Friday, January 21, 2011


Edith Wharton (1862–1937)
From Edith Wharton: Collected Stories 1911–1937

During Story of the Week’s first year, we have been gratified to learn (via e-mail messages, blog posts, and phone calls) that an increasing number of readers are using selections for reading groups, the classroom, and library events. And so it is with a bit of trepidation that we offer, in commemoration of Edith Wharton’s birthday on January 24, a story that makes fun of such gatherings by describing one of the more dysfunctional reading discussions in the history of literature.

Of course, Wharton is not mocking readers in general, but rather only the shallow frauds who use literature to show off their own cultural erudition (or lack thereof). In her 1903 essay, “The Vice of Reading,” Edith Wharton takes aim at the phenomenon of the “mechanical reader”—someone for whom the idea of reading becomes an obligation or a daily regimen (and we all know the type). The scholar Barbara Hochman, in Getting at the Author, which examines the culture of reading at the turn of the last century, notes that critical essays such as Wharton’s were common during her lifetime; the mechanical reader was “envisioned as an ‘eager devourer of fiction’ who ‘goes to a book just as he goes to a department store.’” Such consumers of goods are not the “creative” readers referred to by Emerson and extolled by Wharton—readers for whom literature is the means to attain their “own sight of principles.”

Exactly a century ago, Wharton turned her disdain for “devourers” into one of her more successful stories, “Xingu,” which takes aim particularly at the society women who gather in salons “to pursue Culture in banks” and to clash personalities rather than discuss literature. The occasions during which the group’s members discuss books are dreadful enough, but when they invite a famous author to meet with them, hilarity ensues. Or, as the Wharton fan at the blog A Striped Armchair puts it, “it’s a sharp satire of the intellectually pretentious that is as relevant today as it was one hundred years ago. And it’s funny enough to hold its own against a Wilde play!”

Notes: On page 5 are several cultural references malappropriated by the members of the reading group. Robert Elsmere is an 1888 novel by Mrs. Humphry Ward. Prince Rupert’s manière noire refers to the art of mezzotint engraving, introduced into England in the early 1660s by Ruprecht of Pfalz. “The Data of Ethics” is a philosophical work by Herbert Spencer. On page 10, Professor Froude refers to the historian James Anthony Froude; a histologist is a biologist specializing in the microscopic anatomy of plants and animals.

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Mrs. Ballinger is one of the ladies who pursue Culture in bands, as though it were dangerous to meet alone. To this end she had founded the Lunch Club, an association composed of herself and several other indomitable huntresses of erudition. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.