The estate of Edith Wharton, Pulitzer-prize winning pioneer of turn-of-the-century American literature, has recently released three as yet unpublished novels by the literary genius. Written by a young Wharton in a period spanning much of the ’80s, these works were thought to have been burned up in a fire, or perhaps simply hidden in a dark corner, away from the judging eyes of the New England social elite who would no doubt misunderstand their true intent and force them, against their will, to live lives of soulless conformity. Now that these masterworks have come to light, the true range and scope of Ms. Wharton’s imagination and skill are clear. We offer the following sneak peek at this breathtaking menagerie of tales.
A Home at Capacity
A widower whose wife has died in childbirth is left to raise his three daughters alone along the cruel, wind-swept hills of the western coast of the United States. Soon after his wife’s death, the man’s brother-in-law Katsopolis and childhood best friend Gladstone come to live with him and his daughters in order to provide a semblance of familial normalcy and to maintain the family’s social station among the San Francisco upper-middle class. Through a series of farcical situations, the two interlopers simultaneously challenge the stability of the young daughters’ insular universe and help to teach them pointed moral lessons. As the eldest daughter, D.J., struggles to make sense of her own flowering womanhood, she is caught between the ghost of her mother (who was “sacrificed” to the cannibalistic social order that demanded more from her than her body or heart could give) and the seductiveness of her Uncle Jesse’s world of music and free love. Wharton portrays the youngest daughter, born of her mother’s sacrifice, as a doppelgänger, not only of the mother, but of herself, and in doing so provides an acute symbol of a woman’s dueling loyalties to herself and her community.
The Alien Life Form
In another exploration of the existential challenges of life on the western frontier, Wharton introduces us to a family living in the San Fernando Valley. The father, a tanner by trade, indulges an obsession with all things exotic and foreign that is accentuated when a stranger appears on the family homestead. This alien life form, with his dark skin, wild, unkempt hair, and unconventional diet (he has a special affinity for eating cats—a metaphor, no doubt, for his ravenous consumption of all that this new world has to offer), captivates a family already enamored of pushing the boundaries of man’s exploration of as-yet uncharted lands. But the stranger—first welcomed with open arms by the tanner’s family—slowly ingratiates himself into their lives in ways that threaten the father’s moral authority. He becomes a confidant to the young son, who begins to take on some of his mentor’s foreign ways, and courts the elder daughter, who rebuffs his advances. The alien, caught between his desire for all that this new world has to offer and the faint but compelling call of his old life, must finally make a choice. Through the alien, Wharton invites us each to see ourselves—our own struggles between the safe complacency of the person we know ourselves to be and the vulnerability we face when we strike out against the frontier of our own identities.
To Your Health
Wharton returns to her familiar Northeastern stomping ground in this epic and sprawling novel about a tavern and its patrons. Like Wharton’s Ethan Frome, the owner of the tavern is a man who, due to his own impotence, has resigned himself to a life that is far from the dreams of fame and fortune held by his younger self. The patrons of the tavern are a case study in both the sometimes painful clash, but also the beautiful potential for kinship, between the high and low class. The convergence of government workers, psychotherapists, and other colorful characters in the tavern make it both the epicenter and microcosm of the larger community. An apt representation of this commingling of people from different walks of life is the novel’s central relationship between the tavern owner, Samuel, and his employee, Diane, a lovely young woman of breeding and education who is forced to work as a cocktail waitress at the working-class establishment after being left bereft by her lover. The two carry out a years-long will-they-or-won’t-they romance before she eventually runs away to pursue her literary dreams (no doubt a reference to Wharton’s own struggles to make a name for herself in the male-dominated world of the literati of turn-of-the-century America). Wharton’s genius is to simultaneously represent the congeniality of the tavern community and the coldness and anonymity of urban life. Here drink is at once the elixir of life and the poison of complacency and broken dreams. A favorite patron, Norm, is clearly named thus to reinforce his representation as the everyman (the “Norm” qua “normal”) who is simultaneously embraced by his community and yet never truly known to it. As a striking example of this fact, neither the reader nor the bar patrons and workers who claim to be Norm’s closest friends ever meet his wife, Vera. When the lamps are finally extinguished, both patrons and reader have come to understand the truth—that although the tavern seems to be a place where everybody knows your name, roiling just beneath its surface are passion, conflict, and ultimately, loss.