The politics of prose

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On the final pages of her 880-page biography “Edith Wharton,” released this week, Hermione Lee recounts her visit to the novelist’s neglected grave in Versailles. “[T]he tomb was covered with weeds, old bottles and a very ancient pot of dead flowers,” she writes. Miss Lee “tidied up” the grave, weeding it and planting a single silk flower.

One hopes her magisterial biography will do the same thing for Miss Wharton’s reputation.

When the phrase “great American novelist” is tossed around, the 20th-century names most often cited are F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. But a trio of female writers — Miss Wharton, Willa Cather and Dawn Powell — has done just as much to chronicle the American psyche.

These three aren’t simply undervalued women who in the name of “diversity” deserve a more secure place in the canon — they should be at its peak.

That they’re not says much about how literary reputation is born and sustained. Experimentalism counts for a lot; so does cutting a romantic figure.

In terms of sustained literary achievement, though, it would be hard to top Edith Wharton. She wrote 42 novels, all the more impressive after a late start: Miss Lee marks the beginning of her career at age 37. At that age, Mr. Fitzgerald was seven years away from death, about to publish just his fourth — and final — novel.

Miss Wharton was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature (for 1920’s “The Age of Innocence”), but her reputation soon sagged. As Miss Lee told the Boston Globe, with the 1930s “and the radical change of style and much more openness coming in about sexuality, she began to be seen as frosty and old-fashioned and as kind of a minor feminine Henry James.”

Films have made Miss Wharton better known. But these “costume dramas” have also reinforced the very image of her as a literary antique of which Miss Lee speaks.

The writer wasn’t helped by a documentary that aired earlier this month on PBS. “Novel Reflections on the American Dream” examined seven novels, including Miss Wharton’s “The House of Mirth.”

The novel is a profound exploration of American society through the story of one woman trying to hang onto her soul. It’s all there — the pursuit of wealth, the American dream of social mobility, social expectations versus individual desire, the plight of women.

Miss Wharton wrote the Great American Novel more than once. But “Reflections” focuses sensationally on one scene in which Lily Bart discovers a married friend has loaned her money to obtain sexual favors.

Miss Wharton’s career — her final novels are as good as her early ones — stands in sharp contrast to that of both misters Fitzgerald and Hemingway. The former never managed to complete his beautiful final work-in-progress about Hollywood’s Golden Age, “The Last Tycoon.” The latter’s last novel generally deemed great was “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” published more than 20 years before his death.

But then Miss Wharton didn’t fit the popular image of the hard-living artist. Misters Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner were all alcoholics. It hurt their work, most notably in Mr. Fitzgerald’s case — he wrote only two masterpieces. But it also made them romantic figures.

All three men, to some degree, lived their lives in the public eye. Mr. Fitzgerald was famous for booze-fueled antics; Mr. Hemingway may ultimately be remembered less for his work than for his macho posturing and being the last American novelist to achieve household name celebrity; Mr. Faulkner wrote scripts for big films in Hollywood.

Miss Wharton, who often took reserve as her theme, kept her private life private. It was the same with Willa Cather, who won the Pulitzer two years after Miss Wharton. Like Dawn Powell, Miss Cather moved from the Midwest to New York. But she lived a reclusive life, forgoing the late-night, literary bacchanalia that might have made her better known.

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