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Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth: A Casebook

In this volume, noted Wharton scholar Carol Singley collects a range of essays on Edith  Wharton’s 1905 masterpiece The House of Mirth. The essays are at once accessible, informative, and exemplary of the discipline of literary criticism as a whole since 1980. Much of the critical commentary in this collection will be familiar to those who have followed developments in Wharton studies over the last generation. Its great strength emerges in its depth of coverage for the period from 1980’s to 2000, a fecund era for Wharton scholarship. Apart from its specific utility to readers of The House of Mirth, this volume provides the occasion to think more broadly about how and why fashions—in manners and in values—undergo change, a concept central to much of Wharton’s work.  

Following Singley’s brief, straightforward introduction, the collection begins with two short pieces by Wharton herself. The first is a well-known excerpt from the author’s memoir, A Backward Glance, about the inspiration behind The House of Mirth. The second, less commonly reprinted, is the introduction she wrote for the novel’s 1936 edition. In this essay,

Wharton ruminates on what it means for a book to outlast its own time. The surprise and awe that she feels for her creation’s longevity ought to frame our own reading experience seventy years later, now that The House of Mirth has achieved its centenary, as a vibrant work still capable of generating debate.  

The earliest essay in this collection, by Joan Lidoff, begins by noting the “renewal of interest in The House of Mirth” at the beginning of the 1980s. The collection includes subsequent watershed works from that decade by Wai Chee Dimock, Elaine Showalter, and Amy Kaplan. Each of these major critics contributed important scholarship on Wharton and helped shape American literary criticism at the time. The collection is not organized in strict chronological order, a puzzling editorial decision. Yet when looked at as a group, the essays from the 1990s do show the subtle changes that occurred in Wharton studies as her canonical status became more fully assured. The later essays in this collection, like most Wharton scholarship today, tend to focus less intensively on Wharton’s biography; the authors see themselves less as advocates for Wharton’s greatness than do their predecessors. The new approach is exemplified by Jennie Kassanoff’s essay from 2000, the most recent work included. She explores the importance of race, gender, and class issues from a vantage not entirely flattering to Wharton.  

As a whole, Singley’s collection serves two functions. First, it has brought together some of the best, most astute, most influential writing on The House of Mirth, a novel as important now, 100 years after its original publication, as ever. Second, it has provided a snapshot of literary criticism over the last generation. Like the volume’s minimal scaffolding, the choice not to include critics and reviews from before 1980 should make this work useful for undergraduates who simply want an introduction to the debates and ideas surrounding The House of Mirth. At the same time, specialists interested in literary movements should enjoy what this collection can reveal about the history and fashion of ideas.

—Joshua Kotzin, Marist College

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