Books: The Last Survivor

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A BACKWARD GLANCE by Edith Wharton. 385 pages. Scribner. $6.95.

The most famous story about her is probably the one concerning her meeting with F. Scott Fitzgerald. That was in France in 1925, when Edith Wharton was 63 and Fitzgerald 28. She had written him a letter praising The Great Gatsby and invited him and Zelda to her country home for tea. Zelda refused to go; she was damned, she said, if she would travel 50 miles from Paris to let an old lady stare at her and make her feel provincial. According to Biographer Arthur Mizener, Fitzgerald, fortified with alcohol and determined not to be put down as a provincial, went alone. Their conversation, as he recalled later, went something like this:

"Mrs. Wharton, do you know what's the matter with you?"

"No, Mr. Fitzgerald, I've often wondered about that."

"You don't know anything about life. Why, when my wife and I first came to Paris we lived for two weeks in a bordello!" Edith Wharton was interested but puzzled. After a pause, she said:

"But Mr. Fitzgerald, you haven't explained what they did in the bordello." Fitzgerald fled the room.

Watershed of Manners. The story is not included in A Backward Glance-and not surprisingly. Scott Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton were separated by more than several stiff drinks and the span of a generation. They stood on opposite sides of what she came to think of as the Great Social Divide—World War I—and no effort could reach across that watershed of manners.

Actually, there had been two watersheds—the Civil War being the first. It was after the Civil War that industrial money—"brazen new money," as Edith Newbold Jones Wharton called it —began to change the face of New York. Wharton was the first American novelist to use the breakup of preindustrial American society as the stuff of fiction—Sinclair Lewis, in recognition of the fact, dedicated Babbitt to her—but she was in some ways the last to understand it. Her best pre-World War I novels (The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country) were groping toward an understanding, and her failure to achieve such an understanding was finally the measure of her failure to become a truly first-rate novelist.

The difficulty becomes fascinatingly clear in her restrained, carefully cultivated autobiography, first published in 1934 and now reissued. Her backward glance is to "an old tradition of European culture which the country has now totally rejected" and which she herself partially rejected. But she could not reject it entirely, and so she suffered the disadvantage of being a perpetual outsider, resentful of an older social order but fearful of what replaced it.

Daughter of an old Manhattan family, Edith Jones grew up believing that the universe was composed of a row of brownstones in New York, a street in Newport and the continent of Europe. A child in that society was taught "only two things: the modern languages and good manners. Now that I have lived to see both these branches of culture dispensed with, I perceive that there are worse systems of education."

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