Edith Wharton: The Journey

Deal Me In – Week 32

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I’ve read a handful of short stories by Edith Wharton.  While her writing style is quite impressive, I’ve not been exactly taken by these stories, overall. But this week, for my Deal Me In 2015 short story project, I selected the Five of Spades which corresponds to Wharton’s “The Journey”.  At least for now, this will be the Edith Wharton story I recommend.

The unnamed female protagonist is traveling by train with her husband.  The majority of the story encompasses the efforts of the wife to keep her husband’s secret from the rest of the travellers.  The secret is known to the reader who also gets a brief glimpse into the the couple’s marriage:

When she married, she had such arrears of living to make up: her days had been as bare as the white washed schoolroom where she forced innutritious facts upon reluctant children.  His coming had broken in on the slumber of circumstances, widening the present till it became the encloser of remotest chances.  But imperceptibly the horizon narrowed.  Life had a grudge against her: she was never to be allowed to spread her wings.

A definite darkness exists to the story; however, I went back and forth as I read in determining whether there was some humor buried deep beneath the dark.  I still can’t help but think there is.

I can’t post about Edith Wharton without including the above photograph. My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.  This story is included in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates.

Classics Club: Favorite Literary Period

The monthly meme question at The Classics Club for March happens to be the question I submitted so I thought I would take a stab at answering it:

What is your favorite “classic” literary period and why?

It’s not difficult for me to pick my favorite literary period.  In coming up with a list of my favorite books, by and large, they fall into the category of “Early Twentieth Century”.  Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jack London always come to mind when determining favorites, as do J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesteron, Evelyn Waugh and John Steinbeck.  Recently, I’ve discovered Willa Cather and Edith Wharton – while Cather could be included in favorites, the jury is still out with Wharton.   And I can’t forget Margaret Mitchell and her one great novel.

I don’t know who decides which years “Early Twentieth Century” encompasses but I would ask to be allowed to include J. D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut and Flannery O’Connor in this period, as well as James Baldwin, whom I just read for the first time last week.  These authors all published something in the 1940’s and/or 1950’s which I will still include as “Early” even though several of them continued publishing into the “Later Twentieth Century” and in some cases into the “Twenty First Century”.

Why is this time period my favorite?  That’s the more difficult part of the question to answer.  In some respect, it’s simply that these were the authors I read when I first discovered literature during the summer before 10th grade.  They were the first authors I read when I discovered that there was something more to reading than just an exciting plot – that there was something about the words chosen and the way they were put together.  But one could learn this with any literary time period.

I think another reason would be that from my historical perspective, the “Early Twentieth Century” is on the edge of the old and the new.  It’s far enough in the past to be intriguing but yet close enough to the present to see direct connections and influences to the world in which I live.

Just curious, do you have a favorite literary period?

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Ethan Brand”

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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Ethan Brand” is what I thought my Edith Wharton story choices would be.  It’s rather scary.  Last year, I read his story “Feathertop” and thought it was very similar to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  “Ethan Brand” reminds me of Washington Irving.  It’s a combination of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”.

Ethan Brand returns to the village of Graylock after a twenty year absence in which he conducts a spiritually sinister quest.  His quest is legend among the townspeople and his return peaks everyone’s interest.  The majority of the story is set at a lime-kiln in the middle of a dark night.  A few of the locals inquire as to the result of Ethan’s search – did he find his answers?

After reading the story, the subtitle, “A Chapter From an Abortive Romance”, gives me chills but I couldn’t help but laugh a little.  It reminded me of Jack Nicholson as The Joker in the Batman movie from the late 80’s when he asks “Did you ever dance with the devil in the pale moon light”?

As the morning takes over the darkness, the reader and the villagers of Graylock discover a grizzly ending.

Hawthorne almost teaches a lesson here; however, he settles for telling a good story.

Edith Wharton’s “The House of the Dead Hand”

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It’s Week #7 and both of my Edith Wharton stories are off my DMI 2014 list.  This second one, “The House of the Dead Hand”, in spite of the creepy title, wasn’t a ghost story.  I guess if I want to read her ghost stories, I’ll have to do a little more research than just grabbing a couple of titles from a table of contents.

“The House of the Dead Hand” reminded me of some of Willa Cather’s art stories that I read for my DMI 2013 project; however, I would probably take Cather’s stories over this one.  A privately-owned Leonardo DaVinci painting takes center stage in a story that I just couldn’t get into.  Sybilla, the young girl who owns the painting, lives in the title house so named because of a marble hand over the front door.  One might say that an art critic reviewing the painting gets caught between Sybilla and her suitor who loves her but can’t marry her because she doesn’t have enough money.  She could have enough money if she sold the painting; however, Sybilla’s father won’t let her sell the painting.  By the time I got to the end of the story, I didn’t care what happened to any of the characters.

Every once in a while, some of Wharton’s descriptions warranted some notice, such as her description of the house itself:

As he passed out of the house, its scowling cornice and facade of ravaged brick looked down on him with the startlingness of a strange face, seen momentarily in a crowd, and impressing itself on the brain as part of an inevitable future. Above the doorway, the marble hand reached out like the cry of an imprisoned anguish.

But overall, even some interesting writing here and there couldn’t get me to recommend this story.  Of the three Wharton stories I’ve read – “The Bolted Door”, “All Souls’ “, and this one, I would say “The Bolted Door” is the best one.  I haven’t completely written off Edith Wharton.  Some day, I will probably read one of her novels – some day.

Edith Wharton’s “The Bolted Door”

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It’s week #6 in my Deal Me In:2014 project which is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis and this week I picked the Queen of Hearts and read Edith Wharton’s short story, “The Bolted Door”.  I picked a couple of Wharton’s stories with somewhat ominous titles as I discovered last year that she wrote a number of ghost stories.  As I’ve found out, though, you can’t always judge a story by the title.

“The Bolted Door” does have a mysterious and suspenseful tone; however, it’s a very clever reversal of a murder mystery.  Instead of the reader being curious about who may have commited a murder, the reader gets to know the murderer right off the bat – Hubert Granice.  Unfortunately, Granice, who wants to get his crime off his chest and make it public knowledge, commited his dastardly deed a little too well.  Try as he might, he cannot get anyone to believe that he murdered his rich elderly cousin for money.  Instead, the greater his attempt at turning himself in, the more he is considered “crazy”.

I laughed out loud when Granice first explained his story to an attorney friend. Apparently, Joseph, Granice’s cousin and victim, had a hobby growing melons (yes, melons).  Joseph took great pride in his gardening and took great pleasure in describing his produce:

‘Look at it, look at it — did you ever see such a beauty? Such firmness — roundness — such delicious smoothness to the touch?’ It was as if he had said ‘she’ instead of ‘it,’ and when he put out his senile hand and touched the melon I positively had to look the other way.

I don’t know, but perhaps such an odd relative may have contributed to Granice’s difficulty in convincing anyone of his guilt.  He continues to give his story to detectives, investigative reporters and finally to the District Attorney.

I’m not sure exactly where the title of the story comes in to play.  Initially, Granice waits for his friend’s knock at the door as he prepares to tell his story; but, the door isn’t necessarily bolted.  The story ends with some potentially bolted doors; however, none are noted explicitly.  If there are any Edith Wharton fans out there who may have an idea of the significance of the bolted door in the story of the same name – feel free to chime in!

Edith Wharton: All Souls’

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The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

I finally chose the nine of spades which corresponds to Edith Wharton’s short story “All Souls’ “.  Until now, I’ve never read anything by Wharton; however, I’ve seen the titles of a few of her novels often throughout the years – novels like Ethan Frome, The Age of Innocence, and The House of Mirth.  She gives me the impression of being the Jane Austen of turn of the (twentieth) century New York.  That’s why I was surprised to find out that she wrote a number of ghost stories.  Based on this one story, she doesn’t hold a candle to Edgar Allan Poe on the scary scale, but she’s worth reading.  I would welcome reading more.

The narrator describes her cousin, Sara Clayburn, as a widow living in an old New England home with a handful of servants.  The story is relayed by the narrator based on events told to her by her cousin.  Sara meets a strange woman on her way home one dark evening. The scariness of the story comes from Wharton’s writing as Clayburn wakes up the next morning to find everyone in her home gone.  The majority of the narrative comes from her wanderings and musings and confusion over the empty house.  This doesn’t sound frightening, but as with the best of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, Wharton solidly catches the reader’s imagination and mind as to hold them in suspense not knowing what might be around the next corner or in the next room or looking in from outside through a window.

The only part of the story that seemed unnecessary came at the end when the narrator blames the happenings on Sara’s maid, Agnes – who is mentioned from time to time in the story. Apparently, Agnes came from a background in which her ancestors dabbled in the supernatural.  The narrator makes a giant leap from the strange events to Agnes, the maid. It did nothing for the suspense or scariness that had just been rendered to the reader with such vividness.

Book Sale!

Periodically, my public library, Boone County Public Library (that’s the Boone County in Northern Kentucky of the Greater Cincinnati area), has a book sale.  My guess is that the books that they sell are the ones that have gone through the reading cycle and now don’t have a huge demand.  Since my reading typically doesn’t depend on what’s currently popular, I almost always find something of interest to me when I check out the sales.

This past weekend, the Scheben branch held its sale.  Yesterday afternoon, I wandered over to see what I might find.  It’s interesting that the books for sale are not necessarily in any specific order as the other books in the library.  I think they had them grouped roughly by genre.  I thoroughly enjoy walking up and down the rows of books seeing what might catch my eye.  My two middle kids were with me.  They looked briefly at the teen section then went and sat in a corner with their iPods.  They knew Dad might be a while, but they’re used to it by now.

Here is a rundown of the books that I found:

– The Reef by Edith Wharton:  I have yet to read anything by this author; however, one of her short stories is on my Deal Me In list.  That particular card has not yet popped up in the deck, yet.  I don’t think this novel is as well-known as her novels Ethan Frome, House of Mirth, or Age of Innocence.

The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck:  I will probably read this very soon.  I’ve gotten a sudden interest in Steinbeck.

Nights At The Alexandra by William Trevor:  I’ve discovered Trevor’s short stories this year and have greatly enjoyed them.  This novella will probably get read in the near future, also.

A Passage to India by E. M. Forster:  Forster’s novel A Room With A View has been a favorite of mine for a long time; however, I’ve never read any of his other works.  This one and Howard’s End seem to be the other novels of his that pop up on my radar from time to time.  I think all of his novels have been made into Merchant/Ivory films.

Anchored In Love: An Intimate Portrait of June Carter Cash by John Carter Cash:  The fact that this book was written by Johnny and June’s son made it difficult to pass up- which reminds me that I have Johnny Cash’s autobiography on my shelf somewhere.  I need to read that, too!

Song Yet Sung by James McBride:  My wife just read McBride’s autobiography The Color of Water for a book group.  I’m not sure what she thought of it.  Something about this novel sounds intriguing even though I was a little disappointed with his World War II novel, Miracle at St. Anna.

– And finally, I found a short story compilation that I am sure will get used for my 2014 Deal Me In project.  Bernard Malamud, Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, Anton Chekhov, to name a few of the authors included.

The great thing about this book sale was that I got the above books for free!  Each summer, BCPL hosts an adult reading program where adults read books, listen to music and watch movies from the library for “Library Bucks”.  Over the past four summers, I have accumulated an entire drawer full of these.  I can use them at the book sales or to pay fines (which I admit I occasionally have).  It’s looking like I might not ever spend the Library Bucks as fast as I get them.  I only spent five of them for these books!

Check out the website here of a great public library!