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Saturday, June 05, 2010

The House of Mirth and The Rise of Silas Lapham

Posted by Andrew Seal on 06/05/10 at 06:07 PM

"There is a point where taste has to begin” - Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham

I like this quote in part because, even in the larger context (which you can get by clicking on the link), the expression “has to” straddles very elegantly the hortatory and the necessary: it is both an inevitable feature of taste that it does begin somewhere, at some specific point, and also that it should begin somewhere, that one who has taste must recognize a lowest rung on the social ladder below which lies nothing worth recognizing—not even money.

It would be tedious to say that “the point where taste has to begin” is a major concern of both Wharton’s and Howells’s novels, but it is, nevertheless, the tedious point at which I wish to begin discussing these works. For one glaring but still quite enlivening motif of both novels is the emphasis they place on the spatial nature of taste, or better said, the spatial preconditions of taste. For in both novels, it is presumed that taste ultimately eludes or transcends mere space—it is necessarily, in its highest forms, not only ineffable but also impossible to ground or physically delimit; the social ladder wisps away at its highest point into the empyrean—but this ultimately transcendental aspect of taste does not mean that there is not a moment at which it is most definitely spatial, and thus material.

One might think of it as the moment of primitive accumulation, and it is no accident that it is when the protagonists of both novels venture past this stage of capitalism and try their hands at actual financial speculation—the very ineffable realms of non-spatialized capital—that they meet their downfalls.* One barely needs to translate “taste” into the Bourdieusian term “social capital"—the exchange rate in both Wharton and Howells is so direct and the roles of social and financial capital so genuinely homologous that very little mediation is required to tell the stories of Lily Bart and Silas Lapham in social or in financial terms; one can continuously switch idioms with little meaning lost.

There are some ambiguities, of course. At times marriage is treated as a form of speculation—often, Lily’s behavior toward her suitors resembles that of a very undisciplined investor, jumping off before either profit or loss can be realized, though doing so is a definitive form of loss. At others, marriage is treated more like a form of primitive accumulation or at the most a form of investment in capital goods—a marriage with the Coreys in Rise of Silas Lapham isn’t considered a speculative venture (the Corey’s position in society is not likely to appreciate or depreciate considerably) but would function more as a simple acquisition of social capital, with no idea of any surplus value accruing from it. Lily views a marriage to Selden as (merely)  primitive accumulation—she would have more money than she now has, but with no hope of acquiring more: Selden is not an asset likely to appreciate or to generate a surplus value. (It barely needs to be said that seeing him as such is what leads her to reject him; she craves some speculative aspect to a marriage, a desire which leads her ultimately to consider Rosedale as a potential husband. He is the only character in the novel who might actually appreciate in value.)

But these are rather dull considerations; what excites me about the quote with which I started is that by spatializing taste at the moment of primitive accumulation, it fuses together a large number of different ideas or forms of taste, allowing taste to be expressed in multiple (but always spatial) modes. “Social climbing” is made less figurative. (This process of specialization differs, I think, from what Bourdieu does, because it concerns less the processes of signaling distinction or of reproducing it than of figuring out how to position oneself (literally) to begin acquiring it: where does that moment of primitive accumulation, that “point where taste has to begin,” exist?)

Geography is one mode that I am always interested in, and immediately it touches off a spark in my head that we can think of the kind of geographic displacement which Lapham and his wife undertake from rural Vermont to cosmopolitan Boston as precisely this strategy, written on the face of the map. Moving from a hinterland to the metropolis is a form of primitive accumulation of social capital. In Lapham, this tactic of self-displacement is doubled, in fact (though it is, I acknowledge, absent in House of Mirth), with the proposed move from the Lapham’s first house to their new home on the higher-status Back Bay.

The way that taste is spatialized in homes is of particular importance to Wharton: architecture was an abiding interest for her, and it plays a crucial role in The House of Mirth as a way of judging the nouveaux riches in New York and assimilating them into the hierarchy already in place. Location is part of it as well, but the structure of houses and their capacities for entertaining properly is critical in the accumulation of social capital and its proper investment. Howells has this too—the Lapham’s drawing room is so unsuitable for entertaining that it nearly turns off the Coreys—but at a lower pitch.

Travel is a third spatialization of social capital; it again plays a larger role in Wharton, but it is certainly not absent from Howells. Going to the right places on holiday means running into the right people, which in turn means being invited by them to dinner, which means meeting other “right” people, as well as being able to reciprocate and invite any or all of these “right” people to one’s own place. Of course, this social tactic is also highly convenient to the novelist who is always seeking to find ways of throwing her characters together without bending the laws of plausibility, but that takes little away from the interest of the social tactic.

Referring to these spatializations of social capital as “primitive accumulation” suggests a bit more than just that they precede more speculative modes of social capital accumulation, and that they differ from those modes. It also suggests—at least to anyone familiar with Marx—that there is a form of violence inherent in these tactics. There doesn’t appear to be, however, anything like that attached to the tactics I have outlined—leaving the hinterland for the metropolis, building a home**, or traveling to a fashionable resort seem very little like enslavement or murderous dispossession. (Although in Lapham’s case a fairly classic dispossession is in fact lurking in the background of the novel as the source of Lapham’s wealth.)

Yet I think it is possible to consider deracination as the violence necessary for the tactic of self-displacement from the hinterland to the metropolis—although it is obviously a very different, more metaphorical kind of violence. Still, it is not wrong to define it as a kind of violence worked upon the self; it is a self-enclosure, and in a novel like Sister Carrie, the brutality of casting oneself into a situation where one has no choice but to become a social climber is quite overt. (It is there in Père Goriot as well, though more romanticized—still, Rastignac expropriates his family’s money ruthlessly to fuel his social ascent, and though he is ruthless, it weighs on him.) Even in a novel like Winesburg, Ohio, there is a certain grim coldness to the departure of George Willard; it does, after all, require the death of his mother.

Locating the violence in travel is a little more difficult on the individual level, although as numerous scholars have been pointing out for awhile now, questions of international travel, even in this period, are “imbricated” (which seems to be the word always used) in the general structural relations of imperialism. I find this particular line rather limited at least in the context of these two novels. Although Corey plans on traveling to South America to sell Lapham’s paint, that’s not the kind of travel I mean here, and all the other instances of travel are domestic—to Dubuque, to a Long Island resort, to Bar Harbour, to Texas. Business in the novel is transnational (and particularly transatlantic), but the social-capital status game isn’t, really (though that wasn’t really true of Boston at the time—compare Henry Adams’s Education).

House of Mirth is quite a bit more transatlantic in terms of its circuits of social capital. On the other hand, it shows an American aristocracy rather wowed by older British and Continental wealth and status; if we’re looking to imperialism as the site of violence in this social tactic, then it seems like we’ll have to make some adjustments. I honestly haven’t thought this through as much as I have the bit about deracination, but it seems to me that whatever violence exists within the tactic of travel is more mediated and less direct than the violence of deracination.

*Well, it’s a bit more complicated in Lily’s case because her money is never actually used for speculation, but it is the encounter with and desire for speculative schemes which ruins her, as it ultimately ruins Lapham. In both cases, of course, the desire to speculate isn’t primary or instinctive, but the result of previous misfortunes, and further misfortunes beyond those connected directly to speculation also befall Lily and Lapham, but the disaster of speculation is the crux or tipping point for both.

**Actually, there might be a fairly easy case to make for the “violence” (broadly construed) of this form of primitive accumulation: building a big house is certainly a type of enclosure and such an undertaking likely is bound to be exploitative of other people’s labor. There’s the old Brecht quote, “What is the crime of robbing a bank compared to founding one?” Well, I suppose the same goes here.


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