Never was a girl more in love with the whole adventure of living, and less equipped to hold her own in it, than the Halo Spear who had come upon Vance Weston that afternoon.
According to my Goodreads account, I've read 19 works by Edith Wharton's, including short story collections and novellas, and I had assumed that by now, I've read all the best stuff. After The Fruit of the Tree, my hopes were not high for Hudson River Bracketed, one of her least-popular works. I was so happy last week when I absolutely loved it and could not stop reading -- high praise indeed, considering it's her longest novel, more than 500 pages long. Unlike most of Wharton's novels, the main character is not an unhappily married rich woman from New York, but a young, poor man, a struggling writer from the Midwest.
Published in 1929 but set in the early 1920s, it's a coming of age story of Vance Weston. Young Vance is only nineteen at the beginning of the story, and is resisting pressure from his family to join his father's successful real estate business outside of Chicago. What Vance really wants is to be a poet, but that will never fly with his conservative middle-class family. After a serious illness, Vance is allowed to travel to the Hudson Valley outside of New York, to stay with the Tracys, distant relatives in a quiet, small town. Vance hopes that somehow he'll manage to visit New York and make some contacts for a writing career; instead, his life changes forever when he meets Halo Spear while visiting a house called The Willows. (The title Hudson River Bracketed refers to a specific type of architecture in the area, of which The Willows is an example).
Wyndclyffe estate in Rhinecliff, NY, inspiration for The Willows
Vance's poor cousins earn extra money by acting as caretakers for this empty mansion, which must be left exactly as it was when the previous owner passed away. Vance is enchanted by the mysterious Victorian house and its back story -- and by its magnificent library. He is secretly perusing the books when he meets Heloise Spear, a wealthy cousin of the Tracys. Nicknamed Halo, she's several years older than Vance and is impressed by his love of books, though she seems amused at his lack of education. They begin to bond over poetry and literature, but things take a drastic turn over a series of misunderstandings, and Vance is sent back to the Midwest in disgrace.
A few years later, Vance returns to New York determined to make a career as a writer, and reconnects with Halo, now married, though her husband, the publisher of a new literary magazine, who sign Vance to a very poor three-year writing contract. Vance also reconnects with his cousins the Tracys -- in particular, his cousin Laura Lou, who has grown up quite a bit in the last three years -- enough to steal Vance's heart on first sight. So Vance is a typical starving writer in New York, madly in love with someone who doesn't understand his literary world, and trying to live enough to have something to write about so he can make more money. Naturally, it's a vicious circle that doesn't end well.
Like The Fruit of the Tree, my previous Wharton read, this is another of her novels that hardly anyone ever reads anymore. My expectations were pretty low and frankly I was shocked by how much I liked it -- and how quickly I sped through it! Granted, I didn't have much to do over last weekend, but I was really absorbed in the story and couldn't wait to find out what happened next. It's Wharton's longest novel at 536 pages, but the pages flew by. According to the book's afterward, Wharton wanted to write about her experiences as a writer, and thought it would be easier for the reading public to accept a story about a young male writer, rather than a female. I loved reading about the writing process and Vance's experiences trying to get published, though it was often infuriating to see all his bad decisions.
. . . they wanted to know what else he had written, what he was doing now, when he was going to start in on a novel, when he would have enough short stories for a volume, whether he had thought up any new subjects lately, whether he found it easier to write in a big city or in his own quiet surroundings at home, whether Nature inspired him or he had to be with people to get a stimulus, what his best working hours were, whether he could force himself to write so many hours a day, whether he didn't find that regular work led to routine, whether he didn't think a real artist must always be a law unto himself (this from the two or three of the younger women), and whether he found he could dictate, or had to type out his own things. . . .
There are also some thinly veiled references to other writers of the period which I found highly amusing:
Of the many recent novels he had devoured very few had struck him as really important; and of these The Corner Grocery was easily first. Among dozens of paltry books pushed into notoriety it was the only one entitled to such distinction. Readers all over the country had felt its evident sincerity, and its title had become the proverbial epithet of the smalltown atmosphere.
Some of the novels people talked about most excitedly--Price of Meat, say, already in its seventieth thousand, or Egg Omelette, which had owed its start to pulpit denunciations and the quarrel of a Prize Committee over its exact degree of indecency--well, he had begun both books with enthusiasm, as their authors appeared to have; and then, at a certain point, had felt the hollowness underfoot, and said to himself: "No, life's not like that, people are not like that. The real stuff is way down, not on the surface."
I'm just guessing, but I think that The Corner Grocery is a reference to Main Street by Sinclair Lewis (which lost the Pulitzer Prize to Wharton's Age of Innocence in 1920 because the committee thought it was unflattering to small-town America). Could Price of Meat be The Jungle by Upton Sinclair? And I originally thought that Egg Omelette was a reference to West Egg in The Great Gatsby, but further research told me it's meant to be Ulysses by James Joyce. There are also multiple references to the Pulsifer Prize . . . what could that possibly be?
There's also a mention of Zola that I found delightful:
Nothing else new about him--might have worked up his method out of Zola. Probably did."
"Zola--who's he?" somebody yawned.
"Oh, I dunno. The French Thackeray, I guess."
"See here, fellows, who's read Thackeray, anyhow?"
"Nobody since Lytton Strachey, I guess."
This German edition looks a little French New Wave to me!
I loved this book, though I did have a few quibbles about some characters that are a little too deus ex machina for me, miraculously showing up at just the right time. But overall, it's one of Edith Wharton's truly underrated novels. And there's a sequel! Wharton published The Gods Arrive only three years later in 1932, the only one of her novels with a sequel. I suppose since it's based on her own life, she really wanted to finish the story. I'll say no more since any hints about the next volume are spoilers for the first. Sadly, copies of the Virago edition of The Gods Arrive are a lot pricier than Hudson River Bracketed so I'll have to read the iBooks copy that I downloaded for only 99 cents. I'm also inspired to finally tackle her massive biography by Hermione Lee that I've been meaning to read forever -- it's 869 pages long!