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Jennie A. Kassanoff, Edith Wharton and the Politics of Race (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, $70.00, 226 pages, ISBN 0-521-83089-3)Chris Bell, Nottingham Trent University


Readers familiar with Edith Wharton’s oeuvre will immediately be attracted to or perplexed by the title of this critical text. Known and revered primarily for her works examining the trials and travails of American, particularly New England, upper-crust societies at the turn of the twentieth century, one might be inclined to wonder how Kassanoff could effectively identify and explicate issues of race in Wharton’s works, especially given the fact that Wharton is not often viewed as a writer concerned with or even mildly interested in issues of race.

Indeed, within the first few pages of this text, it becomes clear that Kassanoff does not really produce a successful critique, due notably to the fact that Wharton’s forays into race were so few and far between. Moreover, Kassanoff barely attempts to conceal the fact that her critique is not grounded in race so much as it is instantiations of classthat is the kind of examination of Wharton’s works that occurs on a quotidian basis. By that light, there is very little new information presented in this text, which, given its misleading title, isn’t that hard to understand.  

One of the key questions this text raises, perhaps unintentionally, is what does the individual choose to take and tout as “history,” with the secondary concern of who is left out of that history and why? With specific regard to Edith Wharton and the Politics of Race, Kassanoff’s version of history is tellingly entrenched in whiteness. If she intended to discuss how white is a race, then perhaps there might be a point to emphasizing so much white history. Since she does not, her critique’s limited focus becomes all the more distressing. A case in point: In a discussion of French culture, Kassanoff notes how Wharton appreciated the French for their “unprecedented level of artistic and racial continuity” [22]. She goes on to observe that the French can “trace their culture back to the cave painters of prehistoric Europe” [ibid]. Such a statement should alert careful readers, causing them alarm, in that it presupposes that all French subjects have some sort of biological connection and/or allegiance with the European continent. Kassanoff’s conjecture, as it does more often that not, raises troubling questions, in this case: What do you do with the always already present subaltern in your midst? How do you opt not to see this person? More specifically, is Kassanoff actually unaware of the fact that the transatlantic slave trade imported individuals to France from a region outside of Europe and that the descendants of those individuals are themselves seen as “French”? Indeed, does she not realize that at the time Wharton wrote, slavery was outlawed in France, meaning that those individuals who had been imported were (on their way to becoming) “French” even then? Additionally, at the time Wharton wrote, wasn’t France one of the chief proponents of colonization, “owning” lands in Africa? Weren’t the people populating those lands conceived of as “French,” albeit at a lower rung on the nationalist hierarchy?    

Such “structuralist” gaffes are not limited to the notion of so-called “French” individuals. Consider this excerpt, wherein Kassanoff reveals her all-encompassing idea of an “American”: “As Charles Bowen tells Laura Fairford in The Custom of the Country, Americans are epitomized by their women” [35]. Immediately, the reader wonders, who is an American in Kassanoff’s conception? Who, specifically, is being discussed and how does the focus on that singular conception of an American necessarily relegate “other” Americans to the margins? These questions become all the more significant given the fact that the work under examination here, Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, was published in 1913, a mere ten years following W.E.B. Du Bois’s landmark treatise The Souls of Black Folk. If we agree that blacks were “Americans” at the turn of the twentieth century just as the former African slaves were “French” at the same time, then it is worth recognizing that Du Bois was not speaking about black women in his text so much as he was discussing certain black men (point of clarification: he writes of double consciousness, not triple consciousness). To that end, the statement that “Americans are epitomized by their women” takes on a new (racialized) complexity that Kassanoff does not even begin to consider, let alone address.   

One of the more distressing aspects of the text is that Kassanoff misses even the most obvious opportunities to discuss titular issues of race. For example, she inserts this statement in the midst of a textual analysis: “These so-called ‘down-and-outers […] ‘passed’ among America’s poor” [94]. What is the purpose of placing the term “passed” in quotation marks, of emphasizing it as a trope, if you’re going to do nothing to discuss how the term is generally conceived, its racial implications? Stated differently, why deploy that particular term which was invoked during the time Wharton wrote, to bring to mind racial masquerading in this, a text that purports to connect Wharton to a politics of race, and leave it unexamined? As with many instances in the text, Kassanoff’s critique leaves much to be desired.

This brings me to one of the central problems of Edith Wharton and the Politics of Race. If you’re going to write a text that alleges a discussion of race in the works of an author who, for all intents and purposes, did not discuss race, you might find yourself padding the text. This explains the frequent inclusion of rather irrelevant material throughout the bulk of the work. In the middle of the volume, for instance, there is a discussion of euthanasia that is somewhat out of place and decontextualized [73]. Later, Kassanoff includes an anecdote about, as she describes him, “a comparatively minor American journalist, W. Morton Fullerton” [72] and his meeting in France with Theodore Roosevelt. Peppering one’s critical text with examinations of minor figures is not altogether disingenuous, although it might have helped if Kassanoff had informed her reader of this particular one’s relevance and bearing on the issue at hand. Consider as well these sentences at the beginning of one of her latter chapters:

Despite its isolated setting in the remote hill country of western Massachusetts, [Wharton's novel] Summer draws its force from a range of international and domestic concerns that together inform its deeply conservative message. This chapter proposes to account for these diverse cultural sources and their cumulative effect. [112]

Immediately, the reader cannot help but notice that the chapter’s stated focus has little to do with the text’s titular aims.

In those rare moments when Kassanoff does manage to stay on topic, the critique is sadly underdeveloped. For example, in a discussion of the aforementioned Wharton text Summer, Kassanoff begins to address issues of agency, race mixing and “race suicide” [145], concepts that warrant a sustained treatment, then quickly veers away from the topic in favor of a completely unrelated subject. Another example is this statement placed at the end of one of her earlier chapters: “To study Wharton’s politics is to understand at once the inventiveness of her fiction and the complex ways that she interacted with the issues of her day. Doubtful of her nation’s beginnings, Wharton nonetheless mined America’s ambiguity for all of its protean promise” [36]. The reader would like to know how this process of mining occurred instead of being left with an unanalyzed over-generalization. The occasional substitution of sweeping generalizations in lieu of concrete critical analysis is one of this text’s frustrating aspects.

To her credit, Kassanoff doesn’t reinstantiate turn-of-the-century racial strife and discord. She veers away from the caustic sentiments characterizing much of the contemporaneous discourse of the day. Of course this isn’t saying much, in that so little of Edith Wharton and the Politics of Race actually focuses on race that she hardly has an opportunity to come across as racially insensitive. Nonetheless, it is strange (revealing?) that in a text that claims to be about race, Kassanoff has no qualms with the inclusion of this assertion:

Like Cushing who, after eight months among the Zuni, reported that he could speak "a strangely complicated tongue not perfectly and easily; a tongue [...] difficult to the Anglo-Saxon" [...] Undine can ape the gestures and locutions of the New York and European elite [21, my emphasis]

During the time I was reading Edith Wharton and the Politics of Race, I presented a paper on disability motifs in Wharton’s Ethan Frome at the American Literature Association conference in Boston. One of my co-presenters, Naomi Reed of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, gave a fascinating paper titled “The Jewish Economy of Risk in The House of Mirth.” In it, she offered a rich analysis of the racial differences between Anglo-Saxons and Jews during the time Wharton wrote as well as in the text (focusing particularly on the characters of Selden and Rosedale). I mention this paper because it is evidence that one can persuasively examine the politics of race in Edith Wharton’s works. As in most critical treatments, it depends on how it is done. Speaking to race only obliquely while focusing much more on issues of class, as Kassanoff so obviously does in the misnamed Edith Wharton and the Politics of Race, is not the way to do it. In science it is possible to taint research in order to reach the conclusion you want. I’m not certain that such an endeavor is possible in secondary analyses of literature (and if it is possible, it is certainly not advisable let alone necessary). Instead of pretending to identify racial threads in Wharton’s oeuvre, Kassanoff might have served her readers better by focusing on those turn-of-the-century writers who did discuss race. To reiterate, Edith Wharton is rarely seen as an individual who discussed race in her works. This treatment does little to convince readers and critics that she deserves to be.

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