World War I had a deep, profound impact on Edith Wharton and America, as well as the rest of the world. The difference: Wharton chose to examine this profundity while America sought oblivion in the Roaring Twenties. The country capitalized on progress, moving ahead, and getting beyond all memory of the war. Generally, a new novel from Wharton could be paired nicely with this mentality because although her works were laden with satire, this satire was aimed at the past. She called them
backward glances; they were biting explorations of the Old New York elite in all their excessive grandeur. This is what the thousands of Wharton fans were expecting when they purchased her 1927 novel Twilight Sleep, which rose to best seller status immediately following its publication. However, what they received was ruthless Wharton satire aimed at the present. Elizabeth Ammons, author of Edith Wharton's Argument with America, tells us that Wharton's
novels about post-war life consistently emphasize the seriousness of life and the disastrous consequences of trying to evade pain and suffering and responsibility (172). The reading public of the 1920's wanted novels that fit with their current mentality. They wanted their novels to offer an escape, which is what many look for in a bestseller; they wanted a change of time and place, especially if any use of satire was employed. For this reason, those who bought Twilight Sleep because it was an Edith Wharton novel were left unsatisfied. Wharton's novel unforgivingly criticizes precisely this desire for avoidance and search for the superficial. The criticism hit a little too close to home for readers in the late '20s and was therefore unappreciated.
Edith Wharton was a highly publicized author in her time. Advertisements for her novels abound in Publishers Weekly. These advertisements for her novels capitalize on her name and the title of the work--the content of the novel is not mentioned. This explains how easy it was for a novel like Twilight Sleep to be highly criticized after rising to bestseller status. A common advertisement for the novel states,
Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton is showing increasing signs that it will outsell every previous novel by Mrs. Wharton (Publishers Weekly Reel 72). This ad reveals nothing about the actual content of the novel. People bought the book because Wharton wrote it, not because of what Wharton wrote about in Twilight Sleep.
This same practice occurs often with bestsellers today. We hear about the "new Grisham novel" and devote Grisham fans, of which there are many, flock to Barnes and Nobles to get their copy. Although they may not have heard anything about the subject matter of the novel, they just assume the book will be about the wrongly accused or some aspect of the American judicial system. If this was not the case it would be too late--they've already bought the book and their purchase has already been listed under "total copies sold". Imagine if Danielle Steele's latest novel was devoid of all sex, perhaps in advocacy of lesbianism. Her fans would be devastated. This was the case with Twilight Sleep.
Edith Wharton's pre-war novels focused on the plight of upper class women growing up in the society in which she did. Wharton herself was basically forced into a marriage of social status with Edward Robbins Teddy Wharton in 1885 (Wright 303). The marriage ended in 1889 at a time when divorce was still quite a scandal. In her novels about
Old New York Wharton sympathized with women characters undergoing the same pressures to marry as she was made to endure during her young adult years. However, Edith Wharton seemed to lack all sympathy for the women of New York in the 1920s. As Elizabeth Ammons says,
the war recast the world (184).
Wharton threw a scornful glance towards Jazz Age America. She lost all sense of pity for the elite woman after the introduction of the flapper. The flapper, also called "jazz-baby," a "baby doll," or a "cupie doll," was the perfect mix of sex and immaturity. These figures capitalized on the childlike nature of women who were so dependent on their men they even called them "daddy" (Ammons 160). What angered Wharton most was that flappers were thought of as the representation of the free, liberated woman. Wharton felt this couldn't be future from the truth. She believed that the flapper was just another
human doll, another little girl-woman (Ammons 187).
Wharton's main argument with the Roaring Twenties was its attempt to make light of everything. Just as the idea of the flapper tried to pass infancy and the exploitation of female sexuality off as liberating, the Twenties attempted to make everything one big game. Club life and parties and drugs abounded, and responsibility was avoided at all costs. This life was 'liberating' in the sense that it allowed you to leave your troubles and responsibilities at the door. Ammons tells us that in her later works Wharton insisted that life was not a game.
The cultural problem her later works attack is not really that women lack freedom...but that most of them, along with the rest of society have been liberated into a world of meaningless, childish activity (173)
Wharton was perhaps so hard on the Jazz Age because her view of America was severely damaged by our policy of isolationism in World War I. At the time of the war Edith had been living in France for over fifteen years, yet at the beginning of the war she was still very patriotic (Ammons 172). Isolationism, however, disgusted her and made her ashamed to be an American. She reportedly told her friend Sara Norton,
I...am humiliated to the soul at being what is now known as an 'American.' All that I thought American in a true sense is gone, and I can see nothing but vain-glory, crassness, and total ignorance--which of course is the core of the whole evil (Lewis 424). So, at the time Wharton was writing Twilight Sleep she was truly sickened by the state of affairs in America; her only motive for using America as the subject would be to criticize its society.
Pauline Manford, one of Twilight Sleep's main characters, is the embodiment of everything Wharton disliked about the Twenties. She is a flapper come-of-age, who keeps herself constantly occupied so that she can completely avoid her problems. Even her children and husband, who live in the same house she does, must have an appointment if they wish to see her. Her schedule for one morning contains more than most people's do for an entire week.
7.30Mental uplift. 7.45 Breakfast. 8. Psycho-analysis. 8.15 See cook. 8.30 Silent Meditation. 8.45 Facial Massage. 9. Man with Persian miniatures. 9.15 Correspondence. 9.30 Manicure. 9.45 Eurythmic exercises. 10. Hair waved. 10.15 Sit for bust. 10.30 Receive Mother's Day deputation. 11. Dancing lesson. 11.30 Birth control committee at Mrs.--
Basically, Pauline Manford leads the most superficial life Wharton could possibly imagine. At one point in the novel, Pauline forgets what day and time it is and accidentally gives her speech for the Birth Control committee to the National Mother's Day Association. When she recognizes her mistake, she saves herself by negating everything she had previously said. Wharton includes this passage to insist that Pauline Manford has no true convictions; she belongs to theses groups for soley social purposes (Ammons 164). Her whole life is one big facade. Lev Raphael, in his novel Edith Wharton's Prisoners of Shame, deems Pauline's life
frantic activity and huge expense creating the illusion of seamlessness (147). While everything appears perfect on the outside, there is no true substance to any aspect of Pauline's existence. All of her familial relationships are farces. Her children get squeezed in between hair waves and hip reducing exercises and she and her husband have virtually no relationship at all; he has become completely bored with Pauline's compulsiveness. She even stoops so low as to use her ex-husband's neice as a social tool by using the Italian Marchesa as an excuse to throw a party, since everyone enjoys the foreigner's
exotic luster (20). As Raphael puts it, Pauline uses the Marchesa as
a social drawing card and resource at her dinner parties (143). She uses everything possible as a
social drawing card and a means to divert every bit of her attention from her real responsibilities as a wife and mother.
While Pauline meditates and sits for busts, her husband Dexter is having an affair with Pauline's flapper daughter-in-law Lita. Lita, who exhibits all of what is disturbing in the flapper craze, has become quickly bored of her new husband Jim and their new baby. Meanwhile, Pauline's daughter Nona and her cousin Stan have fallen in love, but Stan's wife won't give him a divorce. Since Nona cannot be scandalously involved with a married man, Stan turns to an affair with a married woman whose already scarred reputation leaves her nothing to lose. Stan's wife eventually pleads with Nona to save her husband from his current mistress and promises she'll divorce him. Throughout the novel it appears that nothing is sacred to these people, least of all the marriage bond. This also serves to make Pauline's situation even more ludicrous, because she tries so hard to make everything appear perfect and while things are falling apart all around her.
Wharton seems to suggest that this self-centered mentality is not a new phenomenon, but a result of the selfishness of the past. Geoffrey Walton, author of Edith Wharton: A Critical Interpretation says Twilight Sleep is pervaded by
a sort of logical conclusion of Old New York's genteel avoidance of unpleasantness (Raphael 146). The history of vanity, selfishness, and superficiality among the elite of Old New York manifested itself in the Manford family and the
killing New York life (Wharton 10) of Twilight Sleep. So, in this way Wharton not only criticizes the present state of affairs in America, but she also mocks their habit of looking back on the
good ol'days and their interest in her previous novels which do so. She seems to insist that there are no good old days that were not bent on producing a completely superficial society. She calls for a total overhaul of our past and present social structure; she suggests we need a new code of ethics or code of honor (Papke 165).
The citizens of America in 1927, however, did not wish to be bothered with Wharton's convictions about the evils of their society. 1927 saw the height of invention and exploration and scientific and mechanical progress (Hackett). In that year alone Lindbergh made his famous flight, Ford produced the first Model A, the Holland tunnel was built under the Hudson River, and the stock market was booming. Flappers were living it up with their "daddys" and excess was in. The future looked bright and no one wanted to dwell on the present or the past. Wharton's satirical social commentary was like throwing a stick into America's speeding tire. Everyone wanted to get past the war and towards the future. No one wanted some writer to expose their problems, especially not Edith Wharton who hadn't even lived in New York for over fifteen years. While everyone else was looking ahead, Wharton was examining the present and its past origins while she had, according to many, lost her authority to speak for Americans.
While social satire put many in the 1920s on the defense, it seems that today we enjoy a little
Perhaps since the Jazz Age we have realized how hopelessly dysfunctional a great deal of our society is and therefore we don't get too upset when an author exposes this fact. There are some authors that write and successfully sell only books that are satires of the present. Bret Easton Ellis, for instance, writes devastating novels about the superficiality of the American upper class and most of them turn out to be bestsellers. His 1985 novel Less Than Zero, which focuses on a college-age male who has everything yet wastes it all on cocaine, was a national bestseller and later made into a movie starring Robert Downey Jr.. Another good example is Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, which highlights the skewed values of the way too rich in modern society, which was a highly revered New York Times bestseller in 1987 and was also reproduced in film. It seems that in modern America it's lucrative to be jaded.
Modern readers certainly seem to have more of a stomach for social criticism than readers in the 1920s. The flappers and daddies were rushing towards the future, trying to escape memories of the war, and didn't need Edith Wharton getting in their way. They wanted a novel that let them forget that there was a past and a war. Naturally, when Wharton did nothing but critique this very attitude in Twilight Sleep her devoted fans weren't entirely enthused. They were expecting a satire of the good old days, and instead got a satire of today. Edith Wharton was revolutionary in her views on women and divorce, and also ahead of her time in thinking that there would be a lasting audience for such criticism. If Twilight Sleep were published today, we can speculate that it might have a more lasting popularity.