Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The New York Stories of Edith Wharton


The New York Stories of Edith Wharton is a collection of Wharton’s short stories that span her entire writing career. Almost all of the stories take place in the titular city and occur at a time when society was in flux.  In these stories, as in her novels, Wharton writes about characters who are stuck in the traditional roles and expectations of the time and those who live outside of society’s approval.  But because society is not static, it is the static characters who seem the most unhappy while the ones who dare throw caution to the wind find pleasure and even acceptance.

It is impossible for me not to compare this collection with Willa Cather’s and the differences are worth mentioning.  While Wharton seems stuck in her themes and stylistically continues to mimic the writing of her time, Cather took creative risks not found in Wharton’s stories.   What Wharton does so well in her novels, seems almost claustrophobic when condensed into a short story.  Perhaps this is because Wharton does limit most of her stories to New York and New York society while Cather wrote about the western expansion.  The two women were practically contemporaries, with the influence of Henry James is especially apparent in Wharton’s works, for better or worse.

Reading about Wharton’s New York is fascinating for me. She writes about neighborhoods with which I am familiar, places I grew up, but generations before my time.  Through these stories, I see the familiar through a new lens, appreciate how much has changed while recognizing how some things haven’t.  The rich get richer and the poor . . . well, not much has changed, really. 

Yet, for women in particular, much has changed and, with the last story in this collection, “Roman Fever,” gives the clearest hint of how things are changing for women.  Perhaps, with more time, Wharton would have found a strong short story voice.  I still love her novels and I liked her short stories well enough.  Enough to want to read more of her novels.   With that said, there are a few I will likely reread ("The Portrait" and "His Father's Son" come immediately to mind). 

6 comments:

  1. Hmmm...I am wondering if Wharton's short-stories might appeal to me more since I couldn't even get through any of her novels. Her prose was just so dull...ugh. How would you rank her novels? I don't want to give up on her just yet.

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    1. Jason, I loved the novels I've read but then I felt like I was visiting home because she's writing about New York. But I can see where her prose is rather enervating. I'd say try her short stories. Perhaps in shorter, smaller doses she'd appeal. But if you read three and still find her boring, I'd give it up.

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  2. I see, so there is a personal connection to her work. Stories about Old New York would interest me because the city has a fascinating history and many of my favorite movies take place there (Woody Allen, Spike Lee, Scorsese, etc). I am participating in a short-story challenge right now so this would be the perfect opportunity to read Wharton and see if I can't find out what I'm missing or overlooking in her work. Ha, I'll surely take your advice. 3 strikes and your out Mrs. Wharton!

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  3. Jason C, I have little patience with authors mostly because there are too many books and not enough time. If I like a book, great, but if not I am not likely to read another. Sometimes I like one or two but a third can turn me off completely. So many books, so little time!

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  4. I couldn't agree more. Edith Wharton seems like one of those authors for me but I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

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    1. I would. I think Hemingway is better in short story form as are several other writers while some writers need the space of a novel to get their story told. Some manage to do both, write short and long form stories. I just think most writers are more masterful in one and only the truly masterful can manage both beautifully.

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