The Gilded Age of Edith Wharton

The famous American author provides us with insight into an age of great prosperity and freedom
June 18, 2018 Last Updated: June 19, 2018

It was my great pleasure to visit the home of the great American novelist and cultural philosopher Edith Wharton (1862-1937) in Lenox, Massachusetts. She designed it and lived it in for some her most productive and tumultuous years, before moving to Europe and remaining there. This was her estate during a period of growing estrangement from her class background (New York “society,” as the upper class was then called) but also of personal prosperity.

She lived through it all. She chronicled a side of life most other people could only imagine.

Visiting the home was like having a living conversation with the master herself. Even from the outside of the magnificent estate, you can see that there is something different. This is not a typical Gilded Age estate that you find in Newport, Rhode Island, which she regarded as monuments to ego. Her home, in contrast, is not designed to overwhelm you with a sense of wealth, power, and prestige from the front facade alone. The entrance is almost humble in its simplicity and symmetry. It was not a monument to ego but to grace.

The Infinitely Complex Individual

What’s the theory at work here? The idea is that the home is a place for private life. To enter into someone’s life is a process of gradual discovery. Why? Because the human personality is so complex. First impressions are necessarily superficial, and so are reputations, headlines, and epitaphs.

The remarkable power of Wharton’s literary legacy is the exploration of the complexity of human motivation, circumstances, achievements, decisions, and social relations. To know another is even more difficult than knowing ourselves, which also is a job no one can complete.

Her home, called The Mount, illustrates these insights. Even when one enters, there is no grand foyer but rather a grotto of the sort usually associated with outdoor gardens. You have to move pretty deeply into the house to discover the elegance, which was not about ballrooms, but rather private spaces, libraries, and studies. As much focus and energy were put into the design of the gardens as the house itself. The details in the design are carefully structured to tell stories of the drama of life—its secrets, its sufferings, and its magnificence in the midst of insoluble imperfections.

You come away with an impression of Wharton that you also get from her writing: an intellect that loved the ordered beauty of social ritual but resisted its constraints on the development of the human personality.

Wharton and the Gilded Age

Wharton was, after all, shaped by—and became a leading interpreter of—the Gilded Age in America, the last glimmer of the Belle Epoque from roughly 1870 to 1913. These were the final decades of the age of laissez-faire, a time of astonishing invention, life expansion, explosive prosperity, and peace.

A new world was being born. A new ruling class was born, too—not of privilege but of merit, not by force but by service, in a capitalist economy. Kings and presidents were diminishing in stature and the captains of industry were rising, leading the whole of humanity to an age of opportunity and plenty for all.

For most Americans, this period of history remains unreported but for the legendary myths of the “robber barons.” What is not often understood is the jaw-dropping change in the way people came to live. Think of it. In one or two generations, we were introduced to mass commercial markets for books, internal combustion, commercial use of steel in bridges and tall buildings, electricity, geographical noncontiguous communication, and eventually telephones, indoor heating, flight, and huge medical advances leading to declining infant mortality.

Another huge change in this swath of history was the emergence of the rock star woman novelist. This was made possible by the rise of the commercial marketplace for books in the mid-to-late 19th century. This new model of finance replaced the patronage system of centuries past and unearthed remarkable talent from unexpected places.

Wharton herself came from and married into substantial money, but she also gained substantial revenue from book sales, something that would have been inconceivable in pre-capitalistic ages. Commerce was good for her, good for women writers, and good for humanity in general.

The Age of Innocence

Sharing my love of these times was the late Joey Rothbard, wife of the famous libertarian Murray Rothbard. We used to talk about the Gilded Age all evening, particularly the culture of the times: the music, painting, architecture, literature, and daily technology. She frequently recommended that I read “Age of Innocence” by Wharton. She told me that more than any other work, this book captured everything I needed to know. She kept asking me if I had read it yet. I was too busy with my head full of political economy, so I never got around to it.

Then I found a movie version made in 1993 starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, and Michelle Pfeiffer, as directed by Martin Scorsese. It is apparently accurate as regards the book, and I can promise you that this film is rapturously wonderful. I was so engaged from the first moment to the last. The book was written in 1920. Only at the distance of a few decades could a writer provide such a detailed, painful, and affecting look at lives and loves of a tiny sliver of the New York upper class.

Whether you were in or out of it, the “society” was all-consuming. If you were in, you had to obey the rules. This crowd considered itself to be “society.” The use of that term alone is revealing. Today, we call the whole of society “society.” But there was a time when only the upper class owned this designation. What went on in “society” they imagined would somehow flow downward, class by class, to everyone else and come to define the very meaning of life for people in the country. It was an outrageous presumption, of course, but one taken for granted in countries burdened by monarchical privilege and governed with blood-and-soil ethos.

What this had to do with America is another matter. But for second- and third-generation Gilded Age nobility—people who had already begun to lose a sense of the primacy of work and creativity—living in the bubble of privilege was the essence of life. Whether you were in or out of “society” was the only metric that mattered. If you were in, you had to obey the rules.

And there were as many rules as in Versailles at the height of the reign of Louis XIV. It’s not as if they were enforced by government, either. They were emergent rules, but not of the Hayekian variety. They were adopted to consciously mirror what this crowd imagined to be the etiquette and style of life of English and European royalty.

Land of the Free?

The unlikely hero of the book and film is Ellen Olenska of American stock but raised in Europe and married into Polish aristocracy. This was hardly unusual. The European aristocracy was out of money, whereas the emergent American aristocracy of merit believed it needed the “legitimacy” of the blood and titles of old Europe. The cross-pollination of these two groups was a defining characteristic of “society” in those days. Ellen, however, finds her marriage stultifying, so she makes her way back to America in search of freedom.

What she finds is the opposite. It is not freedom. As a divorced woman, she is excluded from society and cannot marry into it. She is something of a scandal. She doesn’t mind that, but she can never really get over why the Americans, given so much freedom and opportunity for social mobility, would consciously choose to affect rule-bound, privilege-obsessed, class-consciousness of national culture that had proven itself to be such a failure as compared with the more egalitarian classlessness of democratic society.

The problem with this freedom, in this conception, was not so much its tendency toward chaos but exactly the opposite: As private governance evolved, it became too rigged, too formalized, too constraining. As you watch all this unfold with your jaw on the floor, you have to be sympathetic to her point of view.

What is it with these people? On the one hand, it is impressive that they could have woven for themselves such a tight web of social control absent of any kind of government imposition. This alone is a tribute to freedom and its capacity for self-management. On the other hand, the problem with this freedom was not so much its tendency toward chaos but exactly the opposite; it was too rigged and formalized.

Here we have the subtle message of Wharton’s masterpiece. What appears to be a celebration and romanticization of the greatest times and in the greatest place in the history of humanity is really a devastating criticism, not so much of government or industry but of a micro-culture that had come to eschew the revolutionary ethos that had given rise to such prosperity in the first place. I can’t imagine a book that reveals this so fully.

Now I entirely understand why Joey Rothbard loved this book so much. It seems to account for one of the great mysteries of the period; that is, why such marvelous freedom could have been so quickly overthrown without so much as a thought. A culture wedded to artificial social hierarchy eventually came to reshape the entire society in its rule-bound image.

The Right Balance

People who long for freedom have been thinking for centuries about the relationship between a purely formal freedom, meaning an absence of government control, and a practiced liberalism that celebrates an ethos of liberality, characterized by tolerance, love of change, and an aspiration of economic and social progress.

The Gilded Age was given a glorious present of material prosperity heretofore unknown in the whole history of humanity. Must they go together? If the liberal spirit was absent, as it so often was in Gilded Age social bubbles, does this endanger the freedoms that were so hard-won by their ancestors? On the other hand, surely freedom also requires some measure of the discipline and even regimentation in which this crowd specialized in order to provide predictable patterns of rules and expectations. How much is too much?

These are fascinating questions, and Wharton, like the great novelist she is, leaves the answer ambiguous at the end. The male protagonist, Archer, is spiritually broken for failing to realize the fullness of his desires and yet all around him is the evidence of every other kind of success. Maybe in this world, we cannot have it all, and we must come to be satisfied with succeeding in every way we can within the framework we have been given.

The Big and Small

The Gilded Age was given a glorious present of material prosperity heretofore unknown in the whole history of humanity. They believed it to be immutable and expected a future of more of the same. All that was required was an unrelenting passion for improving behavior and refining the delicate rules of personal engagement within the highest social circles. They became so internal, so focused on the improvement of the in-crowd, they lost sight of the big picture, in Wharton’s view.

Wharton was the mind that gave the richest and most complex expression of the glory and failings of this fascinating time and place. She clearly loved freedom, and despised impositions on the human personality, which is why she was one of the few literary giants of her time to see the power of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”

At the same time, there is no form of freedom that can stamp out the failings of human nature. Freedom is a beginning—a necessary foundation with which no human community can do without—for the development of a truly civilized society.

Jeffrey Tucker is editorial director for the American Institute for Economic Research. He is the author of five books, including “Right-Wing Collectivism: The Other Threat to Liberty.” This article was first published on AIER.org 

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.