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Edith Wharton’s personal letters have become integral to an understanding of Wharton’s life and literary production. Because of elements central to most academic projects, however, scholars are rarely able to embrace the many and varied aspects of Wharton which her letters reveal. Re-examining the letters offers a gallery of newly detailed Whartons, including the athletic teenager and happy new wife, the author who sometimes expressed racist, anti-Semitic, and classist views, and the world traveler who was domestically homey. Further, the letters demonstrate their own importance in her life: they were the means through which she maintained friendships (including those with the Berensons and with Gaillard Lapsley) that were vital to her emotional well-being. The letters reveal Wharton creating literary masterpieces and getting through the challenges of history and of everyday existence; they also demonstrate her thorough literariness, inventiveness, and humor. The re-examined personal letters offer a complex, contradictory, irreducible Wharton.
In 1948, Lionel Trilling observed that Henry James's novel The Princess Casamassima ‘belongs to a great line of novels which runs through the nineteenth century as … the very backbone of its fiction’, that is, the novel about ‘the Young Man from the Provinces’. According to Trilling, this subgenre – which includes (among others) Balzac's Père Goriot, Flaubert's Sentimental Education and Dickens's Great Expectations – tells the story of the young man who goes off to ‘seek his fortune’ in the enticing but bewildering world of the great city. The young man, usually ‘equipped with poverty, pride, and intelligence’, is ‘likely to be in some doubt about his parentage’ he ‘move[s] from an obscure position into one of considerable eminence in Paris or London or St. Petersburg’. Although he meets obstacles, ‘it is not his part merely to be puzzled and hurt … [H]e is concerned to know how the political and social world are run and enjoyed; he wants a share in power and pleasure and in consequence he takes real risks’. Through his experience readers ‘have learned most of what we know about modern society, about class and its strange rituals, about power and influence and about money, the hard fluent fact in which modern society has its being’.
Trilling and others, however, have said little about what one might call the younger sister of the novel about the young man from the provinces – the novel about the girl from the provinces.