The event was held in the library of Anderson House, a mahogany-and-brass room lined with leather-bound books and the heads of Ivory-statued males staring forbiddingly at anyone daring to penetrate their space. It seemed an ideal venue to discuss the oeuvre of someone who grew up in this kind of patriarchal environment and spent a lot of time criticising it both implicitly and explicitly.
As the proceedings unfolded, so I became increasingly uncomfortable, physically as well as literally. The majority of the papers were delivered by speakers with no sense of environment; rather than concentrating of the sociology of Wharton, past or present, or reflecting on how the situation might reshape our understanding of her, they mostly stuck to the kind of character analysis that I though had been abandoned long ago in literary criticism.
I was wrong. Years ago D. H. Lawrence advised his readers not to look in twentieth century novels “for the old stable ego of character.” This dictum could apply equally to Henry James or Edith Wharton. I have found the latter two authors especially in the way they eschew characterisation in favour of psychology: few of us are coherent in our behaviour, and this trait is embodied in many of their characters.
At this conference, however, one or the chief pastimes consisted of reading as many symbols into the text as possible. This sentence had purposely been written this way to emphasise the ancient art of symbol-hunting, a sport beloved of critics since the New Critical era. Even if you believe in the Barthesian notion of the death of the author, you too can show off your wisdom and learning by squeezing every gram of symbolism out of your selected text.
I am not suggesting that authors refrain from resorting to the technique; but I do believe that symbol-hunting actually deflects attention away from texts and authors and onto critics. The ‘best’ at their job are those who uncover the most elaborate symbols that no one has previously thought.
When I began my career, I always used to be in awe of such people whose sensibilities seemed so much further developed than my own. Now I realise that symbol-hunting is at best pleasurable, at worst futile as it detracts from rather than enhances our imaginative engagement with a work.
It does not really matter about the symbols; what should concern us is the need to be drawn into the author’s world and the characters that people it. Their behaviour does not have to be ‘rational’ or ‘stable,’ or even ‘coherent’; it should engage us subliminally.
And it is this quality I found so lacking at the conference, whose participants preferred to challenge one another on their knowledge of the inner highways and by-ways of Wharton’s oeuvre rather than communicating any real sense of joy, passion, or even cultural awareness at being in the Anderson Library. I am not positing any either/or scenario here, but rather suggesting more emphasis on pleasure, on the instinctive and spontaneous thoughts – akin to stream of consciousness- arising every time we open a book.
Three days after the conference ended, I went to the Chicago Institute of Art and browsed among their extensive American art collection. Among the exhibits in the pre-20th collection were several paintings depicting the rarefied world of urban Washington: stylish, mannered, constricting. Looking at the women in their starched crinolines exchanging polite small talk while perched uncomfortably on heavy mahogany chairs offered immediate insight into Wharton's milieu and why she was so preoccupied with it, whether positively or negatively.
I am not in any saying that paintings are doing the work that literary critics should; but I do believe that scholarship has to emerge from its often incestuous ivory tower of ‘specialists’ and become more all-encompassing. In that way Wharton's reputation can be consolidated as well as enhanced.