Writing Sideways: Edith Wharton, the Postmodernists, and Social Satire

July 13, 2020 | 4 books mentioned 1 7 min read

If things go on at this pace,” Lefferts thundered, looking like a young prophet dressed by Poole, and who had not yet been stoned, “we shall see our children fighting for invitations to swindler’s houses, and marrying Beaufort’s bastard.

This memorable comic sentence comes in the penultimate chapter of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Lawrence Lefferts is a scoundrelly scion of the old guard of New York society, a society that is perfectly drawn—and quartered—in the novel; our protagonist, the passive skeptic Newland Archer, looks on in mute disgust as the hypocritical Lefferts rails against the downfall of their bogus little Eden. In the final chapter, set 25 years in the future, we will find Lefferts’s dire prediction to be more or less accurate: the rules of their world will have irrevocably changed, and the disgraced Beaufort clan will have indeed been forgiven; one of their daughters, in fact, will be engaged to Newland Archer’s son Dallas.

Dallas represents the ultimate victory of Newland’s ineffectual rebellion—the son lives in the “new land” of social laxity and freedom to which the “archer,” his father, has fired his arrow. In this new age, Wharton tells us, young men (still only young men, of course) “were emancipating themselves from the law and business and taking up all sorts of new things…they were going in for Central American archaeology, for architecture or landscape engineering; taking a keen and learned interest in the prerevolutionary buildings of their own country…” If it sounds as though there’s an ironic lilt to this, that’s because there is, and while Wharton paints Dallas and the new generation in a mostly positive light, it is a light shaded with uncertainty. The accuracy of Lefferts’ prediction is a cause for both celebration and consternation, and although Wharton does, ultimately, find the Lawrence Leffertses of the world to be in the moral and historical wrong, it is a wrongness she has great affinity with and sympathy for, a wrongness the book does not so easily dismiss.

Therein lies her power: Edith Wharton would not be a great social satirist if she had not loved the society she was satirizing, if she had not so intimately been of it. Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones, into one of the wealthiest families of nineteenth-century New York. The Rensselaers were cousins, and the Joneses were the original, proverbial family that people try to keep up with. In her lifetime, she was not only a great novelist, but a great designer and interior decorator, and a great entertainer—a pillar of the upper crust of New York society. Aesthetics and social order are the two pillars of Wharton’s old world sympathies, and it is against these pillars that her two great free-thinking protagonists, Newland Archer and Lily Bart, are chained and struggle to break free.

Bart, in House of Mirth, is predominately conflicted on the basis of aesthetics. Lily Bart is a society girl, a beauty raised by her indolent mother to love beautiful things. More than anything, she despises and fears dinginess, and nowhere is her downfall more legibly read than in the charmless, tacky, wallpapered lobby of the boarding house where she finds herself toward the end of the book. Even Lily’s less severe slippage, into the still-wealthy social realm of the bohemian Gormers, is aesthetically intolerable:

The Gormer milieu represented a social out-skirt which Lily had always fastidiously avoided; but it struck her, now that she was in it, as only a flamboyant copy of her own world, a caricature approximating the real thing as the “society play” approaches the manners of the drawing room.

The Gormer milieu should be more congenial to the mercurial, rebellious, and increasingly penniless Lily, than the straitening, expensive, and judgmental world of old New York society, but it lacks the latter’s weight and authenticity, however authentically bad it may also be. Lily is like an addict who has had a taste of the pure version of a drug and can never go back to a street knock-off. Much of the authenticity she craves comes in the guise of aesthetic pleasures. Old stately houses well decorated, free of Victorian chintz and chinoiserie; women wearing appropriate evening attire; a table properly set: these things matter to Lily, just as they mattered to Lily’s creator.

Likewise does the more general established hierarchy and stability of Fifth Avenue society matter to Wharton. This is the stasis that Archer, for all of his discernment and moral intelligence, cannot quite bring himself to upset. Archer’s predicament is both more intelligible and relatable to a modern reader than Lily’s, and also less excusable. Lily cannot break from society because she is a woman with no earning power or agency; Archer cannot break from society because he is a man who would be leaving a world of power and agency behind. Despite his feints in the direction of eloping with the free-spirited Countess Olenska, he is ultimately mired in the intense reality, however small-minded and constricting, of Fifth Avenue drawing rooms and Broadway opera boxes. As it does for Lily on an aesthetic plane, the dense social reality of this world exerts a gravitational pull on Newland Archer, a pull ultimately dramatizing Wharton’s sensibilities. It may be corrupt, hypocritical, provincial, and boring, but it is, above all, orderly, and something will be lost in turning this order over to the new guard. Wharton feels this on a personal, instinctive level yet knows it’s wrong, and the greatness of her novels resides in this tension, between her natural affinities as a social being and her intellectual affinities as an artistic being.

This is axiomatic. The greatest social satirists are the ones most conflicted about the target of their satire, and the greatest satire is written from a position level with its subject rather than from above looking down. Charles Dickens provides a useful example: as a comic writer he is arguably peerless; as a social satirist, at least in the realm of the political/economic, he’s average, precisely because he has no affection (and who really could?) for the inhuman tutelage of Thomas Gradgrind, the pure greed of Ebenezer Scrooge, the poverty and filth of industrial London. Dickens is ultimately a moralist, and moralism is the consommé to satire’s complex soup.

For a genre-wide example of the perils of writing down, look toward the postmodernists. America, broadly speaking, is the postmodernists’ project, and the postmodernists do not especially love America (unlike the Beats, whose work was likewise fixated on the American project, but for whom the country is a locus of both madness and possibility). The famous opening line of Thomas Pynchon’s second novel The Crying of Lot 49 sets the tone for a good deal of the postmodern project:

One summer afternoon, Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.

At the time of its publication, Tupperware parties and fondue (with kirsch, no less) were already lazy shorthand for a kind of middle-American kitsch and Pynchon’s work, as linguistically and structurally complex as it can be, at times bogs down in easy caricatures of post-war American types. This streak of placid satirical condescension runs through the postmodern project, from Pynchon’s Tupperware parties all the way to Jonathan Franzen’s portrait of gentrification in Freedom. Too often, postmodernism offers the dull spectacle of a writer being smarter than the thing they’re writing about, nowhere more so than in the work of Don DeLillo.

Don DeLillo is regarded as perhaps the preeminent postmodern satirist, and White Noise is often regarded as his purest satire. White Noise is posited as a campus and suburban satire, but it has absolutely no feeling for either of these locales. Jack Gladney, the novel’s narrator is a Professor of Hitler Studies which, from the outset, signals the millimeter-deep comic engagement DeLillo has with his subject. Gladney possesses a litter of half-imagined children that the novel is wholly uninterested in, other than son Heinrich, a neuroatypical egghead who plays chess with murderers and who speaks in much the same way Don DeLillo writes. Any time the novel is not focused on the justly famous Airborne Toxic Event, it falters into a kind of somnolent haze—universities and the suburbs are beneath contempt and therefore beyond satire.

Conversely, in Underworld, DeLillo writes stirringly and brilliantly about baseball, and by extension, America. Baseball metaphorizes America’s history—its actual moments of glory, and its faulty, nostalgic self-perception. DeLillo seems to genuinely love baseball, and baseball provides him a lens through which he can view institutions he has no special love for or interest in. Baseball tends to pop up in many of the postmodernists’ better work, not surprising given their makeup as almost exclusively male, children of the thirties and forties, and system-obsessed nerds. Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Henry J. Waugh, Proprietor both anticipates fantasy sports, and satirizes a brand of male obsessiveness that it is central to the postmodern project.

Where postmodern satire most often succeeds is in the way that it satirizes language itself. This is one reason why Donald Barthelme has proven to be the most durable and continuingly timely of the postmodernists. Barthelme’s focus is sociological, and his work investigates the perversion and failure of real, moral communication as practiced in the bureaucratic, governmental, journalistic, and academic institutions of late twentieth century America. Crucially, he never seems to be writing down at his subject—he is as stuck in the morass as his characters and narrators and readers, and even beyond that, there’s a wistful, indulgent appreciation of human frailty as writ large in the society he critiques.

One of the things that makes successful modern social satire rare is, as has been remarked ad nauseum, the already satirical nature of the world. Donald J. Trump is an enormously broad and not particularly convincing version of a tinpot despot—no serious reader could abide a faithfully reproduced fictional version, with the hamberders, the joke ties, the caramel sundae hair chapeau. But the larger problem with Trump is less the ridiculousness than it is the awfulness—he is a person for whom it is impossible to experience anything approaching human feeling, let alone fondness. Even the wretched George W. Bush had a couple of vaguely sympathetic human qualities that could be satirized, however ineptly and fleetingly, in Comedy Central’s That’s My Bush; no such show is imaginable with Trump.

Likewise, so much of our modern moment. What are the aspects of our society for which we feel some kind of affection? Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End manages a fondly scathing depiction of American office culture and its soul-crushing pleasures, though it’s an office culture already vanishing over an unknowable horizon of Covid-19 and rampant unemployment. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout delivers half of a great satire about slavery, though it’s not actually the section about slavery but the first half of the book, an acidly loving portrait of black Los Angeles in the 1990s. Could there be a great satire about police brutality and the rise of fascism? About devastating income inequality, or dying from lack of health care, or climate change? It’s difficult to see the way into the litany of emergencies that comprise our present cultural moment, the empathetic situation that would allow a writer horizontal rather than vertical perspective on it, but maybe. Hopefully, because to truly do our present moment justice will require a writer with a Whartonian satirical instinct. Familiarity may breed contempt, but in fiction it is a productive contempt, the contempt only possible when you write about what you know and hate, but also love.

is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of two novels: The Grand Tour (Doubleday 2016) and The Hotel Neversink (2019 Tin House Books). His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, VICE, The Iowa Review, and many other places. His podcast, Fan’s Notes, is an ongoing discussion about books and basketball. Find him online at adamofallonprice.com and on Twitter at @AdamOPrice.