Friday, November 03, 2017

Meanwhile, back at the ranch ...

While I've felt impelled to think a bit about the House Republican tax bill, and to write a few blog posts about it, my main scholarly efforts and interests at present are actually in a very different area.

As some regular readers may know, I've been working for some time on a book about high-end inequality as it has figured in various (mostly great) works of literature over the last 200+ years. The description of the project here is by now quite out of date, but it shows where I was at an earlier stage. Where I am now is having two separate books, for reasons of length plus natural divisibility. Book 1, of which I'm in the later stages now, takes the story from the Age of Revolution to the Gilded Age & run-up to World War I.

As of a  couple of months ago, I thought the only books I'd discuss at length in Book 1 (although I have a shorter section on Horatio Alger) would be the following:

Part 1, Age of Revolution
Chapter 2 (after introduction) - Austen, Pride and Prejudice.
Chapter 3 - Stendhal, Le Rouge et Le Noir
Chapter 4 - Balzac, Le Pere Goriot and La Maison Nucingen

Part 2, England Mid-Nineteenth Century Through the Onset of World War I
Chapter 5 - Dickens, A Christmas Carol
Chapter 6 - Trollope, The Way We Live Now
Chapter 7 - Forster, Howards End.

Part 3, American in the Gilded Age
Chapter 8 - Twain and Warner, The Gilded Age
Chapter 9 - Dreiser, The Financier and The Titan

I have completed drafts of all these chapters and am reasonably happy (despite self-critical tendencies) with most or perhaps even all of them.

Okay, quiz question. How does Part 3 look different from Parts 1 and 2? Snap answer, it only covers two books, not three. I had persuaded myself, partly for reasons of length, that this made sense, but I've now come to realize that it doesn't. I need a third book not just for symmetry, but to broaden the inquiry and get to where I see it all going.

I've now picked my book, which will be new Chapter 9 (ahead of Dreiser). It's an obvious choice, I guess - Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. I'm in the later stages of researching the chapter and have begun to lay out, albeit still tentatively, the chapter's structure and trajectory.

Quick shout-out: I absolutely love this book. Although I'm biased at the point when I am actually writing about a particular book (which causes me to engage with it emotionally), I would probably rate it in the top 3 out of the 9 that I am discussing (along with Austen and Stendhal).

It's an amazingly angry and bitter book. None of the others on my list comes close (well, Stendhal perhaps closest). It's also exceptionally timely and prescient, in the age of Trump and Weinstein, on gender issues as well as status battles at the top. Indeed, a lot of its anger is about gender issues, as distinct from class, although the two are intertwined and my project is directed at the latter.

Reflecting sexism, Wharton has always tended to be dismissed as a junior varsity Henry James. (Indeed, James was among those taking this view.) But here's a snippet for you. The House of Mirth has a scene in which the heroine, Lily Bart, is sexually assaulted by a rich and powerful man who she thought was helping her. (Using the standard powerful man's playbook, he tricks her into going to his house when he's alone there, in this case by making her think his wife invited her.)

Lily escapes the assault. But it leaves her feeling shamed, embarrassed, disgraced, and as if it were HER fault. She doesn't need others to blame the victim - she's doing it herself.

But not to worry, others are happy to blame her, too.  These include the man who she thinks is her friend and defender, Lawrence Selden, but who, seeing her leave the assaulter's house in dishevelment, immediately assumes it's her fault, and that she's unworthy, and so, without any further inquiry, abandons her.

There isn't too much of that sort of thing in Henry James novels. Or indeed in anything by male novelists writing > 100 years ago.

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