing that she ought not to have done, her score is even higher. It has flashes of insight, as in that scene at the end of the book where the husband and wife, after a separation that has nearly terminated in their divorce, are sitting quietly together, and the husband's mind ranges back to the partners whom they had tentatively selected for consolation and remarriage. He thinks of the girl who had been willing to marry him, who will be cruelly disappointed by his return to his wife, with compunction and tenderness; and he is shocked by his certainty that his wife has utterly banished from her mind all thoughts of her dismissed suitor, whose goodness and affection deserved respect. But he remembers the next moment that whereas he had treated the girl very nearly like a cad, his wife treated her suitor with sincerity and courage. It is the neatest possible exhibition of the essential differences between Nick and Susy Branch. Yet, for all these occasional reminders that the hand that wrote this wrote Ethan Frome, and for all its perpetual, vigilant competence, the book is a dead thing. It is as well done as it possibly could be; but it is not worth doing. There is a very great temptation to say that since here is a novel which is written with supreme accomplishment and which is as dust in the mouth, there must be something wrong with the novel as an art-form. But if one examines the case more closely the failure of The Glimpses of the Moon may be seen to proceed, not from any inadequacy of the novel, but from two circumstances attending on the development of Mrs. Wharton's talent, which act on it as adversely as if they were innate defects.

The first of these is that Mrs. Wharton was born in America at exactly the wrong time. One does not mean that it was unfortunate that Mrs. Wharton was able to win (as she did with The Age of Innocence) the thousand-dollar Pulitzer prize.... Though indeed this is unfortunate, for that there is something within Mrs. Wharton which responds to this note is demonstrated by her choice of a title, for with a certain lack of sympathy with Dr. Donne she uses the line as a metaphor for the fleeting vision of the moral good which two persons pursue through the obscurities of a murky environment. But the real misfortune of Mrs. Wharton's uprising is that it happened at a time when fastidious spirits of the kind to which she markedly belonged were obsessed by a particular literary method, and in a place where every day revealed situations which were bound to attract an eager intelligence of the kind she undoubtedly possessed but which could not be appropriately treated by that favoured method. The method was that of William Dean Howells and Henry James. The situations were those arising out of the establishment of the American plutocracy; and they were large, bold situations, blatancies in a marble setting, that could not be dealt with by the method that in Mr. Howells' hands was adjusted to the nice balancing of integrities in a little town, and in Mr. James' to the aesthetic consideration of conduct in a society where the gross is simply put out of mind. The moral problem in The Glimpses of the Moon is as coarse as one can imagine anything self-consciously concerned with morality possibly being. Nick and Susy are two penniless persons of charm who find it easy to pick up a good living by sponging on their millionaire friends. They fall in love and marry, and then their way of living suddenly fails them, for it involves them in actions which people in love cannot bear to see each other performing. They sulk over it. They separate. Each meditates divorce and a mercenary marriage. They are drawn together and toward independence by a certain fundamental worthiness in both of them. About this situation of crude primary colours Mrs. Wharton writes with an air of discussing fine shades in neutral tints. It is as disconcerting as if, say, Mrs. Gaskell had written Mary Barton in exactly the same style as Cranford.

The second circumstance of Mrs. Wharton's uprising which has been adverse to her development was the unfashionability at that moment of the truth that novelty is a test of the authenticity of art. Tradition is a necessity to the artist; he must realise that he is only a bud on the tree. The America into which Mrs. Wharton was born was almost extravagantly conscious of that necessity, destitute as it was of traditions, terrified lest ill-advised patriotism should hinder it from affiliation to European tradition. But he must also realise that no bud is exactly like another bud. Imitation has its place in life; it is of considerable service in enabling people who have beautiful things in their minds, but who are not possessed of the necessary initiative to find the shape for them.

Source: Rebecca West, Notes on Novels: 'The Glimpses of the Moon', in New Statesman (© 1922 The Statesman Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. XIX, No. 490, September 2, 1922, p. 588. Reprinted in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 9.


Rebecca H. said...

Well, I guess she didn't like it ... :) I didn't find that the novel was a "dead thing," as she says; it felt lively and meaningful to me. I do see what she means when she talks about the crude primary colors and fine neutral tins -- I suppose she does have a very simple premise which she treats with great subtlety, but I enjoyed that aspect of the book ...

Anonymous said...

Wow - well, I guess this is encouragement to everyone who writes. Even Wharton got sniffy reviews from time to time that were about the prevailing mood amongst the literati rather than about her work. It's not such a fine book as The Custom of the Country or The House of Mirth, but it was extremely enjoyable!

SFP said...

I wonder if West would have been half as nasty if Wharton hadn't just come off of winning the Pulitzer.