Edith Wharton, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, vividly reflects on her public and private life in this stunning memoir.
With richness and delicacy, it describes the sophisticated New York society in which Wharton spent her youth, and chronicles her travels throughout Europe and her literary success as an adult. Beautifully depicted are her friendships with many of the most celebrated artists and writers of her day, including her close friend Henry James.
In his introduction to this edition, Louis Auchincloss calls the writing in A Backward Glance “as firm and crisp and lucid as in the best of her novels.” It is a memoir that will charm and fascinate all readers of Wharton’s fiction.
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Edith Wharton was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, for The Age of Innocence. Born in 1862 into one of New York's older and richer families, she was educated here and abroad. Her works include Ethan Frome, The Reef, The Custom of the Country, The Glimpses of the Moon, and Roman Fever and Other Stories. As a keen observer and chronicler of society, she is without peer. Edith Wharton died in France in 1937.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Gute Gesellschaft hab ich gesehen; man nennt sie die gute Wenn sie zum kleinsten Gedicht nicht die Gelegenheit giebt.
Goethe: Venezianische Epigrammen
It was on a bright day of midwinter, in New York. The little girl who eventually became me, but as yet was neither me nor anybody else in particular, but merely a soft anonymous morsel of humanity -- this little girl, who bore my name, was going for a walk with her father. The episode is literally the first thing I can remember about her, and therefore I date the birth of her identity from that day.
She had been put into her warmest coat, and into a new and very pretty bonnet, which she had surveyed in the glass with considerable satisfaction. The bonnet (I can see it today) was of white satin, patterned with a pink and green plaid in raised velvet. It was all drawn into close gathers, with a bavolet in the neck to keep out the cold, and thick ruffles of silky blonde lace under the brim in front. As the air was very cold a gossamer veil of the finest white Shetland wool was drawn about the bonnet and hung down over the wearer's round red cheeks like the white paper filigree over a Valentine; and her hands were encased in white woollen mittens.
One of them lay in the large safe hollow of her father's bare hand; her tall handsome father, who was so warm-blooded that in the coldest weather he always went out without gloves, and whose head, with its ruddy complexion and intensely blue eyes, was so far aloft that when she walked beside him she was too near to see his face. It was always an event in the little girl's life to take a walk with her father, and more particularly so today, because she had on her new winter bonnet, which was so beautiful (and so becoming) that for the first time she woke to the importance of dress, and of herself as a subject for adornment -- so that I may date from that hour the birth of the conscious and feminine me in the little girl's vague soul.
The little girl and her father walked up Fifth Avenue: the old Fifth Avenue with its double line of low brown-stone houses, of a desperate uniformity of style, broken only -- and surprisingly -- by two equally unexpected features: the fenced-in plot of ground where the old Miss Kennedys' cows were pastured, and the truncated Egyptian pyramid which so strangely served as a reservoir for New York's water supply. The Fifth Avenue of that day was a placid and uneventful thoroughfare, along which genteel landaus, broughams and victorias, and more countrified vehicles of the "carryall" and "surrey" type, moved up and down at decent intervals and a decorous pace. On Sundays after church the fashionable of various denominations paraded there on foot, in gathered satin bonnets and tall hats; but at other times it presented long stretches of empty pavement, so that the little girl, advancing at her father's side was able to see at a considerable distance the approach of another pair of legs, not as long but considerably stockier than her father's. The little girl was so very little that she never got much higher than the knees in her survey of grown-up people, and would not have known, if her father had not told her, that the approaching legs belonged to his cousin Henry. The news was very interesting, because in attendance on Cousin Henry was a small person, no bigger than herself, who must obviously be Cousin Henry's little boy Daniel, and therefore somehow belong to the little girl. So when the tall legs and the stocky ones halted for a talk, which took place somewhere high up in the air, and the small Daniel and Edith found themselves face to face close to the pavement, the little girl peered with interest at the little boy through the white woollen mist over her face. The little boy, who was very round and rosy, looked back with equal interest; and suddenly he put out a chubby hand, lifted the little girl's veil, and boldly planted a kiss on her cheek. It was the first time -- and the little girl found it very pleasant.
This is my earliest definite memory of anything happening to me; and it will be seen that I was wakened to conscious life by the two tremendous forces of love and vanity.
It may have been just after this memorable day -- at any rate it was nearly at the same time -- that a snowy-headed old gentleman with a red face and a spun-sugar moustache and imperial gave me a white Spitz puppy which looked as if its coat had been woven out of the donor's luxuriant locks. The old gentleman, in whose veins ran the purest blood of Dutch Colonial New York, was called Mr. Lydig Suydam, and I should like his name to survive till this page has crumbled, for with his gift a new life began for me. The owning of my first dog made me into a conscious sentient person, fiercely possessive, anxiously watchful, and woke in me that long ache of pity for animals, and for all inarticulate beings, which nothing has ever stilled. How I loved that first "Foxy" of mine, how I cherished and yearned over and understood him! And how quickly he relegated all dolls and other inanimate toys to the region of my everlasting indifference!
I never cared much in my little-childhood for fairy tales, or any appeals to my fancy through the fabulous or legendary. My imagination lay there, coiled and sleeping, a mute hibernating creature, and at the least touch of common things -- flowers, animals, words, especially the sound of words, apart from their meaning -- it already stirred in its sleep, and then sank back into its own rich dream, which needed so little feeding from the outside that it instinctively rejected whatever another imagination had already adorned and completed. There was, however, one fairy tale at which I always thrilled -- the story of the boy who could talk with the birds and hear what the grasses said. Very early, earlier than my conscious memory can reach, I must have felt myself to be of kin to that happy child. I cannot remember when the grasses first spoke to me, though I think it was when, a few years later, one of my uncles took me, with some little cousins, to spend a long spring day in some marshy woods near Mamaroneck, where the earth was starred with pink trailing arbutus, where pouch-like white and rosy flowers grew in a swamp, and leafless branches against the sky were netted with buds of mother-of-pearl; but on the day when Foxy was given to me I learned what the animals say to each other, and to us....
The readers (and I should doubtless have been among them) who twenty years ago would have smiled at the idea that time could transform a group of bourgeois colonials and their republican descendants into a sort of social aristocracy, are now better able to measure the formative value of nearly three hundred years of social observance: the concerted living up to long-established standards of honour and conduct, of education and manners. The value of duration is slowly asserting itself against the welter of change, and sociologists without a drop of American blood in them have been the first to recognize what the traditions of three centuries have contributed to the moral wealth of our country. Even negatively, these traditions have acquired, with the passing of time, an unsuspected value. When I was young it used to seem to me that the group in which I grew up was like an empty vessel into which no new wine would ever again be poured. Now I see that one of its uses lay in preserving a few drops of an old vintage too rare to be savoured by a youthful palate; and I should like to atone for my unappreciativeness by trying to revive that faint fragrance.
If any one had suggested to me, before 1914, to write my reminiscences, I should have answered that my life had been too uneventful to be worth recording. Indeed, I had never even thought of recording it for my own amusement, and the fact that until 1918 I never kept even the briefest of diaries has greatly hampered this tardy reconstruction. Not until the successive upheavals which culminated in the catastrophe of 1914 had "cut all likeness from the name" of my old New York, did I begin to see its pathetic picturesqueness. The first change came in the 'eighties, with the earliest detachment of big money:makers from the West, soon to be followed by the lords of Pittsburgh. But their infiltration did not greatly affect old manners and customs, since the dearest ambition of the newcomers was to assimilate existing traditions. Social life, with us as in the rest of the world, went on with hardly perceptible changes till the war abruptly tore down the old hame-work, and what had seemed unalterable rules of conduct became of a sudden observances as quaintly arbitrary as the domestic rites of the Pharaohs. Between the point of view of my Huguenot great-great-grandfather, who came from the French Palatinate to participate in the founding of New Rochelle, and my own father, who died in 1882, there were fewer differences than between my father and the post-war generation of Americans. That I was born into a world in which telephones, motors, electric light, central heating (except by hot-air furnaces), X-rays, cinemas, radium, aeroplanes and wireless telegraphy were not only unknown but still mostly unforeseen, may seem the most striking difference between then and now; but the really vital change is that, in my youth, the Americans of the original States, who in moments of crisis still shaped the national point of view, were the heirs of an old tradition of European culture which the country has now totally rejected. This rejection (which Mr. Walter Lippmann regards as the chief cause of the country's present moral impoverishment) has opened a gulf between those days and these. The compact world of my youth has receded into a past from which it can only be dug up in bits by the assiduous relic-hunter; and its smallest fragments begin to be worth collecting and putting together before the last of those who knew the live structure are swept away with it.
My little-girl life, safe, guarded, monotonous, was cradled in the only world about which, according to Goethe, it is impossible to write poetry. The small society into which I was born was "good" in the most prosaic sense of the term, and its only interest, for the generality of readers, lies in the fact of its sudden and total extinction, and for the imaginative few in the recognition of the moral treasures that went with it. Let me try to call it back....
Once, when I was about fifteen, my parents took me to Annapolis for the graduating ceremonies of the Naval Academy. In my infancy I had travelled extensively on the farther side of the globe, and it was thought high time that I should begin to see something of my own half.
I recall with delight the charming old Academic buildings grouped about turf and trees, and the smartness of the cadets (among whom were some of my young friends) in their dress uniforms; and thrilling memories of speeches, marchings, military music and strawberry ice, flutter pleasingly about the scene. On the way back we stopped in Baltimore and Washington; but neither city offered much to youthful eyes formed by the spectacle of Rome and Paris. Washington, in the days before Charles McKim had seen its possibilities, and resolved to develop them on Major L'Enfant's lines, was in truth a doleful desert; and it was a weary and bored little girl who trailed after her parents through the echoing emptiness of the Capitol, and at last into the famous Rotunda with its paintings of Revolutionary victories. Trumbull was little thought of as a painter in those days (Munkacsky would doubtless have been preferred to him), and when one great panel after another was pointed out to me, and I was led up first to the "Surrender of Burgoyne" and then to the "Surrender of Cornwallis", and told: "There's your great-grandfather," the tall thin young man in the sober uniform of a general of artillery, leaning against a cannon in the foreground of one picture, in the other galloping across the battlefield, impressed me much less than the beautiful youths to whom I had just said goodbye at Annapolis. If anything, I was vaguely sorry to have any one belonging to me represented in those stiff old-fashioned pictures, so visibly inferior to the battle-scenes of Horace Vernet and Detaille. I remember feeling no curiosity about my great-grandfather, and my parents said nothing to rouse my interest in him. The New Yorker of that day was singularly, inexplicably indifferent to his descent, and my father and mother were no exception to the rule.
It was many years later that I began to suspect that Trumbull was very nearly a great painter, and my great-grandfather Stevens very nearly a great man; but by that time all who had known him, and could have spoken of him familiarly, had long been dead, and he was no more than a museum-piece to me. It is a pity, for he must have been worth knowing, even at second hand.
On both sides our colonial ancestry goes back for nearly three hundred years, and on both sides the colonists in question seem to have been identified since early days with New York, though my earliest Stevens forbears went first to Massachusetts. Some of the first Stevens's grandsons, however, probably not being of the stripe of religious fanatic or political reformer to breathe easily in that passionate province, transferred their activities to the easier-going New York, where people seem from the outset to have been more interested in making money and acquiring property than in Predestination and witch-burning. I have always wondered if those old New Yorkers did not owe their greater suavity and tolerance to the fact that the Church of England (so little changed under its later name of Episcopal Church of America) provided from the first their prevalent form of worship. May not the matchless beauty of an ancient rite have protected our ancestors from what Huxley called the "fissiparous tendency of the Protestant sects", sparing them sanguinary wrangles over uncomprehended points of doctrine, and all those extravagances of self-constituted prophets and evangelists which rent and harrowed New England? Milder manners, a greater love of ease, and a franker interest in money-making and good food, certainly distinguished the colonial New Yorkers from the conscience-searching children of the "Mayflower". Apart from some of the old Dutch colonial families, who continued to follow the "Dutch Reformed" rite, the New York of my youth was distinctively Episcopalian; and to this happy chance I owe my early saturation with the noble cadences of the Book of Common Prayer, and my reverence for an ordered ritual in which the officiant's personality is strictly subordinated to the rite he performs.
Colonial New York was mostly composed of merchants and bankers; my own ancestors were mainly merchant ship-owners, and my great-grandmother Stevens's wedding-dress, a gauzy Directoire web of embroidered "India mull", was made for her in India and brought to New York on one of her father's merchantmen. My mother, who had a hearty contempt for the tardy discovery of aristocratic genealogies, always said that old New York was composed of Dutch and British middle-class families, and that only four or five could show a pedigree leading back to the aristocracy of their ancestral country. These, if I remember rightly, were the Duets, the Livingstons, the Rutherfurds, the de Grasses and the Van Rensselaers (descendants, these latter, of the original Dutch "Patroon"). I name here only families settled in colonial New York; others, from the southern states, but well known in New York -- such as the Fairfaxes, Carys, Calverts and Whartons -- should be added if the list included the other colonies.
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