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Edith Wharton's Resource Aesthetics and the Dawn of the American Energy Crisis

  • ALAN ACKERMAN (a1)

Abstract

Situating Edith Wharton in the context of America's accelerating petro-culture, this essay argues that her novels critique a society that takes for granted high-volume, nonrenewable energy, and specifically revolutionary new kinds of energy: petroleum, natural gas, and the fossil-fueled power stations necessary for the large-scale, continuous production of electricity. Attention to the idiom of energy in The House of Mirth and its mirror text, The Custom of the Country, along with Ida Tarbell's History of Standard Oil and Theodore Roosevelt's conservationism, sheds new light on assumptions about moral agency, personal freedom, changing modes of thought, and the environment between 1880 and World War I. The essay shows how Wharton's allegorical treatment of Lily Bart and Undine Spragg anticipates the notion of externalities or consequences of industrial activities that affect outside parties but are not reflected in the cost of production.

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References

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1 Wharton, Edith, The House of Mirth (New York: Penguin, 1986; first published 1905), 268.

2 Yaeger, Patricia, editor's column, “Literature in the Ages of Wood, Tallow, Coal, Whale Oil, Gasoline, Atomic Power, and Other Energy Sources,” PMLA, 126, 2 (March 2011), 305–10.

3 Adams, Henry, The Education of Henry Adams (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1961; first published 1906), 399.

4 Wharton, House of Mirth, 7, 5.

5 Wharton, Edith, A Backward Glance (New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1934), 207.

6 Nevius, Blake, Edith Wharton: A Study of Her Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957), 55.

7 Wharton, House of Mirth, 6, 3.

8 Szeman, Imre, After Oil (Edmonton: Petrocultures Research Group, 2016), 13.

9 Quoted in Lewis, R. W. B., Edith Wharton: A Biography (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 230.

10 Wharton, House of Mirth, 318.

11 Wharton, Edith, The Custom of the Country (1913), in Wharton, Novels (New York: The Library of America, 1985), 621–1014, 1003, 982.

12 Adams, Henry, The Letters of Henry Adams, 6 vols., ed. Levenson, J. C, Samuels, Ernest, Vandersee, Charles, and Winner, Viola Hopkins (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), Volume V, 400.

13 Chief Engineer William J. Wilgus quoted in Roberts, Sam, Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2013), 73.

14 Horkheimer, Max and Adorno., Theodor W. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, ed. Noerr., Gunzelin Schmid, tr. Jephcott, Edmund (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2002), 1.

15 Wharton, House of Mirth, 318.

16 Ibid., 112.

17 Wharton, Custom of the Country, 970.

18 Ibid., 691.

19 Wharton, House of Mirth, 5.

20 Bellamy, Brent Ryan, O'Driscoll, Michael, and Simpson, Mark, “Introduction: Toward a Theory of Resource Aesthetics,” Postmodern Culture, 26, 2 (Jan. 2016), at https://muse.jhu.edu/article/635537, accessed 21 Feb. 2018.

21 Eagleton, Terry, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 9.

22 Wharton, House of Mirth, 5.

23 Ibid., 104.

24 Veblen, Thorstein, The Theory of the Leisure Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 58.

25 Ibid., 135, 136.

26 Wharton, House of Mirth, 70.

27 Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Resources,” in The Later Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 2 vols., ed. Bosco, Ronald A. and Myerson, Joel (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001), Volume II, 340–59, 240.

28 The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 10 vols., ed. Ralph L. Rusk and Eleanor Tilton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939, 1990–1995), Volume IV, 107.

29 Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Nature (1836), in Emerson, Essays and Lectures (New York: The Library of America, 1983), 549.

30 Ibid., 33.

31 Ibid., 48.

32 Ibid., 17.

33 Wharton, House of Mirth, 13.

34 Emerson, Nature, 12.

35 Emerson, “Resources,” 240.

36 Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 104.

37 Wharton, Custom of the Country, 633.

38 Lee, Hermione, Edith Wharton (London: Vintage, 2007), 120.

39 Wharton, House of Mirth, 110. Others have discussed Lily as commodity; cf. Tyson, Lois, “Beyond Morality: Lily Bart, Lawrence Selden and the Aesthetic Commodity in The House of Mirth,” Edith Wharton Review, 9, 2 (Fall 1992), 310.

40 LeMenager, Stephanie, Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 66.

41 Wharton, House of Mirth, 166.

42 Ibid., 38.

43 Adams, Letters, Volume VI, 269; James, Henry, The Letters of Henry James, 4 vols., ed. Edel, Leon (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), Volume IV, 525.

44 Lewis, Edith Wharton, xii.

45 The Costs of Energy: 1919–1927,” in The Letters of Edith Wharton, ed. Lewis, R. W. B. and Lewis, Nancy (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988), 415507.

46 Wharton, Edith, The Age of Innocence (1920) in Wharton, Novels (New York: The Library of America, 1985), 10151302, 1287.

47 Lee, 88.

48 Wharton, House of Mirth, 49.

49 Wharton, A Backward Glance, 6–7.

50 Ibid., 317.

51 James, Henry, Selected Letters, ed. Edel, Leon (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974), 16 Jan. 1905, 360.

52 Leupp, Francis E., The Man Roosevelt: A Portrait Sketch (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1915), 289.

53 See William R. Nester, The War for America's Natural Resources, 82–84, and 1903 speeches, at www.theodore-roosevelt.com/images/research/txtspeeches/40.txt; www.theodore-roosevelt.com/images/research/txtspeeches/80.txt.

54 Theodore Roosevelt, “Remarks at Leland Stanford Jr. University,” 12 May 1903, at www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=97726, accessed 28 July 2017.

55 Wharton, House of Mirth, 311.

56 “Electric Cars Attract Attention,” New York Times, 20 Jan. 1911, accessed 5 June 2017, at http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9406E4DA1331E233A25753C2A9679C946096D6CF; https://energy.gov/articles/history-electric-car.

57 Kern, Stephen, The Culture of Time and Space: 1880–1918 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 114.

58 Heather Rogers, “Current Thinking,” New York Times Magazine, 3 June 2007, at www.nytimes.com/2007/06/03/magazine/03wwln-essay-t.html, accessed 21 Feb. 2018.

59 “The Natural Wealth of the Land and Its Conservation,” address delivered by Mr. James J. Hill, White House, Washington, at the Conference on the Conservation of National Resources, 13–15 May 1908, at https://archive.org/details/naturalwealthofl00hilluoft.

60 Wharton, House of Mirth, 233; Pigou, Arthur Cecil, The Economics of Welfare (London: MacMillan and Company, 1920), 115.

61 Wharton, House of Mirth, 148.

62 Ibid., 321.

63 Ibid., 64.

64 Ibid., 68.

65 Ibid., 71.

66 Trachtenberg, Alan, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), 84.

67 Ibid., 86.

68 Tarbell, Ida, The History of Standard Oil (New York: McClure, Phillips, and Co. 1904), 39.

69 Quoted in Jonathan Joseph Wlasiuk, “Refining Nature: Standard Oil and the Limits of Efficiency, 1863–1920,” dissertation, Case Western Reserve, 2012, 16.

70 Wharton, House of Mirth, 134.

71 McIlvaine, Robert, “Edith Wharton's American Beauty Rose,” Journal of American Studies, 7, 2 (Aug. 1973), 183–85, 184.

72 Wharton, House of Mirth, 301.

73 Quoted in Wlasiuk, “Refining Nature,” 192.

74 Wharton, House of Mirth, 64.

75 Kochersberger, Robert C. Jr., ed., More Than a Muckraker: Ida Tarbell's Lifetime Journalism (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994), xlvi.

76 Wharton, House of Mirth, 176.

77 Ibid., 301.

78 Smil, Vaclav, Energy: A Beginner's Guide (London: Oneworld, 2006), 8.

79 Wharton, House of Mirth, 116.

80 Adams, Education, 380.

81 Ibid., 382.

82 Gooday, Graeme, Domesticating Electricity: Technology, Uncertainty and Gender, 1880–1914 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2008), 7.

83 Ibid., 6.

84 Independent Statistical Analysis, US Energy Information Administration, at www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/showtext.php?t=ptb1601; World Energy Consumption since 1820 in Charts, https://ourfiniteworld.com/2012/03/12/world-energy-consumption-since-1820-in-charts, accessed 27 July 2017.

85 Wharton, Custom of the Country, 638.

86 Ibid., 642.

87 Ibid., 693.

88 Ibid., 671.

89 Ibid., 810.

90 Ibid., 701.

91 Ibid., 759.

92 Ibid., 908.

93 Ibid., 807.

94 Ibid., 808.

95 Ibid., 754.

96 Ibid., 963.

97 Ibid., 990.

98 Letters of Edith Wharton, 192.

99 Wharton, A Backward Glance, 363–64.

100 Quoted in Lewis, Edith Wharton, 424.

101 F. T. Marinetti, “Fondazione e Manifesto del futurismo,” at www.gutenberg.org/files/28144/28144-h/28144-h.htm, accessed 18 July 2017.

102 Wharton, Edith, A Motor-Flight through France (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1909; first published 1908), 1.

103 James, Letters of Henry James, Volume IV, 373.

Edith Wharton's Resource Aesthetics and the Dawn of the American Energy Crisis

  • ALAN ACKERMAN (a1)

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