"There was something fundamental the matter with Merrick: something dreadful, unforeseen, unaccountable." A short story about a man's decision not to pursue an affair.
It's a good story. Of course, what drew me in was the description of someone who would choose not to pursue an affair as having something fundamentally wrong with them - or at least that is how the teaser struck me. The mechanics and mores of intimate relationships is a subject often on my mind, and this seemed like valuable data collection opportunity, after factoring in the age context, of course.
What really prompts me to mention it, though, is how the main characters are drawn. Members of New York Society they are, and written about as though we will recognize the details and trappings thereof automatically; implying that we too are members of New York Society or at least conversant with what exactly it (the Society and membership therein) requires and constitutes.
Now, I'm not. It doesn't stop me from reading and enjoying the story, and I wager it doesn't stop me from perceiving and experiencing what Wharton was trying to evoke. But it exemplifies one of the big things I find irritating about the 'New York is the center of the universe' tenet - no one in their right mind would describe this as "regional fiction", but only by classifying it thus can I relate to it.
I'm used to approaching literature from the guise of the Other for any number of personal or academic reasons. (Yes Ben, that is an inclusive 'or'.) I'm still not certain why the "New Yorker as Everyman" voice irks me so much - ok, so traveling there made me understand it a little better, but I still don't care for the little mental lurch that accompanies the realization that I'm not and never will be a part of their chummy little default group. [And isn't that phraseology revealing?] That cavalier unawareness that any other modes of existence could be equally valid, that most ethnocentric of ethnocentrism? The story is framed against New York Society - as a parallel or subset of London Society, it would seem - and while its elements are more universal, the crux situation is caused by it at least as much as by the characters themselves.
Hmm. I'm not sure. I just know that reading:
He and I had been at Harvard together, for one thing, and had shared there curiosities and ardours a little outside the current tendencies: had, on the whole, been freer and less amenable to the accepted. Then, for the next few years, Merrick had been a vivid and promising figure in young American life. Handsome, free and fine, he had wandered and tasted and compared. After, leaving Harvard he had spent two years at Oxford. He then accepted a private secretaryship to our Ambassador in England, and came back from this adventure with a fresh curiosity about public affairs at home, and the conviction that men of his kind didn't play a large enough part in them. This led, first, to his running for a State Senatorship which he failed to get, and ultimately to a few months of intelligent activity in a municipal office. Soon after a change of party had deprived him of this post he published a small volume of rather hauntingly delicate sonnets, and, a year later, an odd uneven brilliant book on Municipal Government. After that one hardly knew where to look for his next appearance; but chance rather disappointingly solved the problem by killing off his father and placing Halston at the head of the Merrick Iron Foundry at Yonkers.and finding myself filling in parenthetical 'New York's in front of State Senatorship and after Yonkers, it pushed my rant button. I think it relates to the implicit assumption that American in "young American life" really means New York - in fact, that may well be what set me off.
Anyway, I enjoyed the story and would recommend it, especially with all the relationship stuff in the air, as an example of what not to do when the love of your life does happen to show up on your doorstep.