Cleaning out the Wharton attic, Wegener (Literature/Baruch Coll.) has assembled a jumble sale of her nonfiction, with a few...



Cleaning out the Wharton attic, Wegener (Literature/Baruch Coll.) has assembled a jumble sale of her nonfiction, with a few notable finds amid the lumber. Wharton's slim, impressionistic study The Writing of Fiction was her only critical work published as a book during her lifetime, but Wegener's selection demonstrates that Wharton wrote nonfiction throughout her career. Her early, fairly conventional journalism consists mainly of book reviews of ephemeral poetry, genteel critical studies, and historical novels, with at best a biography of George Eliot to brighten things. Two essays, however, stand out. ""The Vice of Reading"" castigates the idea that reading is a duty, a humorless and necessary exercise in development, rather than an imaginative skill (""To read is not a virtue; but to read well is an art""). ""The Criticism of Fiction"" won Henry James's admiration for upholding French formalism in the novel over the looser Anglo-American tradition. But even in her chummy review of James's Letters, she mixes a warm portrait of the Master with a keen treatment of his famous style. Wharton's introductions to later editions of her own works give a personal perspective on aesthetics, especially on her intentions in the novel Ethan Frome. Unfortunately, the introductions Wharton wrote for her friends' negligible books, whether historical novels, gardening guides, or travel writing, are slack by comparison. Likewise, Wharton's fond tributes eulogizing eminent but now forgotten New Yorkers are unremarkable. Her most touching eulogy, however, is for Gilded Age Manhattan, in the piece ""A Little Girl's New York."" Two later critical essays, on the vicissitudes of literary tastes and on the nature of literary realism are relaxed and persuasive. Some of these pieces admirably display Wharton's high cultural standards, incisive critical eye, and conservative literary tastes, but many are works only the most devoted Whartonian would need to read.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1997


Page Count: 320

Publisher: Princeton Univ.

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 1996

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