“The Debt” — Edith Wharton

“The Debt” by Edith Wharton

I

YOU remember—it’s not so long ago—the talk there was about Dredge’s “Arrival of the Fittest”? The talk has subsided, but the book of course remains: stands up, in fact, as the tallest thing of its kind since—well, I’d almost said since “The Origin of Species.”

I’m not wrong, at any rate, in calling it the most important contribution yet made to the development of the Darwinian theory, or rather to the solution of the awkward problem about which that theory has had to make such a circuit. Dredge’s hypothesis will be contested, may one day be disproved; but at least it has swept out of the way all previous conjectures, including of course Lanfear’s magnificent attempt; and for our generation of scientific investigators it will serve as the first safe bridge across a murderous black whirlpool.

It’s all very interesting—there are few things more stirring to the imagination than that sudden projection of the new hypothesis, light as a cobweb and strong as steel, across the intellectual abyss; but, for an idle observer of human motives, the other, the personal, side of Dredge’s case is even more interesting and arresting.

Personal side? You didn’t know there was one? Pictured him simply as a thinking machine, a highly specialized instrument of precision, the result of a long series of “adaptations,” as his own jargon would put it? Well, I don’t wonder—if you’ve met him. He does give the impression of being something out of his own laboratory: a delicate scientific instrument that reveals wonders to the initiated, and is absolutely useless in an ordinary hand.

In his youth it was just the other way. I knew him twenty years ago, as an awkward lout whom young Archie Lanfear had picked up at college, and brought home for a visit. I happened to be staying at the Lanfears’ when the boys arrived, and I shall never forget Dredge’s first appearance on the scene. You know the Lanfears always lived very simply. That summer they had gone to Buzzard’s Bay, in order that Professor Lanfear might be near the Biological Station at Wood’s Holl, and they were picnicking in a kind of sketchy bungalow without any attempt at elegance. But Galen Dredge couldn’t have been more awe-struck if he’d been suddenly plunged into a Fifth Avenue ball-room. He nearly knocked his shock head against the low doorway, and in dodging this peril trod heavily on Mabel Lanfear’s foot, and became hopelessly entangled in her mother’s draperies—though how he managed it I never knew, for Mrs. Lanfear’s dowdy muslins ran to no excess of train.

When the Professor himself came in it was ten times worse, and I saw then that Dredge’s emotion was a tribute to the great man’s proximity. That made the boy interesting, and I began to watch. Archie, always enthusiastic but vague, had said: “Oh, he’s a tremendous chap—you’ll see—” but I hadn’t expected to see quite so clearly. Lanfear’s vision, of course, was sharper than mine; and the next morning he had carried Dredge off to the Biological Station. And that was the way it began.

Dredge is the son of a Baptist minister. He comes from East Lethe, New York State, and was working his way through college—waiting at White Mountain hotels in summer—when Archie Lanfear ran across him. There were eight children in the family, and the mother was an invalid. Dredge never had a penny from his father after he was fourteen; but his mother wanted him to be a scholar, and “kept at him,” as he put it, in the hope of his going back to “teach school” at East Lethe. He developed slowly, as the scientific mind generally does, and was still adrift about himself and his tendencies when Archie took him down to Buzzard’s Bay. But he had read Lanfear’s “Utility and Variation,” and had always been a patient and curious observer of nature. And his first meeting with Lanfear explained him to himself. It didn’t, however, enable him to explain himself to others, and for a long time he remained, to all but Lanfear, an object of incredulity and conjecture. Continue reading ““The Debt” — Edith Wharton”

“The Triumph of Night” — Edith Wharton

“The Triumph of Night” by Edith Wharton

I

It was clear that the sleigh from Weymore had not come; and the shivering young traveller from Boston, who had so confidently counted on jumping into it when he left the train at Northridge Junction, found himself standing alone on the open platform, exposed to the full assault of nightfall and winter.

The blast that swept him came off New Hampshire snow fields and ice-hung forests. It seemed to have traversed interminable leagues of frozen silence, filling them with the same cold roar and sharpening its edge against the same bitter black and white landscape. Dark, searching, and sword-like, it alternately muffled and harried its victim, like a bullfighter now whirling his cloak and now planting his darts. This analogy brought home to the young man the fact that he himself had no cloak, and that the overcoat in which he had faced the relatively temperate airs of Boston seemed no thicker than a sheet of paper on the bleak heights of Northridge. George Faxon said to himself that the place was uncommonly well named. It clung to an exposed ledge over the valley from which the train had lifted him, and the wind combed it with teeth of steel that he seemed actually to hear scraping against the wooden sides of the station. Other building there was none: the village lay far down the road, and thither—since the Weymore sleigh had not come—Faxon saw himself under the immediate necessity of plodding through several feet of snow.

He understood well enough what had happened at Weymore: his hostess had forgotten that he was coming. Young as Faxon was, this sad lucidity of soul had been acquired as the result of long experience, and he knew that the visitors who can least afford to hire a carriage are almost always those whom their hosts forget to send for. Yet to say Mrs. Culme had forgotten him was perhaps too crude a way of putting it. Similar incidents led him to think that she had probably told her maid to tell the butler to telephone the coachman to tell one of the grooms (if no one else needed him) to drive over to Northridge to fetch the new secretary; but on a night like this what groom who respected his rights would fail to forget the order?

Faxon’s obvious course was to struggle through the drifts to the village, and there rout out a sleigh to convey him to Weymore; but what if, on his arrival at Mrs. Culme’s, no one remembered to ask him what this devotion to duty had cost? That, again, was one of the contingencies he had expensively learned to look out for, and the perspicacity so acquired told him it would be cheaper to spend the night at the Northridge inn, and advise Mrs. Culme of his presence there by telephone. He had reached this decision, and was about to entrust his luggage to a vague man with a lantern who seemed to have some loose connection with the railway company, when his hopes were raised by the sound of sleigh bells.

Two vehicles were just dashing up to the station, and from the foremost there sprang a young man swathed in furs.

“Weymore?—No, these are not the Weymore sleighs.” Continue reading ““The Triumph of Night” — Edith Wharton”

“Losing Memory” — Lydia Davis

“Losing Memory” by Lydia Davis:

You ask me about Edith Wharton.
Well, the name is very familiar.

“I Finally Got Tired of Being Angry at Roth” — What Jonathan Franzen’s Been Reading

Time profiles Jonathan Franzen this week (part of the push for his new novel Freedom, out later this month). Franzen also talks about five works that have “inspired him recently.” Here are his comments on those books–

The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal

Instead of sitting for years at his writing desk, pulling his hair, Stendhal served with the French diplomatic corps in his favorite country, Italy, and then came home and dictated his novel in less than eight weeks: what a great model for how to be a writer and still have some kind of life! The book is at once deeply cynical and hopelessly romantic, all about politics but also all about love, and just about impossible to put down.

The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley

There’s nothing fancy about the writing in Smiley’s masterpiece, and yet every sentence of its eight hundred pages is clean and necessary. For the two weeks it took me to read it, I didn’t want to be anywhere else but in late-medieval Greenland, following the passions and feuds and farming crises of European settlers trying to survive in the face of ecological doom. It all felt weirdly and plausibly contemporary.
Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth

I finally got tired of being angry at Roth for his self-indulgent excesses and weak dialogue and thin female characters and decided to open myself to his genius for invention and his heroic lack of shame. Whole chunks of Sabbath’s Theater can be safely skipped, but the great stuff is truly great: the scene in which Mickey Sabbath panhandles on the New York with a paper coffee cup, for example, or the scene in which Sabbath’s best friend catches him relaxing in the bathtub and fondling his (the friend’s) young daughter’s underpants.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Wharton’s male characters suffer from some of the deficiencies that Roth’s female characters do, but the heroine of House of Mirth, Lily Bart, is one of the great characters in American literature, a pretty and smart but impecunious New York society woman who can’t quite pull the trigger on marrying for money. Wharton’s love for Lily is equal to the cruelty that Wharton’s story relentlessly inflicts on her; and so we recognize our entire selves in her.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

A lifelong heavy drinker with his most famous novel well behind him, Steinbeck set out to write a mythic version of his family’s American experience that would embody the whole story of our country’s lost innocence and possible redemption. There are infelicities on almost every page, and the fact that the book succeeds brilliantly anyway is a testament to the power of Steinbeck’s storytelling: to his ferocious will to make sense of his life and his country.