(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
The Age of Innocence (1920)
By Edith Wharton
Book #29 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
To truly get the full implications of The Age of Innocence, it's of crucial importance to understand the following: that although it's set in 1870 (during the height of Victorianism), it wasn't written and published until fifty years later, in 1920 (the beginning of Modernism), an older Edith Wharton looking back on her youth but with a thoroughly contemporary eye. And the reason that's important is that the novel itself is a look at a New York that didn't exist anymore even in the year the book first came out, thus making it enjoyed from the first day for the same historical reasons we do here in the 21st century -- an impossibly quaint and provincial Manhattan that was still barely developed above 25th Street or so, where the only people to be found in the area now known as "Midtown" were a small incestuous circle of the upper-class, an American version of the old British aristocracy held together through such Atlantic Seaboard touchstones as business associations, Ivy League schools, summering in Newport, and family names that stretch back to the Mayflower. Back in the late 1800s, the area around what is now Central Park was still considered a far suburb of New York "proper" (that is, everything below Houston Avenue), the only people there this inbred group of old money, living in their gigantic mansions tucked within what was still at the time half-wilderness, and coming up with an elaborate set of rules and unspoken etiquette to determine how their entire complicated society would work (with the worst fate imaginable being collectively "snubbed" by the members of this clique, suddenly losing access to all the resources that made up your lifestyle in the first place, party invitations and club memberships and private boxes at the opera).
It's within this environment that we watch the fate of young forward-thinking chap Newland Archer, a true Victorian gentleman if there ever was one: educated, cultured, with a natural head for both business and science, even with a perfect if not old-fashioned fiancee, the bubbly and slightly dimwitted May Welland (youngest adult member of the Mingott clan, one of the "major families" holding this convoluted upper-class society together, with the grouchy and headstrong Mrs. Manson Mingott as its matriarch, holder of all the family's money and therefore all the family's power). But, see, Newland and his pals have been talking a lot recently about this so-called "New Woman," the redefinition of femininity that was taking place among educated youth during this period in history; a new understanding about marriage where young wives were expected to be not only as educated as their husbands, but also as political and as bawdy, spending their days protesting in the streets for suffrage and bringing their uninhibited desires to the boudoir at night. It's not that Newland doesn't love May, a fact that Wharton goes out of her way to show throughout the book; it's just that when he meets her cousin Ellen one night, aka "Countess Olenska" -- one of these New Women who ran off to Europe and married into the actual Prussian nobility, just to have the marriage fall apart and come slinking back to New York -- Newland suddenly realizes how much better a woman like her would be for his life, and how she sparks in him the kind of intelligent, world-weary passion that the domesticated, gender-role-believing May simply cannot. And this is another reason why the publishing date of this book is important, because the Modernist women at the beginning of the "Roaring Twenties" Jazz Age were dealing with this issue all over again -- the relationship between independence and personal identity and traditional romantic happiness -- and you can see this novel as just as much a comment about their situation as the one of the late Victorian Age, kind of like how Robert Altman's M*A*S*H is actually about Vietnam although set during the Korean War.
The majority of the book, then, concerns itself with the situation that develops between all these people in this hothouse environment, as Newland and Ellen come to realize their attraction to each other but hardly ever acknowledge it out loud, and also as the rest of this society comes to realize it too, and starts quietly deciding behind closed doors what exactly they're going to collectively do about it. And this is yet another reason that it's important to know about the schism between this book's setting and its publication; because instead of impulsively running off together and "living happily ever after," as would've happened in the breathy Victorian romances actually being written in the late 1800s, here all the parties involved come to a much more Modernist yet heartbreaking conclusion, that ultimately it just isn't fair of Newland and Ellen to destroy the lives of not only May but the entire Mingott family, just because there was bad timing involved as to who exactly met who in what exact order. Not only do Newland and Ellen come to realize this, but even May herself comes to understand just what kind of sacrifice the two make for her sake, leading to a resolution not exactly sad but not exactly happy either; so a thoroughly Modern story, in other words, even as at the end they watch this old elaborate caste system around them fall apart during the first few decades of the 20th century.
The argument for it being a classic:
Well, for starters, it was the first-ever novel by a woman to win the Pulitzer, and is also mentioned in just about any list you come across of the greatest novels of all time (plus was adapted into a high-profile Martin Scorsese film in 1993, a controversial production among the book's fans, which doesn't hurt either). But awards and platitudes aside, argue its fans, there are two main reasons why The Age of Innocence should be considered a classic: because of the aforementioned complex way it combines Romanticism and Modernism, both nostalgically presenting the former while ingeniously mixing in the latter; and also because it was one of the first-ever truly perfect Realist stories ever written, a style of writing favored by such turn-of-the-century authors as Wharton and her good friend Henry James, which believe it or not was actually considered a cutting-edge literary theory at the time. After all, it was the immense popularity of this novel (almost from the day it was released) that was a big factor in Realism becoming such a dominant form of storytelling in contemporary novels, so dominant in fact that most of us no longer realize it even has a special name. (For those who don't know, Realism simply means "a story told in a way so that it sounds and feels like it could've actually happened in real life," and is the way that 95 percent of all contemporary novels are now written; this is compared to the habit during the Victorian Age for all novels to be either fairytales or to sternly preach a moral lesson impossible to actually live up to, or perhaps be a ridiculously unrealistic bosom-heaving love story.)
The argument against:
Ironically, the biggest argument against The Age of Innocence seems to be just how much of an understanding one needs to have about the circumstances behind its publishing in order to grasp its full power; because if you don't know all the details I've thus far described, it's incredibly easy to see this book as just some outdated potboiler about how rich people suck, the exact attitude you tend to find among online reviews from people who didn't care for it. No matter how powerful the book itself might be, argue its critics, to drag around this much historical baggage violates the spirit of how we're defining "classic" in this essay series; that in order for a book to truly be considered such, it needs to transcend its specific original time period, so that anyone can pick it up randomly at any point in the future and still enjoy it for what it is. Even less than a hundred years since its original publication, argue its critics, The Age of Innocence threatens to no longer do this; and that's why it should certainly be considered both a historically important and well-done book, but not necessarily a timeless classic.
So if you've ever asked yourself, "I wonder what the absolute oldest novels are to establish the kind of specific English we use today," a strong argument could be made for The Age of Innocence being one of them; that's what I kept thinking while reading it, anyway, that it's so far the oldest book in the CCLaP 100 to feel like it could've actually been written yesterday. (I mean, yes, Madame Bovary comes close, as far as capturing the literary spirit of our contemporary times; but Wharton's novel is so far the oldest to feel like you could literally slap a fake 2009 copyright notice on the front page and not make people even blink.) And that's because of a whole series of what turns out to be some pretty subtle details, things you see mentioned in essays about Wharton again and again: not just this brilliant mix of Romanticism and Modernism she pulls off, for example, but also an incredibly dry and dark sense of humor (this book is surprisingly funny, but only to those who like, say, 30 Rock or Arrested Development); the resigned acknowledgment among all the characters as to the cruel ironic nature of the world; even the plain-spoken language and simple sentence structure used (which after all was a major hallmark of the Realist writers, the insistence that language itself stay out of the way as much as possible of the actual story being told, versus the flowery purple-prose messes of the Victorian Age and older.)
The biggest secret, though, as to why The Age of Innocence is so enjoyable is because of the various levels at which it can be enjoyed; for example, one of the first and most obvious pleasures of the book is simply the sumptuous visual images of Old New York that Wharton conjures up, and if one wants they can easily enjoy this novel simply as a melodramatic piece of historical fiction, to lose oneself in the exquisitely remembered finery of Wharton's actual youth (although make no mistake, this is not an autobiographical novel -- Wharton was only ten or so in the years this book takes place). But then if you want, you can also enjoy the novel for the complex way it neither condemns nor approves this ridiculously elaborate code of behavior among this circle of upper-class acquaintances; this was the world Wharton herself quite happily lived in her entire adult life, after all, and there's a reason that she used to call this book her "apology" for her earlier, much more damning House of Mirth. (In fact, one of this book's strongest arguments is that maybe it's not so bad after all to stop yourself from ruining the lives of everyone around you, just because you get a boner from cynical girls with short haircuts who make bad life decisions and have spent time in Europe, and that there's maybe something actually to this elaborate set of etiquette that marked the "civilized height" of the Victorian Age.)
Now, that said, I also agree with the book's critics in at least one respect -- that if I hadn't studied up beforehand on both Wharton and the history of this book, I wouldn't have nearly enjoyed it in the nuanced way that I did, a clear violation of the spirit behind this CCLaP 100 series in the first place. Although it's still a small enough problem here in the early 2000s for me to confidently label the book a classic for all of us, I have a feeling that it's in its last days in history of being considered such, and that a mere fifty years from now it will be considered as badly dated as the work of such early Victorians as Nathaniel Hawthorne is now starting to more and more seem to us Obamian-Age citizens. After all, if there's one big surprise I've learned since starting this essay series, it's just how fluid our entire concept of "artistic classic" actually is; and although I happily call The Age of Innocence one at this particular moment in history, I'm not sure exactly how much longer this will be the case. Do yourself a favor and read it soon, since as a "grandchild of Modernism" you will be one of the last people in history to fully be able to appreciate it in all its subtle glory.
Is it a classic? For now
The next four books scheduled to be read:
The Call of the Wild, by Jack London
Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson
Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte