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2. Transnationalism and Modern American Women Writers
II/ Defamiliarizing Home, Modernity, and Modernism

The Uses of Boundaries: Edith Wharton and Place

Virginia RICARD


Souvent présentée comme un écrivain cosmopolite, Edith Wharton était néanmoins convaincue de l’utilité des frontières. Certes, ses personnages sont souvent mobiles et ceux qui ne le sont pas semblent parfois être pris au piège dans un espace circonscrit. Mais le pire des destins pour Wharton était d’être sans abri. Dans son œuvre, les lieux ont une signification qui n’est pas en rapport avec leur dimension (“The Look of Paris”) ; l’attachement au lieu est nécessaire à l’accomplissement individuel et encourage la tendresse à l’égard d’autrui (Lily Bart dans The House of Mirth) ; il favorise aussi le développement des arts (French Ways and Their Meanings). Même le sinistre Starkfield, dans Ethan Frome, n’est pas qu’une prison dans laquelle naît une “morale de l’inertie” comme le prétend Lionel Trilling.

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  • 1 Louis Gillet (1876-1943) was an art historian and the art editor for the Revue des deux mondes. His (...)

1Among modern American women writers, Edith Wharton presents an unusual case. When she died in France, where she had spent half her adult life, her friend and translator, the Académicien Louis Gillet1, wrote an obituary in which he noted the breadth of her interests:

  • 2 The French reads: “Personne n’était moins enfermé dans sa tour d’ivoire. Jusqu’au bout, elle conser (...)

She could hardly have been less confined to an ivory tower. Her lively curiosity, her insatiable thirst for life and beauty, her desire to learn, to admire and to feel, which had always been the driving force of her existence, remained active in her to the very end. All art, all poetry, all nobility were her concern and she kept herself informed about literature everywhere. She was a great European, a citizen of the universe2. (Gillet 1)

2Wharton was “a great European,” yet she never forgot that she was American. Gillet goes on to repeat a story Wharton liked to tell, commenting that her “cosmopolitan turn of mind did not prevent her from being American to the core.”

  • 3 “Ce tour d'esprit cosmopolite ne l’empêchait pas d’être américaine jusqu’aux moelles. Combien elle (...)

She was indignant when, during her last journey [to the United States], a customs officer took the liberty of asking her “how long” she had been gone! To be asked this by a civil servant, whose parents had been Bulgarian immigrants perhaps! What an insult! “They can't imagine that one might be born in America!” she would exclaim mournfully. (Gillet 2)3

  • 4 “Pour elle, elle faisait partie de cette aristocratie […] qui a ses titres dans l’histoire de l’Ind (...)
  • 5 A slightly edited version of this speech appeared in the Times Literary Supplement (February 14, 20 (...)
  • 6 The French reads, “Elle était présente dans les fondations de la République” (Gillet 2).

3“In her own mind,” Gillet explains, Wharton “was part of an aristocracy […] whose credentials go back to American Independence and America’s heroic and spiritual history (Gillet 2)4. Although she never made any claim to a patrician past, Wharton was, to be sure, proud of her early American origins. In a lecture in French given before a Parisian audience in 1918, she defined herself as “a descendant of the Dutch merchants [who founded New York] and of their English successors” (“America at War” 4)5. And her autobiography begins with a reminder that her great-grandfather had taken part in the Revolutionary War (A Backward Glance 782). Through him, says Gillet, Wharton “was present at the foundation of the [American] Republic” (Gillet 2)6.

  • 7 Raymond Recouly (1876–1950, also known as Jean Léry) was a writer and journalist who wrote for Le T (...)
  • 8 “Un mélange étonnamment réussi de culture anglo-saxonne et européenne, la connaissance approfondie (...)

4Three different points of view compete in Louis Gillet’s anecdote. Wharton sees herself as American by virtue of having been born in the United States but also by descent: her ancestors’ involvement in American history is what defines her. The—perhaps originally Bulgarian, second generation—American customs officer, on the other hand, has no use for history. For him, citizenship is merely an administrative matter. Finally, Gillet himself thinks of Wharton as a “citizen of the universe” because of her familiarity with “all art, all poetry, all nobility,” and with “literature everywhere.” As Raymond Recouly7 put it in another obituary, “an astonishingly successful mixture of Anglo-Saxon and European cultures, a profound knowledge of English, American, French, German, and Italian literature was, above all, what Edith Wharton’s talent and conversation revealed8” (Recouly 3).

5To readers familiar with Wharton’s novels, it comes as something of a surprise to learn that the customs officer’s question should have made Wharton “indignant.” Her satire of American vulgarity, her disparagement of American ignorance, her deprecation of American ways, in particular in The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country and The Age of Innocence, suggest a negative vision of the United States, a country one might well think she would have been glad not to be associated with. Yet, as I will argue here, although Wharton was certainly in one sense a “citizen of the universe,” her oeuvre cannot easily be defined as cosmopolitan. In spite of her mobility and what we think of as her modernity, in spite of her knowledge of the literature of many lands, Wharton was an American by birth, a Frenchwoman (although not a citizen) by choice, and an advocate and loyal partisan of place. Far from leading to what Lionel Trilling would call “the morality of inertia,” for her, attachment to place was what allowed the individual to develop a sense of kinship with others.


  • 9 Lukács used this expression at the beginning of the First World War. Fifty years later, in a prefac (...)

6Readers of portraits of Edith Wharton—from Percy Lubbock’s sketch to Hermione Lee’s biography—would be hard put to find evidence of an attachment to place in Lubbock’s “femme fatale” travelling in what he called her “chariot of fire” (Lubbock 13-14), or even in Hermione Lee’s “very housekeeperish” Wharton (Lee 756). What her biographers and most of her critics insist on, on the contrary, is her restlessness and her adaptability. Nostalgia, or what Georg Lukács calls “transcendental homelessness” (Lukács 40)9, the longing of all souls for the place in which they once belonged, seems to have had no place in Wharton’s make-up. When she discussed the decoration of houses, she urged that they should not resemble the homes she had been brought up in; when she came home from travels abroad, her letters reveal that it was because she had had enough of hotel life rather than because she was homesick. She travelled constantly and—as soon as technically possible—rapidly. And her evocations of the tribes of New York, Paris, or Massachusetts suppose distance: parochialism, whether that of the inhabitants of great metropolises like New York, or that of “derelict mountain villages” like Starkfield (A Backward Glance 1002), is the butt of her constant irony. Place, in Wharton’s novels, comes with endless restricting codes and conventions—sometimes even lethal—and it could be argued that Newland Archer is no less trapped than Ethan Frome. Only mobility allows escape; only movement can undo the limitations of place. And neither Newland nor Ethan is able to stir.


7We know, too, that Wharton opposed the idealisation of place, repudiating what she called the “rose-coloured spectacles” of her predecessors, local-colourists Mary Wilkins Freeman and Sarah Orne Jewett (A Backward Glance 1002). In her autobiography, she was plainly determined to present herself as coming after the local-colourists. She saw herself as more modern, but also as better informed, and readier to confront the naked truth—a better realist, in fact:

In those days the snow-bound villages of Western Massachusetts were still grim places, morally and physically: insanity, incest and slow mental and moral starvation were hidden away behind the paintless wooden house-fronts of the long village street, or in the isolated farm-houses on the neighbouring hills. (A Backward Glance: 1002)

8Wharton enjoyed confuting the “utterly unlike” “reflection of local life” to be found “in the rose-and-lavender pages” of New England “authoresses” and insists that Ethan Frome was “the book to the making of which [she] brought the greatest joy and the fullest ease” (1002). She is eager to show that she knew what she was talking about—that she was familiar with her “grim” subject. She adds that those who received her descriptions of “the colony of drunken mountain outlaws” in Summer “with indignant denial” “had forgotten to look into Hawthorne” (Wharton 1990b: 1002). She also insistently reminds us that Ethan Frome was composed abroad. Like Summer, also about Massachusetts, the novella was written in Paris: “during one of our summer sojourns at the Mount, a distant glimpse of Bear Mountain brought Ethan back to my memory, and the following winter in Paris I wrote the tale as it now stands” (A Backward Glance 1004). She even claims that the story began life in French, as an “exercise” for her French language classes. Acuity of vision, she implies, is the fruit of distance. And by distance we are not meant to understand merely kilometres. The setting of Ethan Frome was first drawn through the medium of another language—French—but, more important, it was seen from the perspective of another culture, and more precisely of classical French culture: “I had kept up the language chiefly through reading, and the favourite French authors of my early youth being Bossuet, Racine, Corneille and La Bruyère, most of my polite locutions dated from the seventeenth century” (A Backward Glance 1003). The authors Wharton specifically mentions, Bossuet, La Bruyère, Racine and Corneille were four of the major stylists of the French Grand siècle. Clearly, Wharton was no ordinary local “authoress.” What could be more cosmopolitan?

9That Wharton had the insight that distance affords is furthermore reflected in the way she frames Ethan Frome. Unsurprisingly, the story is partly told by an unnamed and unattached outsider with superior knowledge, a visitor who has what Tom Lutz has called a “cosmopolitan vista,” that is, an urban or even global perspective (Lutz 30). According to Lutz, a “visitor who frames, interprets, or invades the scene,” introducing an oscillation between local and global perspectives, is a common trope of modern American regional literature (81). Lutz sees the existence of such intercessors as evidence of the mutual dependence of literary regionalism and cosmopolitanism. In Lutz’s view, Ethan Frome is cosmopolitan by virtue of the “authoritative cultural edge” (81) that the outside view confers: “The urban visitor’s perspective is presented as in some ways clearly superior to the rural ones, but that perspective is far from stable and rarely reliable. The visitor does not, in the end determine our reading, but helps give the texts their cosmopolitan flavor, since the competing cultural views […] mirror and contend with one another” (30).


10Yet, clearly another impulse is at work in Wharton’s oeuvre. In spite of her own mobility, Wharton devoted much of her attention to place, to the positive influences of place, and to the need for attachment to place. Her first book, The Decoration of Houses, is a manifesto in favour of simplicity, practicality, comfort and, above all, “architectural fitness” (The Decorations of Houses xxii). She pays close attention not only to houses but to their various parts: “rooms may be decorated in two ways,” she begins, “by a superficial application of ornament totally independent of structure, or by means of those architectural features which are part of the organism of every house, inside as well as out” (xix). Time and again, she criticizes the “tendency of many modern decorators to sacrifice composition to detail, and to neglect the observance of proportion between ornament and structure” (98). This is the “housekeeperish” Wharton who has thought carefully about the material conditions of the good life. To promote beauty, comfort and practicality is to encourage the fondness of individuals for their surroundings. Later, in her novels and short stories, Wharton always endowed houses and their furnishings with significance: they are important signposts in all her fiction. In The Age of Innocence, for example, Mrs Manson Mingott’s toilet-table adorned with “frivolous lace flounces” (1037), the Eastlake furniture in Newland Archer’s library, the way Ellen Olenska arranges flowers in long thin vases, or the paintings in Mrs Archer’s dining room, tell us about characters in the novel. Living arrangements—Archer, for example, has a whole floor to himself while his mother and sister “squeezed themselves into narrower quarters below” (1042)—serve as objective correlatives, in this case of old New York attitudes to a privileged only son. And, as the final pages of The House of Mirth (1905) show, houses are also repositories of the past:

In whatever form a slowly-accumulated past lives in the blood—whether in the concrete image of the old house stored with visual memories, or in the conception of the house not built with hands, but made up of inherited passions and loyalties—it has the same power of broadening and deepening the individual existence, of attaching it by mysterious links of kinship to all the mighty sum of human striving. (House of Mirth 336)

11Thus, whether real or imagined, whether literal or metaphorical, houses are not only strongholds of tradition, they connect their inhabitants to others. In the same passage, there is an explicit critique of mobility. We are told that Lily Bart’s parents

[…] had been rootless, blown hither and thither on every wind of fashion, without any personal existence to shelter them from its shifting gusts. She herself had grown up without any one spot of earth being dearer to her than another: there was no centre of early pieties, of grave endearing traditions, to which her heart could revert and from which it could draw strength for itself and tenderness for others. (House of Mirth 336)

  • 10 Levinas, alluding to Heidegger, writes: “L’implantation dans un paysage, l’attachement au Lieu, san (...)

12Too much mobility has left Lily unprotected—without shelter—there is no place from which her heart can “draw strength for itself,” and the absence of a home has made her uncaring: there is no place from which her heart can draw “tenderness for others.” Place, according to this view, does not make us oblivious to the rest of the world. On the contrary, it is place that founds kinship and community of feeling. Place is what makes altruism and generosity possible. Unlike Emmanuel Levinas who, in “Heidegger, Gagarin et nous,” argues that the spirit of place, the genius loci, represents a danger for humanity (Levinas 349)10, Wharton shows that, instead of separating mankind into two hostile groups of natives and foreigners, place does precisely the opposite: it broadens and deepens the individual existence and thus attaches it, mysteriously, to the existence of others.

The war

13Attachment to place also explains Wharton’s engagement during the First World War, her loyalty to a city she was not born in but chose, and her unstinting contribution to “the mighty sum of human striving.” Wharton had made the connection between place and altruism long before the war, but that connection was realized or actuated only in 1914. The threat of destruction, the all too evident vulnerability of houses, homes, villages, whole cities and all they contained, convinced her of the importance of place and attachment to place, which she associated with the preservation of art and civilization itself.

14It would be an exaggeration to say that Wharton discovered the virtues of place as opposed to mobility only when Paris was threatened with destruction. Yet in August 1914, as the first essay in Fighting France—“The Look of Paris”—shows, Wharton grew more aware of all that place could contain. On her way back to Paris through the French countryside, she entered the cathedral at Chartres and discovered a world—a world enclosed and limited by the stones of the church, and yet connected to infinite space. “All that a cathedral can be, all the meanings it can express, all the tranquillizing power it can breathe upon the soul, all the richness of detail it can fuse into a large utterance of strength and beauty, the cathedral of Chartres gave us in that perfect hour,” she wrote (“The Look of Paris” 5). In contrast with the French countryside that Wharton had just observed outside, Chartres contained meanings incommensurate with its size. Inside, she discovered first “the dense obscurity of a church in Spain” (4), then “the sails of galleons bound for the Purple Islands,” then “a constellation in an African night”—a multi-coloured world in fact. Neither the “sober disciplined landscape” outside (3) nor “the long murmur of human effort, the rhythm of oft-repeated tasks” could have led her to imagine the magnitude of what the cathedral held. Paradoxically, in the case of Chartres, place does not constrict or confine. It does the opposite. It holds unlimited space. The landscape around it is merely flat and French, but the cathedral contains “ethereal harmonies” (5).

15In the same way, Paris could accommodate far more significance than its limited surface suggested. Wharton writes—again in “The Look of Paris”—that “the great city, so made for peace and art and all humanest graces, seemed to lie by her river-side like a princess guarded by the watchful giant of the Eiffel Tower” (6). Paris, in other words, is both precious and vulnerable. It requires protection. “There was something strangely moving” Wharton adds, “in this new Paris of the August evenings, so exposed yet so serene, as though her very beauty shielded her” (21). And Wharton’s description, in the same essay, of the people of Flanders wandering into Paris turns them into living signs of the city’s exposure to the danger of annihilation:

[O]ne sees these other people, dazed and slowly moving […] the great army of the Refugees. Their faces are unmistakable and unforgettable. No one who has ever caught that stare of dumb bewilderment—or that other look of concentrated horror, full of the reflection of flames and ruins—can shake off the obsession of the Refugees. The look in their eyes is part of the look of Paris. (The Look of Paris 33)

16These refugees had been forcibly separated from everything they knew and were attached to, and in 1915, homelessness struck Wharton as their ultimate tragedy: she very probably chose the title of her fund-raising collection of essays, poetry and art work, The Book of the Homeless, herself—thus drawing attention to the loss of home—rather than, say, The Book of Refugees, which would have insisted instead on flight from danger or persecution. In her preface to The Book of the Homeless, Wharton writes that the task of the American Hostels is “first and foremost, to help a homesick people” (xx, italics in the original). She seems to have been haunted, both here and in her war fiction, by the vision of people who refuse to leave their homes and villages, even when they are ruins. In the same preface she writes,

The flight from western Flanders began last April [1915], when Ypres, Poperinghe, and all the open towns of uninvaded Belgium were swept by a senseless and savage bombardment. Even then it took a long time to induce the inhabitants to give up the ruins of their homes; and before going away themselves they sent their children. (The Book of the Homeless xxii)

17It is surely significant too, that Wharton should offer the book itself as a house, calling it “a gallant piece of architecture,” that she invites the reader to enter (xxiv-xxv). Thus, The Book of the Homeless becomes a place, filled with art and music, built of disparate works. In the midst of turmoil it can, like Chartres, “breathe upon the soul” and “fuse into a large utterance of strength and beauty” (Fighting France 5).

Ethan Frome

18Still, there remains the devastating critique of immobility and of the perniciousness of place contained in Ethan Frome. We are repeatedly told in the novella, that neither Ethan nor Mattie can escape from Starkfield. They have nowhere else to go. They are the victims, the martyrs even, of place. Place is their moral compass, they submit to its laws, and in consequence they live out a life of pain and imprisonment. Place made them do it and place is their recompense: Ethan and Mattie remain trapped not only in Starkfield but in their crippled bodies.

19At this point, I must take on Lionel Trilling and what he called “the morality of inertia.” In his essay by that title, published in 1955, Trilling damns Ethan Frome and its author with faint praise: Wharton had a “strong if limited intelligence” (Trilling332); her book is a “dull” (337) “little novel” (339); it is “not a great book or even fine book” (331)—it is a “dead book,” in fact (333)—and its “high and solemn repute” is “in large part a mere accident of American culture” (332), that “satisfies our modern snobbishness about tragedy and pain” (332). Wharton’s “intention in writing the story was not adequate to the dreadful fate she contrived for her characters. She indulges herself” (333), he adds, and he concludes that she is cruel: “a certain propriety controls the literary representation of human suffering […] the literary representation of human pain may not be, as it were, gratuitous” (334). Aristotle’s specifications for the tragic hero were meant “to assure us that we observe something more than mere passivity when we witness the hero’s suffering, that the suffering has […] some meaning” (335). Unlike Wordsworth or Dickens or Flaubert or Zola, writes Trilling, Wharton’s story does not “require of us that we open our minds to a realization of the kinds of people whom suffering touches,” does not attempt “to shake us with the perception of social injustice” (336). “The best we can conclude of the meaning of her story is that […] it might be understood to exemplify the thesis that love and joy do not flourish on poverty-stricken New England farms” (336). Wharton, in Trilling’s view, has no greater purpose than to document the grimness of life in rural Massachusetts.

20Certainly it is true that although Ethan—as a tragic hero must—does make a serious moral decision, he does so passively, as it were, as a result of circumstances, in the same way as he has made all his decisions—for example, to leave technical school, or to marry Zeena. This is what Trilling calls the morality of inertia: a form of submission to prevailing conditions and conventions, a kind of obstinacy in not making moral decisions. Ethan simply does his duty unquestioningly for no other reason than because it is his duty. He does what he does, Trilling says, not because he is he, but because he is there: “Hobbes said of the Capitol geese that saved Rome by their cackling that they were the salvation of the city, not because they were they but there! How often the moral act is performed not because we are we but because we are there!" writes Trilling (337). “This,” he adds, “is Ethan Frome’s morality” (337). Of course all this is so.

21However, Trilling goes on to say that Ethan and Mattie’s fate “is terrible to contemplate, it is unforgettable, but the mind can do nothing with it.” Yet it seems to me that the mind can do something with it—that Edith Wharton’s mind did do something with it. Trilling tells us that Ethan is governed neither by courage nor choice but rather by necessity and habit. He does not “try the world” (338). Inertia is bred by the absence of mobility and the “morality of inertia” is the belief that there is no alternative to the present state of affairs. Ethan is not even aware of the existence of alternatives, and therefore of choice. Trilling states, somewhat condescendingly, that “the great mass of people in the world” prefer inertia, prefer not to make moral decisions. At the end of his essay, he makes place and habit responsible for a disinclination to engage with the world, resorting to a massive, and now classic, analogy: “the example that will most readily occur to us,” he writes, “is that of the good simple people, so true to their family responsibilities, who gave no thought to the concentration camps in whose shadow they lived” (339).

22The lessons that Edith Wharton drew from her experience of the first days of the Great War were entirely contrary to the idea that place and attachment to place destroy the individual’s capacity to think of others. In her description of the refugees, in “The Look of Paris,” Wharton certainly recognizes the limitations of place:

They belong mostly to a class whose knowledge of the world’s affairs is measured by the shadow of their village steeple. They are no more curious of the laws of causation than the thousands overwhelmed at Avezzano [earthquake 13 January 1915]. They were ploughing and sowing, spinning and weaving and minding their business, when suddenly a great darkness full of fire and blood came down on them. And now they are here, in a strange country, among unfamiliar faces and new ways. (“The Look of Paris” 34)

23Yet for Wharton, those who accept the limitations of place are not the natural accomplices of evil. They are not “good simple people,” who give no thought to the evil taking place nearby. On the contrary, the Belgians who arrived as refugees in Paris, like the Italians in Avezzano, had been busy doing what needed doing when fate destroyed their power to contribute to what Wharton called “the mighty sum of human striving.” Whereas Lionel Trilling emphasizes the absence of independent agency, of free will, or of creative action that is a result of the law of place, Wharton, on the contrary, repeatedly insists on the concrete historical activity of men and women—however limited—that produces art and civilization. She was acutely aware of the many ways in which ordinary human activity, both conscious and unconscious, contributes to the making of a culture and a society. Having visited the newly discovered prehistoric caves, she believed, for example, that draftsmanship was handed down through the ages from “the golden age of prehistory” to the present, by French peasants who nursed “the faint embers of tradition […]. And even if it seems fanciful to believe that the actual descendants of the cave-painters survived, there can be little doubt that their art, or its memory, was transmitted,” she writes in French Ways and Their Meaning (81). A “knowledge of the world’s affairs,” in other words, is not an imperative. All those who live “in the shadow of their village steeple”—Italian or French peasants, Belgian refugees, and even the inhabitants of the hills in western Massachusetts—contribute not only to the sum of human labour, but also to the transmission of art and knowledge. For Trilling, “to understand that life is as grim as this […] is really not very much to say” (Trilling 336).

24Trilling, however, fails to comprehend the complexity and subtlety of Wharton’s text. For her, Starkfield and the dingy Frome farm have important redeeming features: the way Ethan’s studies “had fed his fancy and made him aware of the huge cloudy meanings behind the daily face of things” (Ethan Frome 75-76), his interest in the stars, his love of the landscape, his many kindnesses to his parents, to Mattie, and to his horse; and there is Mattie’s taste: the cherry-coloured scarf she wraps around her head, the black ribbon she puts on for supper, the way she lays the table. Ordinary kindness, taste, admiration for the natural world, and the yearning for knowledge, all these are part of “the mighty sum of human striving.” The Frome world is a limited and an unhappy one, but it is not a world to be scoffed at. Wharton allows it dignity. And until the final accident it is not an entirely inert world, a world that thoughtlessly reproduces more of the same. There is room—not much room of course—for possibility, for renewal and change. Ethan’s fate is bound up with geography, but geography is not—not only—a prison. So, Ethan Frome is not like the geese on the Capitol. He is not merely a creature of place. And Wharton does not deny theyness to Ethan and Mattie. They suffer at the behest of the author, but their fate invites the reader’s compassion.

25More important, and more generally, attachment to place makes us vulnerable to the possibility of loss and destruction, and so to an awareness of the grief of others. In fact, according to Wharton, place does not lead to a “morality of inertia.” It leads, on the contrary, to what might be called a morality of engagement. Love of place gave her the energy and perseverance to undertake war work. Moreover, as she would write in her encomium to France, French Ways and Their Meaning, “geographical necessity” is the fundamental cause of reverence, which Wharton defines as “the instinct of every people to value and preserve what they have themselves created and made beautiful” (French Ways and Their Meanings 36). Although the world has become a bigger place, she adds, and farthest West is no longer at the Pillars of Hercules, “pious love of every yard of the soil and every stone of the houses” (34) is the essential characteristic of those who have toiled to make a place beautiful:

A man who owns a vast field does not care for that field half as much when it is a waste as after he has sweated over its furrows and seen the seeds spring. And when he has turned a bit of it into a useless bright flower-garden he cares for that useless bit best of all. The deeper civilisation of a country may to a great extent be measured by the care she gives to her flower-garden—the corner of her life where the supposedly “useless” arts and graces flourish. (French Ways and Their Meanings 38)

26When Gertrude Stein—another American woman writer and crosser of borders—returned, in 1935, to her birthplace, in Oakland California, she could no longer find any evidence of her childhood home in a city whose population had multiplied by ten. “There is no there there” she would famously write in Everybody’s Autobiography (Stein 289). In “The Morality of Inertia,” Lionel Trilling suggests that in places like Starkfield there is no they there. But for Edith Wharton, they and there, however humble, were intimately connected. There could be no there without a they, and no they without a there. Wharton was a “citizen of the universe,” a literary cosmopolitan, but she saw the preciousness of place and the care required by place as the very foundation of civilization.

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Gillet, Louis, “Edith Wharton, grand écrivain américain, repose dans la terre de France qu'elle a aimée.” In L’Époque (16 August 16 1937): 1, 2. Web.

Lee, Hermione. Edith Wharton. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. Print.

Levinas, Emmanuel. “Heidegger, Gagarine et nous.” In Difficile Liberté. Paris, Le Livre de Poche, 2018, p. 347-351. Print.

Lubbock, Percy. Portrait of Edith Wharton. New York, D. Appleton-Century Company, 1947. Print.

Lukács, Georg. The Theory of the Novel: A Historico-philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature. Translation by Anna Bostock. London, The Merlin Press Ltd., 1988. Print.

Lutz, Tom. Cosmopolitan Vistas: American Regionalism and Literary Value. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2004. Print.

---. “The Cosmopolitan Midland.” American Periodicals. 15.1 (2005): 74-85. Web.

Recouly, Raymond. “Portrait: Edith Wharton.” In Gringoire (20 August 1937): 3. Web.

Stein, Gertrude. Everybody’s Autobiography. New York, Cooper Square, 1971. Print.

Trilling, Lionel. “The Morality of Inertia.” 1955. In The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent: Selected Essays. Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 2008, p. 331-339. Print.

Wharton, Edith. The Decoration of Houses. New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997. Print.

---. The House of Mirth. In Wharton: Novels, 1-348. New York: Library of America, 1985a. Print.

--- Ethan Frome. In Wharton: Novellas and Other Writings. New York, Library of America, 1990a, p. 61-156 Print.

--- “The Look of Paris.” In Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort. New York, Scribner’s 1915, p. 1-42. Web.

--- (ed.). The Book of the Homeless (Le livre des sans-foyers). New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916. Web.

--- “L’Amérique en guerre.” In La Revue hebdomadaire (2 March 1918): 5-28. Web.

--- “America at War: Explaining the National Character in 1918.” Translation by Virginia Ricard. In the Times Literary Supplement (14 February 2018): 3-5. Print.

--- French Ways and Their Meaning. Lenox, Berkshire House Publishers, 1997. Print.

--- The Age of Innocence. In Wharton: Novels, 1015-1302. New York: Library of America, 1985b. Print.

--- A Backward Glance. In Wharton: Novellas and Other Writings, New York: Library of America, 1990b, p. 767-1068. Print.

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1 Louis Gillet (1876-1943) was an art historian and the art editor for the Revue des deux mondes. His Histoire artistique des ordres mendiants (1912) has recently been reedited by Klincksiek (2017). Gillet also wrote a number of essays on literature in English, including Stèle pour James Joyce, which is still in print (Paris, Agora, 2010). He translated two of Wharton’s novels: A Mother’s Recompense (1925), first as Le Bilan (1928)later as La Récompense d’une mère (1983); and The Children (1928), as Leurs Enfants (1931); he also translated the novella Summer (1916), as Plein Été (1917)later simply Été (1985).

2 The French reads: “Personne n’était moins enfermé dans sa tour d’ivoire. Jusqu’au bout, elle conserva cette fraîcheur de curiosité, cette soif insatiable de vie et de beauté, cette passion d’apprendre, d’admirer, de sentir, qui était l’aliment indispensable de son existence. Tout art, toute poésie, toute noblesse étaient siennes. Elle était au courant de toutes les littératures. C’était une grande Européenne, citoyenne de l’univers.” The translation and all subsequent translations from the French are mine.

3 “Ce tour d'esprit cosmopolite ne l’empêchait pas d’être américaine jusqu’aux moelles. Combien elle s’indigna, à son dernier voyage, de la question du douanier, qui se permit de lui demander ‘depuis combien de temps’ elle l’était ! Se voir interrogée ainsi par un fonctionnaire, dont les parents étaient peut-être des immigrés bulgares, quelle injure ! ‘Ils ne peuvent pas s’imaginer que vous soyez née en Amérique !’ s’écriait-elle avec dépit” (Gillet 2).

4 “Pour elle, elle faisait partie de cette aristocratie […] qui a ses titres dans l’histoire de l’Indépendance, dans l’histoire héroïque et spirituelle du pays” (Gillet 2).

5 A slightly edited version of this speech appeared in the Times Literary Supplement (February 14, 2018): 3-5. The full text will be included in volume 15 of the Complete Works of Edith Wharton, to be published by Oxford University Press. For the original in French, see “L’Amérique en guerre,” La Revue hebdomadaire (March 2, 1918): 5-28.

6 The French reads, “Elle était présente dans les fondations de la République” (Gillet 2).

7 Raymond Recouly (1876–1950, also known as Jean Léry) was a writer and journalist who wrote for Le Temps, le Figaro, Gringoire, l’Illustration, and Paris-Soir.

8 “Un mélange étonnamment réussi de culture anglo-saxonne et européenne, la connaissance approfondie des littératures anglaise, américaine, française, allemande, italienne, c’est ce que le talent, la conversation d’Edith Wharton faisait ressortir avant tout” (Recouly 3).

9 Lukács used this expression at the beginning of the First World War. Fifty years later, in a preface to his essay, he remembered that he had written it “in a mood of permanent despair over the state of the world” (Lukács 11).

10 Levinas, alluding to Heidegger, writes: “L’implantation dans un paysage, l’attachement au Lieu, sans lequel l’univers deviendrait insignifiant et existerait à peine, c’est une scission même de l’humanité en autochtones et en étrangers. Et dans cette perspective la technique est moins dangereuse que les génies du Lieu” (Levinas 349, capitals and italics in the original).

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Virginia RICARD, « The Uses of Boundaries: Edith Wharton and Place », E-rea [En ligne], 16.2 | 2019, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2019, consulté le 22 juillet 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.7430

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Virginia RICARD

Université Bordeaux-Montaigne
Virginia Ricard is an associate professor at the University of Bordeaux Montaigne. In 2016, she published “Walking in Wartime: Edith Wharton’s ‘The Look of Paris’” in Walking and the Aesthetics of Modernity (Palgrave 2016) and “La Conviction jubilatoire d’Edith Wharton,” in Modernités (2016). She is a volume editor for The Complete Works of Edith Wharton (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).
Virginia Ricard est maître de conférences à l’Université Bordeaux Montaigne. En 2016, elle a publié “Walking in Wartime: Edith Wharton’s ‘The Look of Paris’” dans Walking and the Aesthetics of Modernity (Palgrave2016) et “La Conviction jubilatoire d’Edith Wharton” dans Modernités (2016). Elle fait partie de l’équipe préparant l’édition des œuvres complètes d’Edith Wharton qui sera publiée par Oxford University Press.

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