Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Backward Glance

Edith Wharton's autobiography, A Backward Glance, couldn't be more aptly named. While many biographies can be said to offer a long, close stare at a particular subject, this one truly is just a glance. Wharton doesn't try to present the full story of her life. Instead, she compiles a (not always chronological) collection of memories, and can often be found saying something along the lines of, "I won't go into detail about...." this or that part of her life. This kind of cursory treatment isn't without its problems. It tends to be a bit uneven, and much of the middle third of the book gets bogged down with anecdotes about her various acquaintances. This is interesting when the person in question is Henry James, but less so when she goes into detail about people who are no longer commonly known figures. She also barely alludes to her separation from her husband, an aspect of her life I would have been interested in hearing more about. These are minor quibbles, though, and can be easily remedied by reading a more comprehensive, impartial biography of Wharton. On the whole, I think A Backward Glance is an interesting read for anyone who has enjoyed Wharton's books and knows a bit about her life already.

In the spirit of Wharton's meandering style of reminiscing, the following is a random collection of some of the more interesting facts I learned from the book, along with a couple of quotes that I thought were particular gems.

Wharton opens the book with her philosophy on aging, which is that "in spite of illness, in spite even of the arch-enemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways".

Wharton's famous home, The Mount, was named after the country home owned by her great-grandfather, located in what is now...Astoria, Queens!

One of the biggest influences throughout Wharton's life was the long stretch of her childhood years that her family spent living abroad, a situation that was brought about as a way to economize after American currency depreciation after the Civil War.

Wharton's parents weren't particularly literary or intellectual themselves, but they did stress proper English usage to their children and didn't allow them to read children's books by authors who used "bad" English (including books by Louisa May Alcott!). Knowing this, it's easy to see how an emphasis on precise language choice shows itself in Wharton's novels.

And finally, the importance Wharton places on finding pleasure in the small things in life is one of the biggest themes that recurs through the book. She closes her memoir with a quote that eloquently revisits her opening theme: "Life is the saddest thing there is next to death; yet there are always new countries to see, new books to read, a thousand little daily wonders to marvel and rejoice in".

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