An unfinished third novel, with three additional essays, about a contentedly corrupt belle époque Philadelphia—where the famed Wister (1860–1938) went west to cure his depression after William Dean Howells rejected his first attempts at fiction.
The result of that hegira, The Virginian, is considered America’s finest western. In his introduction, Butler (English/LaSalle) contends that Wister’s third novel, which biographers have mistakenly called Monopolis (after Wister’s name for his fictional Philadelphia), was intended to be Wister’s reply to friend Theodore Roosevelt’s objection about the xenophobic cynicism in Wister’s second novel, Lady Baltimore, an Edith Wharton/Henry James critique of southern aristocracy. Wister wrote Roosevelt that Dividends in Democracy, later titled after its hero, Romney Hythe, was to be, in Wister’s words, “a picture of Philadelphia, and its passing from the old world to the new order; the hero of no social position, married to a wife of good social position elsewhere, and turning out to be superior to his wife.” The 48,000-word fragment he produced—before abandoning it after WWI journalism, unsuccessful forays into politics, and the death of his wife sank him again into despair—begins in 1911, then flashes back to1880s Philadelphia, rooting the entanglement of early Main Line society in the greed and corruption surrounding the Pennsylvania Railroad. Alas, Romney himself, though discussed, remains unborn when the pages run out.
Like Wharton’s best work, the unfinished Romney, along with Wister’s essays about Philadelphia society, remains striking for its examination of American social pathologies that, despite changes in ethnic, cultural and technological composition, remain virulently prevalent today.