Edith Wharton is perhaps best known for her piercing portrayals of upper class New York society in her best known novels, House of Mirth and Age of Innocence. She did, however, on at least two occasions focus her attention and her naturalist sensibilities on poor rural communities in western Massachusetts. The best known of these two works is Ethan Frome, published in 1911. The other, Summer, published in 1917 to little acclaim at the time, is a hidden gem of American Naturalism. Its bold portrayal of a young woman’s sexual awaking and refusal to cast moral judgment on her and her lover was radical when it was first published, but since the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, the novella’s stature has grown.
On an early summer afternoon in the tiny village of North Dormer, Charity Royall sees from the distance a handsome young man, his manner and his clothing indicating that he is a wealthy city person. Later, he stops in at the library that Charity unenthusiastically manages, in search of books about the local architecture and introduces himself as Lucius Harney. Although his reason for visiting the library is entirely proper, and he has no motive for seducing or even flirty with the librarian, he is momentarily and involuntarily flustered by her beauty. There is no flirtation at all in this meeting, but Charity notices Harney’s brief reaction and in the hours and days after that she repeatedly reflects on that moment even as her own obsession with Harney grows.
As the story unfolds we gradually learn more about Charity’s background. She is the ward of Lawyer Royall, a prominent member of the community of North Dormer. This is a somewhat dubious distinction considering how humble the village is; the only church in town lacks a fulltime minister and has services only every other Sunday. Its backwardness is revealed somewhat comically in Charity’s thoughts.
Charity was born into abject poverty in a place referred to as “The Mountain.” Her destitute mother gave her up to Royall after her father had been convicted of manslaughter. All that Charity can remember of her earlier life are fleeting images and she knows neither of her parents names.
As a work of naturalism, the behavior of all the characters in this story is driven by innate desires of which they are not entirely aware that conflict with the constraints and expectations of society. Free will, if it exists at all, is exercised by negotiating in the path between conforming to the requirements of civilization (the nearby city of Nettleton) and giving in to primitive passion (“The Mountain”). North Dormer, like Charity, exists somewhere between these two. We see these internal conflicts play out not only in Charity but also in the two other main characters: Royall and Harney.
Wharton is one of the great literary stylists of naturalism (unlike, say, Theodore Dreiser), and of American Literature in general. In Summer, her rendering of the landscape and season evokes the moods and desires of the characters. The effect is poetic and, at times, intoxicating:
There had never been such a June in Eagle County. Usually it was a month of moods, with abrupt alternations of belated frost and mid-summer heat; this year, day followed day in a sequence of temperate beauty. Every morning a breeze blew steadily from the hills. Toward noon it built up great canopies of white cloud the threw a cool shadow over fields and woods; then before sunset the clouds dissolved again, and the western light rained its unobstructed brightness on the valley.
On such an afternoon Charity Royall lay on a ridge above a sunlit hollow, her face pressed to the earth and the warm currents of the grass running through her. Directly in her line of vision a blackberry branch laid its frail white flowers and blue-green leaves against the sky. Just beyond, a tuft of sweet-fern uncurled between the beaded shoots of grass, and a small yellow butterfly vibrated over them like a fleck of sunshine. This was all she saw, but she felt, above her and about her, the strong growth of the beeches clothing the ridge, the rounding of pale green cones on countless spruce-branches, the push of myriads of sweet-fern fronds in the cracks of the stony slope below the wood, and the crowding shoots of meadowsweet and yellow flags in the pasture beyond. All this bubbling of sap and slipping of sheaths and bursting of calyxes was carried to her on mingled currents of fragrance. Every leaf and bud and blade seemed to contribute its exhalations to the pervading sweetness in which the pungency of pine-sap prevailed over the spice of thyme and the subtle perfume of fern, and all were merged in a moist earth-smell that was like the breath of some huge sun-warmed animal. (Chapter V)
Wharton was born into incredible wealth and most of her work focused on the rites and rituals of New York Society. She moved comfortably and at ease in those circles, yet her work reveals a discerning and critical eye for passions and desires that beneath polite and tasteful manners. The two works that are set in humble rural settings, Summer and Ethan Frome, take place in western Massachusetts. She lived there, in Lennox, for some years in a magnificent house that she had built, but by the time she wrote Summer, she had been living in France for some years . The landscape and its less affluent people had made an impression on her. There are elements of harshness in her portrayals of them, but never is there any condescension in tone and it is clear that she had great affection for the land and its inhabitants.
For more articles in this series, see “The Art of the Novella.”
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