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.

To this day, scholars wonder if Miss Cather consummated any of her relationships with women — a debate whose ferocity might be keeping her from transcending a claim to the canon as a possibly lesbian token of literary pluralism to one based strictly on literary merit.

Novelist A.S. Byatt argued a few months ago in the Guardian that Miss Cather should be considered a great writer. “Americans I met,” she recalls, “usually knew only ‘My Antonia,’ and saw her as a writer they read at school, who specialised in ‘local colour’ about frontier life.”

But Miss Cather has explored, perhaps better than anyone else, the spirit that built America. And as New Yorker writer Joan Acocella has said, “Her world has so much to do so directly with the most central problems of living.” She wrote men as well as she did women, with clarity and insight into the human heart.

When Sinclair Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, he said Miss Cather should have won instead.

In considering Miss Cather’s critical reputation, Terry Teachout, writing in the March 2000 National Review, cited reasons similar to those for Miss Wharton’s neglect: “Her cool chronicles of prairie life and its discontents contained no Joycean word-juggling, no torrid sex scenes, no class consciousness — none of the ingredients, in short, that literary intellectuals of the ‘30s deemed indispensable.”

Those same reasons — minus the lack of sex — might also be why the name Dawn Powell isn’t on everyone’s lips.

Tim Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic for The Washington Post, is almost single-handedly responsible for reviving her reputation. Miss Powell, who died in 1965, was virtually unheard of amongst the wider public until Mr. Page wrote a 1998 biography and arranged for many of her 15 novels to be reprinted, including in the Library of America.

Miss Powell’s masterpieces include 1936’s “Turn, Magic Wheel,” a deliciously satirical but sensitive look at literary life in New York, and 1942’s “A Time to be Born,” a thinly veiled send-up of Clare Boothe Luce. She also wrote novels, like “Come Back to Sorrento,” about her Midwestern roots.

“These are great American novels,” Mr. Page declares.

Mr. Page, who lives in Baltimore, suggests two reasons she didn’t receive more acclaim.

“She upset social conservatives with her characters, who tend to sleep around and drink a lot, and are not necessarily admirable role models for anybody,” he muses. “Then she ticked off the left because she was not a utopian. When she was writing, a lot of the literary world was left of center. She never believed in revolutions, she never believed in inspirational literature. She saw humanity in a mess — always was, always would be. … There are still people offended by her willingness to look at life head on.”

Female scholars have championed many neglected female writers. But Mr. Page notes that Miss Powell’s biggest fans have been men. “She doesn’t present women as any nobler than men,” he observes. “Everybody is a target for her pen.”

Miss Powell did drink heavily, but she was no one’s image of the dashing authoress. “She was short and plump and unpretentious,” says Mr. Page.

“She was not great at self-promotion,” he adds. “Hemingway was nonstop publicity. Fitzgerald too.”

Miss Powell’s New York books re-create a milieu every bit as richly imagined and unforgettable as Mr. Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County — and a lot more, um, intelligible. “I can’t read Faulkner,” confesses Mr. Page. “He does absolutely nothing for me.”

He’s not the only one.

Some enterprising soul has posted on the Internet “Machine translation or Faulkner?” — a quiz asking you to deduce whether quotations are computer-translated text from the German or samples of Mr. Faulkner’s prose.

Experimentalism — successful or not — has often counted highly in making a literary reputation. But there are signs that literary modernism — a stream to which misters Hemingway and Faulkner, in particular, and Mr. Fitzgerald, to a lesser degree, belonged — is not aging well.

“The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books,” a new book edited by J. Peder Zane, contains a top-10 list with votes from 125 writers. The closest thing to a modernist book on the list is Mr. Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” (James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” often a mainstay of such projects, was nowhere to be found.)

Frank Wilson, Philadelphia Inquirer book editor, even questioned Mr. Fitzgerald’s inclusion: “It approaches formal perfection but has never struck me as especially profound.”

Misters Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner might have had more influence on American letters — though Mr. Hemingway’s lean style easily lends itself to parody. But that only confirms one of our central premises — that they’ve had more attention. It’s hard to influence budding writers when they haven’t read you — or even heard of you.

The women’s influence is gaining. Mr. Page says it’s pretty much impossible to write about New York artists without thinking about Miss Powell.

Her novel “A Time to Be Born,” begins, “This was no time to cry over one broken heart.” Misses Powell, Wharton and Cather did more in their books than just tell the tale of one broken heart. They explored the heart of a nation with the best of them.

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