Friday, January 20, 2017

The Pelican

Edith Wharton (1862–1937)
From Edith Wharton: Collected Stories 1891–1910

Mother Feeding Child, pastel on wove paper (mounted on canvas) by American artist Mary Cassatt (1844–1926). The painting was completed in 1898, the same year as Wharton’s story. Cassatt knew Wharton but was not fond of her fiction; she wrote to a friend that she preferred the expansive social themes and naturalism of Émile Zola over the psychological character studies of Paul Bourget, a friend of Wharton’s and an early influence. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Edith Wharton began planning her first story collection in 1894 and promised a finished book by the end of the year, but its publication was repeatedly delayed. She was reluctant to include any of her early stories, which (in spite of protests from Edward Burlingame, her editor at Scribner’s Magazine) she dismissed as “the excesses of youth . . . all written at the top of my voice.” For several years she was plagued by self-doubt, illness, and serious case of writer’s block. Thus, all the stories for her debut collection were newly written, and she wrote most of them in a few weeks’ time during the summer of 1898. The volume was further delayed until the following year, since Burlingame and Wharton agreed it would be advisable to publish a couple of selections—including “The Pelican”—in the magazine in advance of the book’s appearance.

Containing eight stories, The Greater Inclination was finally issued by Charles Scribner’s Sons in March 1899. The collection received enthusiastic reviews, but—like so many authors before and since—Wharton almost immediately complained about the lack of advertising. In late April she sent a strongly worded letter comparing Scribner’s efforts “with the notices given by other prominent publishers under the same conditions” and obliquely threatening to send her next book to another firm. The response must have mollified the debut author, because by October she wrote that she was “very much pleased” with sales, which had topped three thousand copies—a remarkable total for a story collection by an unknown author. She would remain with Scribner’s for her entire career.

In her memoir A Backward Glance, she recalls she was surprised by her early success—by the thought that “any one walking along the streets might go into any bookshop, and say: ‘Please give me Edith Wharton's book,’ and the clerk, without bursting into incredulous laughter, would produce it, and be paid for it, and the purchaser would walk home with it and read it, and talk of it, and pass it on to other people to read!” Her first book—and the resulting accolades—gave her the assurance she needed:
The publishing of The Greater Inclination broke the chains which had held me so long in a kind of torpor. For nearly twelve years I had tried to adjust myself to the life I had led since my marriage; but now I was overmastered by the longing to meet people who shared my interests. . . . What I wanted above all was to get to know other writers, to be welcomed among people who lived for the things I had always secretly lived for.
Discussing the short fiction of Wharton’s early career, biographer Hermione Lee writes that a number of stories deal “with professional integrity, the betrayal of the artist’s true self or the loss of privacy in the literary market-place,” and she regards the scathing satire “The Pelican” as the best of this group. Wharton’s earlier biographer, R.W.B. Lewis agrees that the tale, about a widow who becomes a lecturer to support her child, ranks near the top of her early writings; it shows “an acute eye for the folly, pretentiousness, and vulgarization to which the American cultural scene was vulnerable” and “sums up an entire modern phase of pseudoerudition.”

But why, many readers might wonder after reading the story, is it called “The Pelican”? Some critics maintain that the title is a reference to Psalms 102: “I am like a pelican of the wilderness. . . . Mine enemies reproach me all the day; and they that are mad against me are sworn against me.” In his commentary on this psalm, Augustine relates an ancient fable about pelicans: “These birds are said to slay their young with blows of their beaks, and for three days to mourn them when slain by themselves in the nest: after which they say the mother wounds herself deeply, and pours forth her blood over her young, bathed in which they recover life.” Literary scholar Sharon L. Dean suggests a more naturalistic parallel between a mothering pelican and Mrs. Amyot, who, as a lecturer, is “emotional and intuitive, but lacks intellectual integrity, her mouth, like a pelican’s, made to feed the young and in the process herself.” And, finally, it’s worth noting that biologists used to classify both the pelican and the booby in the same order (Pelecaniformes), and—the OED reminds us—in the nineteenth century both words became American colloquialisms for a worthless person or a fool, used frequently with old, as in “you thundering old pelican.”

Notes: On page 78, Mrs. Amyot paraphrases two lines from Emerson’s 1847 poem, “The Rhodora”: “Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing, / Then Beauty is its own excuse for being.” Critic and editor N. P. [Nathaniel Parker] Willis (p. 79) was a dominant figure in the American literary scene during the middle of the nineteenth century. Lewes’s book (p. 80) is The Life and Works of Goethe, an 1885 work by George Henry Lewes. The biblical reference on page 81, Infant-Samuel-like, is to 1 Samuel 2:18–19 (“But Samuel ministered before the Lord, being a child, girded with a linen ephod. Moreover his mother made him a little coat, and brought it to him from year to year. . . .”). Professor Huxley (p. 84) is English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, a champion of Darwin’s theory of evolution

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She was very pretty when I first knew her, with the sweet straight nose and short upper lip of the cameo-brooch divinity, humanized by a dimple that flowered in her cheek whenever anything was said possessing the outward attributes of humor without its intrinsic quality. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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