In Nancy Armstrong’s Desire and Domestic Fiction (1987), the literary critic discusses the role of writing in reproducing cultural norms and mores. By reading novels, citizens internalize the rules of polite society; they learn how they ought to act. While Armstrong’s argument does implicate novelists themselves in whatever happens to be wrong with a given society, she also establishes the novel as a potential space for resistance. That is, while books reproduce their current cultures, they also shape them. Perhaps this is why some of the most incisive critics of polite society over the centuries have by writers. Case in point: Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Louis Auchincloss. In fact, it’s not just writers, but a very specific type of novelist.
Legendary Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye, attempting to do a sort of genealogical work on the modern novel, picked out four separate strands in the novel’s history dating back to Cervantes. Rather than simply one monolithic genre, he asserted that ‘The Novel’ as we now know it could, at least in its early days, be broken up in four categories: novel, romance, confession, and anatomy. The difference between the first two categories was, for Frye, best exemplified by the difference between the works of Jane Austen and Emily Brontë. Both wrote novels that were deeply personal (as opposed to the the ‘dianoia’ categories of confession and anatomy, which were more focused on the intellectual and the abstract than the personal), but where Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) was both personal and inwardly focused, giving tremendous play to feelings and psychology, Austen was, in her novels, a master of social facts. Her role as a novelist (as opposed to romancer) extraordinaire put her in an ideal position to critique the 18th century English gentry from within. Thus, when Austen shows her readers the plight of Sense and Sensibility’s (1811) Dashwood sisters (whose shaky-limb position on their family tree means that they risk slipping into poverty if they don’t find suitable husbands), readers are not only engrossed by the characters, they are confronted with the fundamental absurdity of it all. For 80,000 words at a time, we get the luxury of seeing not just English mating rituals but almost every facet of that era’s society through Jane Austen’s snarkily-perceptive eyes.
Indeed, because the novel, more so than the romance or the confession, “needs the framework of a stable society,” it is in a unique artistic position when it comes time to critique whatever stable society it is relying on. For this reason, around a hundred years after Jane Austen’s sly, subtly scathing works, it was another writer devoted primarily to personalized, extroverted works who took up the mantel of critic-in-chief for the upper crust. This novelist (and ‘novelist’) was Edith Wharton, an author who utilized a style not entirely dissimilar to Austen’s, but who trained her sights on the social goings on of Old New York.
In such novels as the The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920), Wharton not only creates a number of memorable characters navigating life among Manhattan’s moneyed elite, she situates them perfectly and precisely within their world. Like Austen, Wharton is nearly a pure ‘novelist’ in Northrup Frye’s sense. She leaves the deeply psychological character studies to Dostoevsky and instead uses her characters to expose the cracks in the societies they inhabit. This, perhaps, is what makes for her regard as an astute social critic, while someone like F. Scott Fitzgerald is seen as taking on a less external set of concerns. The results are tragic and hilarious in equal measure.
Of course, in Northrop Frye’s formulation, books that are purely ‘novelistic’ have become increasingly rare since the days of Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson. Most novels in the vernacular sense are hybrids of the four types that Frye outlines. For example, Moby-Dick (1851), ostensibly, is a romance-anatomy. Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) is a novel-romance-confession-anatomy.
If anyone is worried that this hybridization means a low likelihood of someone reprising the role that Jane Austen took in the literature of her era, they may be on to something. Still, that doesn’t mean that Wharton and Austen have no heirs.
Louis Auchincloss, for instance, spent decades fighting the good literary fight, exposing the absurdities of the 20th century’s crop of old money. Auchincloss, who wrote more than 50 books in his life (including some critical work on Edith Wharton and Henry James, a man who certainly deserves to be uttered in the same breath as Ms. Wharton), did so while practicing as a lawyer. He came from an extremely privileged background, and he was not afraid to make use of it—taking hard looks at the wealthiest communities in New York and New England with a novelistic flair.
Neither, naturally, is it the case that no one else belongs in this revered camp. In Wharton’s era, Nella Larsen was in some ways performing a similar sort of novelistic documentation for the upper crust of Black society in Chicago and New York in her novel Passing (1929).
Like Austen and Wharton, she turns a personal, extroverted style into a work that is memorable for the social critique it provides (as opposed to something like The Great Gatsby (1925), or Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929), where the unflinching examinations of high society are less memorable by dint of getting second billing to the psychological work done by the authors). Moving through the twentieth century, we can home in on writers like John Cheever, John O’Hara (whose Appointment in Samarra (1934) bears a number of similarities to Wharton’s House of Mirth), and Richard Yates. Class-wise, these writers are closer to Austen than Wharton—focusing on characters with means, but not the ultra-rich. Thus, each one presents a portrait of the rapidly expanding American suburbs, exposing the strange intricacies of their social mores by dint of both subject and style.
In the 21st century, the novel has become even more hybridized. Think of something like David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (1996), published just before the turn of the century, which certainly contains a critical look of the culture that produced it, but which also presents a wealth of other aesthetic and psychological concerns that vie for our attention—a paradigm at work in many of the noteworthy books of the past few decades. As such, finding a literary successor to Austen, Wharton, and Auchincloss in the current landscape is not a straightforward task. Our best bet may be someone like Jay McInerney or Jonathan Franzen, whose interest in the doings of the modern American middle class is well documented. In fact, Sheila Liming at LARB* draws a strong comparison between Franzen’s Purity (2015) and Edith Wharton’s The Children.
But while Franzen’s novels, like Wharton’s, certainly expose certain below-the-surface concerns with the way that modern American life reproduces its sexual politics, Franzen himself has expressed a certain ambivalence about Wharton’s writing. If we take this fact as emblematic of something larger within the literary culture, we might wonder why that is. Is it possible that, as the novel and society (polite and otherwise) undergo constant change (and change each other in the process) the kind of social criticism that Edith Wharton was known for is no longer thought to be the job of the novelist? Or, has it simply become impossible? A century from now, when historians have given our current era an epithet as pithy as ‘the gilded age’, maybe we’ll find an answer.