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Edith Wharton and Cosmopolitanism$

Meredith Goldsmith and Emily J. Orlando

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780813062815

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813062815.001.0001

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“The Very Beginning of Things”

“The Very Beginning of Things”

Reading Wharton through Charles Eliot Norton’s Life and Writings on Italy

Chapter:
(p.62) 3 “The Very Beginning of Things”
Source:
Edith Wharton and Cosmopolitanism
Author(s):

William Blazek

Publisher:
University Press of Florida
DOI:10.5744/florida/9780813062815.003.0004

Abstract and Keywords

Edith Wharton benefited in her early career from the intellectual cosmopolitanism and encouraging support of the Harvard art professor Charles Eliot Norton. His emphasis on the imagination as a powerful force for social change drew from his close association with the aesthetic principles of John Ruskin and the philosophy of John Stuart Mill, and it found expression in a key art-historical publication, Historical Studies of Church Building in the Middle Ages. The moral and spiritual concepts underpinning this text, along with Norton’s writings about Italy, including Notes of Study and Travel in Italy, and his life itself, are read in this chapter alongside Wharton’s short stories and her first novel, set in late-eighteenth-century Italy, The Valley of Decision. Wharton’s fiction owes much in its focus on the artistic imagination, moral choices, and community transformation to Norton’s lessons in virtuous service, sympathy, and aesthetic sensibility.

Keywords:   art history, imagination, sympathy, morality, Charles Eliot Norton, Notes of Study and Travel in Italy, Historical Studies of Church Building in the Middle Ages, The Valley of Decision

Edith Wharton’s friendship and correspondence with Charles Eliot Norton’s daughter Sara is the connection to the Norton family with which Wharton scholars are most familiar, but Norton provided an important intellectual influence in the development of Wharton’s early writing career. The Harvard professor’s encouragement and assistance in her research for her first novel included, according to R.W.B. Lewis, lending her “an Italian phrase book and other items” (103). Norton’s biographer notes how “Norton introduced her to Donne’s poetry and sent rare old books to supply background for a novel of eighteenth-century Italy that she was writing, The Valley of Decision” (Turner 403). In her memoir, A Backward Glance, Wharton expresses her gratitude for Norton’s generosity:

Professor Norton, who had by this time become one of my great friends, followed the development of the tale with interest, and helped it on by one of the most graceful gestes ever made by a distinguished scholar to a beginner. I happened to tell him that, though I had been picking up second-hand books on eighteenth-century Italy whenever (p.63) I could find them (hardly any of the classics of the period being then reprinted), there were a few that I had been unable to buy, and one or two that even the public libraries could not supply. Among these were the original (French) version of Goldoni’s memoirs and the memoirs of Lorenzo da Ponte, published in Boston (of all places!) about 1824. A few weeks later there came to the Mount a box containing these unattainable treasures, and many other books, almost as rare, from the great library of travels at Shady Hill. For a whole summer these extremely valuable books, some quite irreplaceable, were left at the disposal of a young scribbler who was just starting on her first novel—and to Charles Norton it seemed perfectly natural, and almost an obligation, to hold out such help to a beginner. (128–29)

They first met in 1901, the year before the publication of the novel, and Wharton came to know her scholarly mentor best during the lingering controversy over Norton’s outspoken anti-imperialist stance toward the Spanish-American War and the severe U.S. occupation of the Philippines (Wegener 794). Before the political storm broke with his address to Harvard undergraduates on “true patriotism,” urging them not to enlist to fight during the war fever of 1898, Norton was already famous as the most cultivated intellectual in America. His initial relationship with Wharton was that of éminence gris to novitiate author, and on 8 July 1901 he wrote her a flattering letter that reads in part like a civic sermon, encouraging Wharton to follow her calling without regard to the popular literary market:

Notoriety is a dram which first intoxicates pleasantly, but is the worst of drugs if constantly resorted to. Even our best are apt to yield to its allurements.

But not you. You are above it. You are not a competitor for what it brings. You have no reason for permitting the publishers to trade on you for their own selfish ends, to make money out of you in ways disagreeable to you, & most inappropriate to you.

You are an artist, and with such gifts that your task is plain and sacred,—to make your work the perfect expression, so far as perfection is possible, of your own ideal, without regard to any external & transient secondary motive whatsoever. No matter whether your work be popular; if it be, as it will be, worthy of you, sunrise is not more certain (p.64) than that there will be in time worthy appreciation of it.

(Letter to Edith Wharton)1

Over the next seven years Wharton visited both the Norton family home, Shady Hill, near the Harvard University campus, and the family’s summer residence in Ashfield, Massachusetts, a 43-mile motorcar ride away from The Mount, Wharton’s home in the Berkshires (BG 154–55). She and her great friend Walter Berry, who had been a student in Norton’s art history and Dante classes at Harvard,2 came to Shady Hill in late August 1908 to see Norton for the last time, before failing health finally claimed his life that October. With evident pride, Wharton took consolation in finding that “the last letter he ever wrote (or dictated, for he was past writing) was addressed to me” (BG 156).

Beyond the warm personal relationship and privileged cosmopolitan backgrounds Wharton and her septuagenarian mentor shared, a key set of ideas flows from his nineteenth-century writings about art and Italy into her early short stories and The Valley of Decision, in addition to her later stories and the novella False Dawn. Some of the connections may seem superficial, such as the number of university professors among Wharton’s characters or the variety of ways that art collecting and connoisseurship appear in her writing, but even these indicate Norton’s prominence in her creative thinking. More essential features of their relationship can be found in their emphases on the importance of imagination as the central element in both artistic and social progress, the bond between aesthetics and morals, and the concept of service as it underpins ideals of virtue and community. These convergences are best revealed in their writings about Italy, especially in historical and literary representations of medieval Italy, but also in reflections upon the sweep of Italian cultural and political history from the Middle Ages to contemporary events.

The two writers also diverged in several respects, including Wharton’s use of a late eighteenth-century setting for The Valley of Decision and in her enthusiasm for Renaissance painters such as Tiepolo, while Norton revered the Italian Gothic and viewed the Renaissance as the point of Western cultural decline. They differed, too, in their attitudes toward what constitutes worthy subject matter for literature in its efforts to raise moral issues. Wharton records in A Backward Glance: “[T]he translator of Dante, my beloved friend, Professor Charles Eliot Norton, hearing (after the appearance of (p.65) ‘The House of Mirth’) that I was preparing another ‘society’ novel, wrote in alarm imploring me to remember that ‘no great work of the imagination has ever been based on illicit passion’!” (127).

They also differed in the location and manner of conducting their separate arguments with America and its cultural development—Norton returned to the United States in 1873, while Wharton remained an expatriate after settling in Paris in 1911. Nevertheless, a great deal of common ground lies within their shared determination to improve America’s cultural stock and redefine its moral foundations. Two of Norton’s nineteenth-century monographs, Notes of Study and Travel in Italy (1860) and Historical Studies of Church Building in the Middle Ages (1880), especially, illustrate the impact that he had on Wharton’s ideas about art, community, and religion—rooted in a moral obligation of service and, to a different degree, an urge toward spirituality.

In his comprehensive biography of Norton, James Turner makes three chief claims for Norton’s central importance to American culture in the nineteenth century: Norton’s far-reaching work as professor of art history, his establishment of the Archaeological Institute of America, and his leading role in Dante scholarship (410). To these key accomplishments can be added many others, including institutional leadership for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Athenaeum, and the Harvard Board of Overseers; editorship of the Loyal Publication Society’s broadsides during the American Civil War, and afterward of the Atlantic Monthly, the North American Review, and the Nation; and book editorship of the letters, notebooks, and writings of friends and admired authors, above all John Ruskin and James Russell Lowell, but also Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, George William Curtis, Arthur Hugh Clough, John Donne, and J.M.W. Turner. As a sign of Norton’s standing among America’s cultural elite, when an extravagant dinner was held in New York in 1868 to honor Charles Dickens, Norton was chosen to deliver the oration; the English novelist twice visited Shady Hill. On the second occasion, a young Henry James was one of the guests. James’s first book reviews appeared in the North American Review under Norton’s tutelage, and Norton’s letters of introduction provided James with his entrée into London’s social and literary circles in 1869. During Norton’s early visits to Britain, in the 1850s, he met not only Ruskin but the Pre-Raphaelite painters that Ruskin promoted, becoming friends especially with Dante Gabriel Rossetti (p.66) and Edward Burne-Jones, and acquiring several of their paintings, which Edith Wharton later viewed in Boston.

The extent of his friendships in Britain made Norton the conduit for Anglo-Saxon transatlantic cultural exchange, his correspondents ranging from novelists such as George Eliot and Elisabeth Gaskell, poets such as Clough, philosophers such as Carlyle, men of letters such as Mathew Arnold and Leslie Stephen, and artist-designers such as William Morris. As Turner writes, “Norton’s achievement can be stated bluntly”: “he was the most influential progenitor of the humanities in American education and scholarship. By the late 1880s he had also emerged as probably the preeminent critic in the United States” (xi).

Before the end of his longest absence from the United States, from 1868 through 1873—on an intense journey of study and social intercourse through Britain, Italy, and Germany with his extended family—Norton had lost his beloved wife, Susan, to a sudden illness after the birth of their sixth child. He was to find renewed purpose for his life in accepting an appointment as professor of the history of art at Harvard, the first of its kind in America. The offer came from his cousin Charles W. Eliot, recently appointed as the modernizing young president of the university, and Norton used his lectures and seminars as a focus for developing his ideas about the relationship between art and history and as a platform for promoting artistic sensibility and cultural refinement in America. James Turner credits Norton, aided by his cousin’s administrative boldness, with establishing the liberal arts in American higher education. Norton’s return from Europe was not always certain, and he might have preceded Wharton as a committed expatriate but for a sense of duty to his family and a Stoic sense of virtue, expressed through the performance of civic service in his native country. Writing in 1870 to Elizabeth Gaskell from the Villa Spannocchi outside of Siena, Norton declared: “if the world were not so bad, and if America in especial were better,—I could be content to live here. … But with you attending Educational Conventions, with my dear friend [Edwin L.] Godkin editing ‘The Nation,’ with every friend I have in the pell-mell of the fight with the devil and his allies, I am now only waiting for the opportunity to rush in at a fair moment for dealing a good blow, and getting out of breath like the rest” (Letters 1:395). Having taken that opportunity by devising a sequence of art history courses at Harvard and settling into a busy routine of scholarship and civic duties, he wrote to Ruskin at the end of the decade: (p.67) “My children must have a country, and on the whole this is best for them. I am bound here by duty to them and to my Mother. For my life would doubtless be better in many ways in Europe; but I should be after all of less service there than here” (Letters 2:91).

For twenty-three years as professor of art, with classes on Dante that continued after his retirement from full-time employment in 1898, Norton inculcated in his manners and his words “culture” to Harvard undergraduates, seeking to train what Ruskin called the “best men,” an elite cohort who would influence the rest of the country to see its development in aesthetic and cultural terms, rather than merely commercial or geopolitical. He was to become known as “the apostle of culture,” working toward the ideal of “society as a voluntaristic community of mutual obligation,” founded on the precondition of “liberty as a school of virtue” (Turner 119).

Norton’s cosmopolitan worldview—initiated by a merchant voyage to India in his youth and developed through independent travel in Europe over three decades—combined with a rigorous classical education (guided in his training by his father, the Unitarian theologian and philologist Andrews Norton, Charles enrolled at Harvard College at age fourteen) to form a scholar and social activist whose outlook stretched further than America’s borders and whose historical perspective carried him well beyond the limitations of strictly contemporary concerns. Yet his emphasis on the classical and medieval periods as models for social order and as historical precedents for the marriage of art and community also defined his attitudes and actions in the present. Careful study of the past provided insights that could be applied for the betterment of contemporary America, Norton believed, and he drew inspiration from the ideas and examples of two English friends. At the heart of his plan was a concept derived in part from Ruskin and John Stuart Mill, that of the imagination and its social implications. As Linda Dowling explains, the goal of Norton and fellow nineteenth-century social reformers such as George William Curtis and Frederick Law Olmsted was nothing less than “the moral regeneration of the American commonwealth” (65).

The role of the imagination in fulfilling this hope can be explained by tracing the eighteenth-century theory of sympathy, in relation to how Norton viewed the power of imagination as a vital force for social change. By acquiring a discriminating taste for the arts and an understanding of the cultural-historical context in which artistic genius emerges, one could turn imagination into empathy, translate aesthetic sensitivities into social (p.68) concern, move from appreciation of art and literature to compassion for the poor, and work for social justice and the fulfillment of democratic ideals. A fully awakened imagination, tempered by reason, would be able to balance sympathy against revulsion, avoid the temptations of voyeurism and pitfalls of fanaticism, change indifference and callousness into emotional engagement and practical action (Dowling 7–12). Then, through “the law of help,” a new vitality would infuse society, sparked by “dynamic cooperation by which all parts contributed to make up a whole” (Dowling 26). Propelled by art’s power to stir imagination and to energize community spirit, America itself could be reimagined as a civic society grounded in moral principles and communal concerns, driven forward not by self-serving individualism and vapid materialism but, as Norton outlined in Notes of Study and Travel in Italy, by developing faculties for intellectual, moral, and artistic improvement (Dowling 38). Moreover, as Turner notes, “Literature and art were the supreme expressions of imagination, ergo, the clearest record of human aspiration,” the most vivid sign of human progress (265).

For Norton, an essential component in creating imaginative sensitivity was Ruskin’s concept of “the seeing eye,” which Emily Orlando defines in her study of Wharton’s writing and the visual arts as “a kind of artistic sensibility, an intuitive ability to discern what is most artistic and least trendy” (171). Dowling captures the moral essence of the technique when she explains how close proximity to visual facts and detailed observation of “what was really there” must develop in artists and viewers their “moral acuity of vision” (14–15). Whereas traditional art and formal art practices produced “habits of seeing” (17), art that could revitalize the imagination would require original thinkers such as J.M.W. Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites, along with their critical advocates Ruskin and Norton.

That the principles of “truth to nature” (Dowling 18) and “the seeing eye” could be applied without cultural preconceptions and personal bias will seem naïve to modern readers schooled in poststructuralist criticism, but the ways of examining and understanding art that Ruskin and Norton fought to devise were innovations with far-reaching effects beyond their generation. They shifted the landscape of art criticism and art history away from Romantic subjectivity and narcissistic aestheticism, implanting (or imposing) moral conditions on what they attentively observed in ancient, medieval, Renaissance, and contemporary art and studied firsthand in archives, libraries, and galleries. The influence of this moral perspective, (p.69) whether focused on art of the past or the contemporary scene, can also be discerned in Edith Wharton’s independent use of close observation to depict the arts and artists in a milieu of moral decision making and social demands that challenge her characters to follow their conscience, especially those trying to live lives of virtuous service and those hoping to fashion communities in which art and morals flourish together.

In Wharton’s early short stories, the artist is often at the center of a moral dilemma, usually focused on a question of artistic integrity. The creative genius also acknowledges his separation from those with ordinary powers of perception, so he (her artists are almost invariably male) is placed in a unique position to judge the value of artistic achievement and to determine whether or not to follow popular trends and thereby prostitute art to the tastes of the market.3

The portrait-painter Claydon in Wharton’s “The Moving Finger” (1901) says despairingly, “Ah—what a little way you others see into life!” (CS 321). The story highlights the technical ability and unique insight of Claydon, who twice repaints his portrait of the late Mrs. Grancy, first aging her image at the request of her bereaved husband, and then returning the work to its original beauty. Questions of sympathy and ethics run through his actions, but Wharton also makes the artist the arbiter of the text’s ontological and aesthetic debates. “The Pot-Boiler” (1904) presents a straightforward contrast between an artist of exceptional talent and one who has limited abilities that happen to appeal to current fashions. It is the former, Ned Stanwell, who finds his adaptable skills lead him into a quandary: shall he follow his popular rival Mungold into selling stylish portraits for profit, or refuse that Siren call and embrace the poverty and disappointment entailed in following his own inspiration, painting original work without concern for public approval? The author’s position is clear when she delivers Mungold’s simplistic comment, “What is the artist’s aim but to please—isn’t that the purpose of all true art?” (CS 676). Arrayed against both Stanwell and Mungold is the designedly unfashionable as well as untalented sculptor Caspar Arran, whose pure but intolerant artistic standards illustrate the limitations of rigid ideals if they are not challenged by and adapted to social conditions—a theme that Wharton more fully explores in The Valley of Decision.

One further short story, “The Recovery” (1901), can be drawn upon to demonstrate Wharton’s understanding of the artist’s higher calling as a moral guide and spring of imaginative power. It involves the marriage of (p.70) the provincially successful American artist Keniston to Claudia Day. (Praise for Keniston’s achievements comes from a Norton avatar, Professor Wildmarsh, chair of fine arts and archaeology at the local university.) Despite her husband’s local and national renown, Claudia worries about the value of creative effort that remains satisfied with its accomplishments and that does not challenge itself to continual improvement or compare itself to the best work of European past masters. As Wharton’s hero of The Valley of Decision also finds, Claudia believes that life and art are formed through a series of “creative challenges,” ones to be addressed without fear of failure: “She had always imagined that the true artist must regard himself as the imperfect vehicle of the cosmic emotion—that beneath every difficulty overcome a new one lurked, the vision widening as the scope enlarged” (Wharton, CS 275). Her gratification when her husband decides that they will remain in Paris to raise his artistic standards after the current exhibition of his works closes also expresses a Whartonian credo, that doubt and obstacles are necessary ingredients of change and renewal. Keniston’s decision is therefore ultimately a moral one, with social progress at its heart, taking a stand for the imagination that will serve his community and validate his virtue, beyond provincial or national parameters and outward into a cosmopolitan aesthetic dimension.

While Charles Eliot Norton’s commanding influence can readily be found in Wharton’s depictions of artists and morality, Wharton also took biographical liberties in re-creating details from Norton’s life and career in her fiction. University professors or learned scholars have starring roles or significant parts in “The Angel at the Grave,” “The Recovery,” “The Rembrandt,” “The Descent of Man,” “The House of the Dead Hand,” “The Pretext,” “The Daunt Diana,” “The Debt,” and “The Letter.” Hermione Lee has noted the motif of the devoted wife or relative who serves the work and legacy of a distinguished male, so much like Sara Norton’s dutiful care for her father and his memory, to be found in “The Angel at the Grave,” “The Pretext,” and “The Descent of Man,” as well as The Valley of Decision, with Professor Orazio Vivaldi and his daughter Fulvia (94).

In her 1924 novella False Dawn, drawing again on biographical sources, Wharton re-creates the meeting between Norton and Ruskin on Lake Geneva that started the critics’ lifelong collaboration and friendship (Novellas 340–42). The text underscores the ignorance and philistinism of aristocratic old New York as shown in its inability to appreciate the value of medieval (p.71) Italian art, the work of Christian artists such as Giotto and Filippo Lippi who were championed by Norton and Ruskin for the passionate belief and vibrant spirit that animated their work. Lewis Raycie has been given a munificent sum by his father to acquire a fashionable collection of European art to bring home for display, but he purchases works by Italian Primitives instead.4 At the critical epiphanic moment of the narrative, Raycie uses his newly sharpened eyes to inspect the scene in a tiny Venetian church: “He had stood a long time looking at the frescoes, put off at first—he could admit it now—by a certain stiffness in the attitudes of the people, by the childish elaboration of their dress. … And suddenly his gaze had lit on one of these faces in particular: that of a girl with round cheeks, high cheekbones and widely set eyes under an intricate head-dress of pearl-woven braids. … Lewis’s imagination lost itself in the scene” (Wharton, Novellas 343).

The crude or at least unrefined technique of the Italian Primitives was readily acknowledged by Norton, as he emphasizes in Notes of Study and Travel in Italy: “The imagination and feeling manifest in the works of early masters are often superior to their powers of execution” (133). “But,” he continues, “in these very shortcomings of manual execution, as compared with the vigor of conception, lie the promise and certainty of the rapid progress of Art” because freedom of thought led to the directed will that could achieve that end (187).

The transformation of Lewis Raycie’s imagination that Wharton recounts in her narrative is mirrored in Norton’s celebration of the source of that uplifting vision in the Middle Ages: “a strong and quickening development of the moral sense among men” (Notes 107), expressed as “popular energy” (103) in which the individual and the community became one, unified through “simple and sincere faith” (10) to build cathedrals and other spiritually transcendent works of art. For Norton the landmark literary texts came from Dante’s Florence of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, when “each new work was at once the fruit and the seed of glorious energy” (Norton, “On The New Life 104). Reflecting his own desires for his native country and his own motivations for service to it, Norton writes in an essay on Dante of the strength of civic society in medieval Florence: “The sense of the duty of the individual to the community of which he forms a part was one of his strongest convictions” (“Dante” 63). Elsewhere in the essay he states: “Art indeed cannot, if it would, divorce itself from morals,” (p.72) and he praises the Divine Comedy for its “intensity of moral earnestness, and elevation of purpose” (“Dante” 110, 112). In contrast, Norton’s appreciation of Renaissance art eventually extended reluctantly to Michelangelo’s visionary zeal, while he reiterated in his writings and lectures how cultural and moral decline set in during the fourteenth century, when individual aggrandizement replaced fervent belief and technically superior art lost its power to move. Of the redesigned St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Norton states: “It belongs to the architecture of the intellect,—not to that of the imagination” (Notes 103); and he declared Titian, Michelangelo, and Raphael to be “the immediate forerunners of the decline and fall of Art” (Notes 193).

Wharton makes the awareness of a new vision afforded by an appreciation of art and literature into a striking visual metaphor, focused in False Dawn on Lewis Raycie’s gaze and in other texts on the image of transforming light. In the short story “The Daunt Diana,” she shows how her own referents extend beyond Norton’s fixation on the medieval, as she includes Renaissance artworks among the Daunt collection, which has been sought, bought, sold, and reacquired by Humphrey Neane. Initially buying on meager financial resources, the collector’s hard-earned knowledge of fine art along with his discerning taste and instincts combine with the boon of an unexpected inheritance, enabling him to purchase a world famous art collection that features as its centerpiece a luminous statue of Diana. However, he finds that real ownership depends on an appreciation of the pursuit behind an acquisition and that possession is insufficient without the artwork becoming “a part of my imagination” (740). So he sells the entire collection at discount prices and then systematically buys back each piece. “I saw then how, in the real, the great collector’s appreciations,” relates the sympathetic narrator, “the greatest scientific perception is suffused with imaginative sensibility” (Wharton, CS 737). Here is the duality of reason and imagination, or the “seeing eye” of close observation and sympathetic engagement, that Norton emphasizes in his art-history theories.

Wharton records the internal and external harmonies produced when an individual and his society discover the fine balance between creative thought and constructive action. The narrator as public representative is equally in focus with the character, as the story’s final paragraph begins: “His face shone with an extraordinary kind of light as he spoke; and I saw he’d got hold of the secret we’re all after” (743). Although he lives in a backwater Roman tenement circumscribed to “two or three cold rooms that (p.73) smelt of the cuisine of all his neighbours: a poor shrunken figure, smaller and shabbier than ever,” Neave has arrived at the happy conclusion of eudaimonia, the contentment of a life well lived (742). The aged, stooped figure of Norton (never impoverished, but burdened by property tax demands on his Shady Hill estate in his later years) seems resurrected within this image of personal fulfilment.

“The Daunt Diana” is one of several short stories Wharton composed during Norton’s lifetime that are set in Italy, including those with contemporary settings such as “The Muse’s Tragedy” and “Soul’s Belated” and that investigate how past events shape the present. Others use historical periods such as the eighteenth century in “A Venetian Night’s Entertainment” and the Risorgimento Italy of “The Letter” to examine imagination as the spark for social engagement and sympathy. Still others explore how medieval and Renaissance art, religion, and spirituality comingle and often conflict in the tenuous formation of a community—as in “The Duchess at Prayer,” “The House of the Dead Hand,” “The Confessional,” and “The Hermit and the Wild Woman.” Those tied to a religious theme or setting can be examined in the light of Norton’s most essential aim in promoting civic virtue within a morally vigorous and self-critical society.

The years 1870 and 1871, when Norton was studying the archives of Siena Cathedral while ensconced in the Villa Spannocchi, and afterward sharing with his wife the thrill of exploring Venice’s unique Gothic art and architecture, were perhaps the happiest times of his career, when life and imagination merged (Dowling 117), and news of the Franco-Prussian War’s aftershocks and their potentially destabilizing effect on a newly unified Italy was cushioned by his family happiness. In a shift marked by the sudden death of his wife in February 1872, Norton substituted art scholarship and humanist service for his steadily evolving and always questioning early Unitarian religious beliefs. As a widower, Norton’s agnosticism was confirmed.5 Wharton, on the other hand, was drawn to Catholicism. As Robin Peel claims, “Italy satisfied an easily overlooked spiritual, even mystical need nurtured in her childhood. … The symbiosis of art and religion” (286). While “[t]he lure of Italy in Wharton’s final years suggests the quiet triumph of sentiment and sensation over scientific materialism. … Italy provided a spiritual home” (“Wharton and Italy” 292). However, paradoxically isolated in their cosmopolitan cocoons, neither Norton nor Wharton could fully extend their understanding of the nexus of religion, art, history, imagination, morals, and (p.74) service that they gained from Italy to the citizens and institutions of contemporary Italy itself. Wharton expressed her dismay at the Italians’ lack of aesthetic awareness: “I think sometimes that it is almost a pity to enjoy Italy as much as I do, because the acuteness of my sensations makes them rather exhausting; but when I see the stupid Italians I have met here, completely insensitive to their surroundings, & ignorant of the treasures of art & history among which they have grown up, I begin to think it is better to be an American, & bring to it all a mind & eye unblunted by custom” (Lewis 77–78).

In his notes from Italy during the mid-1850s, Norton could be caustic about the deadening hand of the Catholic Church in restricting educational opportunities and imposing a state religion that was diametrically opposed to his conception of enlightened American democracy, with its enshrined freedoms of speech and religious thought (Notes 163). “The priest and the schoolmaster are rival powers,” he writes from Rome, appalled at the way he feels the church allows to be taught only what is useful for retaining social and political control. “Republicans are always readers,” he counters (171). His harshest criticism is reserved for what he sees as the church’s abnegation of its core purpose, for it had substituted the material and visible for the spiritual, with all the attendant corruption and veniality which that disservice entails (218, 224). Writing from Rome in 1856 to James Lowell about the rise of Mariolatry and the church’s destructive architectural restoration projects, Norton jokes: “I think I could roast a Franciscan with pleasure, and it would need only a tolerable opportunity to make me stab a Cardinal in the dark” (Letters 1:144).

However, for both Norton and Wharton, criticism of the Catholic Church in Italy for its failure to unshackle popular imagination has a reverse impression in their attraction to Catholic ritual and ceremony, the public display of communal energy, and historical continuity. Allied to Norton’s enthusiasm for the architectural legacy of the Italian Middle Ages is his admiration for the pious traditions and living inheritance of ancient faith. He might be expected to praise the Campo Santo in Pisa for “the exquisite tracery of the arches” and the way sunlight plays on the color of the stone, producing “effects which show how Nature delights to adorn and embellish the well-executed works of man” (Notes 9); but he also engages “with one of the most widespread and splendid ceremonials of the Roman Church,” the Miracle of Bolsena in Orvieto, “from which the festival of the Corpus (p.75) Domini, celebrated wherever the Roman Church extends, takes its date. It is one of the chief glories of the Church Triumphant (Notes 112). Tempering this encomium with Protestant skepticism, he also records his distrust of the doctrines that lie behind the community spirit of annual religious processions but that undermine social progress. He decries how the Romans’ early religious indoctrination results in “superstitious devotion, and blasphemous irreverence,” admitting, too, that “There are many good priests in Rome,—but not all are good” (Notes 239).

Possessed of the more open-minded attitude of a novelist, who gathers ideas and experiences for fictional deployment rather than narrowing them down in critical precision, Wharton exhibited wide taste in artists and artistic periods, particularly from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, as her 1905 publication, Italian Backgrounds, shows.6 She also felt, as Peel argues, “a fascination with the significance of Christianity, whether in the form of its apparatus of church and priest, the enactment of ritual, or the myths and mysteries to which these symbols point” (“Realism and Ritual” 59). In his biography of Norton, Turner writes, “As a critic Norton always tended more to demolition than appreciation, a symptom perhaps of a scholarly disposition at bottom more trenchant than original” (254). Wharton’s satiric bite could be equally penetrating; but as The Valley of Decision and short stories such as “The Hermit and the Wild Woman” illustrate, she could insightfully portray the deep contradictions between human frailty and divine grace in Catholicism, drawing from a perceptive understanding of Catholic beliefs and offices.

The intellectual and philosophical influence of Norton on the early literary career of Edith Wharton becomes especially clear in aspects of The Valley of Decision that correspond to important ideas to be found in Norton’s key monograph, Historical Studies of Church Building in the Middle Ages. These two texts also contain contrasts in their attitudes toward, for example, the art and culture of the Renaissance and the visibility of politically active women. Nevertheless, the confluence of principles such as service, morality, and imagination in their work shows how Norton was more than just an encouraging advisor behind the production of Wharton’s first novel.7

Based on the archival work he conducted in Italy during the late 1860s and early 1870s, written during his first decade as professor of art history at Harvard and published in 1880, Norton’s Historical Studies of Church Building in the Middle Ages examines the cathedral cities of Venice, Siena, and (p.76) Florence in an attempt to understand the relationship between architecture and society from the tenth through the fifteenth century. The book’s thesis is closely allied to Ruskin’s moral aesthetic, as Norton explains how the Italian Gothic cathedrals illustrate “the truth that has determined the character of all supreme artistic production—that in the highest forms of human expression morality and beauty are inseparable” (29). In an appendix of the volume, Norton directly acknowledges his debt to Ruskin, in particular for The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1851–53), with their admiration for the communality of medieval life and explicit moral judgments on architectural form and design. Exhibiting the shortcomings of Victorian historiography, like Ruskin, Norton remained blissfully and self-consciously ignorant of the true nature of the medieval Italian communities he admired, unaware of the fact that his saintly Giotto had been a usurer, and unable to fathom what one modern commentator calls “the sheer gangsterism of Venetian society” (Clark 270). Nevertheless, it would be hard to overestimate the importance of Ruskin in Britain and Norton in America in establishing Victorian aesthetics, especially the twin pillars of detailed observation of art objects and judgments about the moral character of artists and the moral climate in which they worked.

In Historical Studies of Church Building in the Middle Ages, Norton traces the successive rise and decline of the three selected city-states and argues that each triumphed through great hardship and both internal and external conflict to erect the central monuments of their culture but then fell into dissipation and moral laxity, especially during the Renaissance. While residing with his family in Florence during the winter of 1870–71, he wrote to Elizabeth Gaskell: “I have been living mainly on Italian Chronicles and cinquecento biographies. How this people kept any spark of sweetness and charity and humanity alive through the burnings and massacres of the middle ages and through the wanton wickedness of the Renaissance must be a matter of wonder. And now, if one knows how to live with them, they are the sweetest people on earth. If I ever come back, may I be born Italian” (Letters 1:404).

In each chapter of Norton’s book, he seems to savor the decline of the cathedral communities as much as their achievements. The eclectic genius of the adventurous Venetians, the fineness of their perceptions, he claims, eventually gave way to over-ornamentation in Venice, demonstrating that “She [Venice] was growing luxurious, sensual and prodigal” (p.77) (Historical Studies 62). The civic and religious unity that sustained the Sienese through war and plague was replaced by rationalism and individualism, and “The Duomo, that had been the expression and witness of the strong forces of life in the community of Siena, became the evidence of their decay” (178). With a “moral change in the popular temper,” power and wealth brought luxury, increased knowledge, and self-dependence, and religion became more mannered and ostentatiously formal but with less spiritual conviction; and the art of Siena illustrates the decline, as principles of good construction were sacrificed to picturesque effects. Artists gained skill and grace, according to Norton, but lost “dignity of motive and truth of sentiment” as well as “depth of imagination and serious feeling” (157). He presents for evidence the fact that Duccio’s altarpiece was replaced by an “elaborate bronze tabernacle, in the depraved taste of the later time” (146). Norton also explains how the well-ordered Florentine state grew lighthearted and lavish, so that the initial inspirations of the early Renaissance “allured a weaker generation from the paths of nature and independence into those of artificiality and imitation” (241). He traces this change in Florence to a gradual onset of weariness caused by factionalism and warfare, and as a preference for material prosperity gained hold, civic unity suffered and old foundations cracked:

The ancient faith, which had been the support of morality, was weakened and undermined by the new thought of the Renaissance. The standard of personal conduct was lowered. The increase in intelligence was accompanied by a growth of selfishness. The very development of individuality which was characteristic of the period tended to enfeeble the commonwealth. Men gave themselves up to private ends and enterprises. They built and adorned palaces rather than churches. (285–86)

A key theme of Norton’s text is the contrast between a dutiful and moral sense of service to the welfare of the community and a self-serving and corrupt individualism reflected both in personal behavior and in artistic production. It matches a central objective of his work as a teacher at Harvard over three decades. Norton’s eldest son, Eliot, who began his undergraduate studies at Harvard the year after Historical Studies was published, described his father’s courses as “Lectures on Modern Morals as Illustrated by the Art of the Ancients” (Norton, Letters 2:8).

(p.78) As a student of a different sort, Wharton applied the lesson of Norton’s moral aesthetics in her novel, shifting the setting of The Valley of Decision into the second half of the eighteenth century in Italy, another era of cultural decline and consequent social and political turbulence.8 The scene of the opening and closing of the novel, the neglected chapel of Pontesordo, establishes the tone of social and moral decay that also runs through Norton’s historical vision. Within this circular narrative, readers follow Odo Valsecca’s undulating awakening into a life of service, his exposure to the corruptions of the age, and the eventual defeat of his idealism.9 No wonder that Norton, recognizing the promising talent of his tutee and how well she mirrored his own conception of Italian history, should praise the novel’s appearance. Wharton heard from Sara Norton that the professor had referred to her as a “woman of genius” for her “unique and astonishing performance. … It is too thoughtful and too fine to be popular, but it places Mrs. Wharton among the few foremost of the writers in English today” (Lewis 106).10

Among things he read in The Valley of Decision that would have resonated with his teaching and scholarship are narrative passages that portray post-Renaissance Italy’s social quietude and cultural decadence, courageous efforts to revive a feeling for service to community, and moral commitment to progressive thought and action. Above all, Odo’s response to the revolutionary philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment and their potential realization when he ascends to rule as the Duke of Pianura closely match Norton’s vocabulary for art and literature’s power to stir the imagination and instill empathy: Odo “was saved by a kind of imaginative sympathy” (1:91), nothing “could dull the flush of his first encounter with the past. His imagination took fire” (1:95), and reading poetry empowers him with “new faculties of perception” (1:99).

In the novel, Wharton also follows Norton’s critical wake as she paddles gleefully in the mire of decay and depravity, especially in her depiction of Venice, where in the convents, “mostly filled with the daughters of the nobility, an unusual liberty prevailed … and it was a common thing for the noble libertine returned from Italy to boast of his intrigue with a Venetian nun” (2:64). The female protagonist, Fulvia Vivaldi, temporarily trapped in one of these establishments, finds the convent’s “leniencies … more repugnant than the strictest monastic discipline” (2:80). The floating city’s moral liquidity is notorious: “the Venetian nuns were noted throughout Italy for (p.79) their frivolous and dissipated lives; but nothing that Fulvia had heard or imagined approached the realities that awaited her” (2:80). But rather than admonish the misguided young women for their behavior, the narrative blames their vapid society: “The few Venetians destined to be remembered among those who had contributed to the intellectual advancement of Italy vegetated in obscurity, suffering not so much from religious persecution—for the Inquisition had little power in Venice—as from the incorrigible indifference of a society which ignored all who did not contribute to its amusement” (2:56–57). The sentence echoes the argument in Norton’s Historical Studies that an individual fragment of a culture, even a large fragment like a cathedral, cannot be understood in isolation, “but as a clear and brilliant illustration of the general conditions of society, and especially of its moral and intellectual dispositions” (10). In that sense, a character such as the Duchess of Monte Alloro, Odo’s wife and consort in the state of Pianura, whose pursuit of pleasures is defined as “a headlong gallop after the cruder sort” (1:295), is almost excused her iniquitous habits by the expectations of her royal status and the encrusted religious conservatism and temporal complacency of Pianura.

Odo Valsecca is vacillatingly committed to progress, social reform, and practical service. Specifically, “It was the people he longed to serve; and the people were hungry, were fever-stricken, were crushed with tithes and taxes. It was hopeless to try to reach them by the diffusion of popular knowledge. They must first be fed and clothed; and before they could be fed and clothed the chains of feudalism must be broken” (2:180). His nobles and a large section of the clergy hinder this practical economic aim, but it also runs counter to another aspect of his character, one that recalls Norton’s emphasis on the passionate intensity of artistic creation in the Middle Ages. Odo balances in his actions the need for patience, order, and restraint together with a poetic desire to love and be loved, making him not a pre-Romantic in his eighteenth-century setting but a vestigial figure out of a medieval ballad. Thus his fateful, unrequited love for Fulvia is doomed by their differences, and Wharton explains the essential contrast in historical terms that recall Norton’s analysis of long cultural transformation:

[T]he new teachers to whom Odo’s contemporaries were beginning to listen had thrown a strangely poetic light over the dull figures of the domestic virtues. Faithfulness to the family sanctities, reverence for (p.80) the marriage tie, courage to sacrifice the loftiest passion to the most plodding duty: these were qualities to touch the fancy of a generation sated with derision. If love as a sentiment was the discovery of the medieval poets, love as a moral emotion might be called that of the eighteenth-century philosophers, who, for all their celebration of free unions and fatal passions, were really on the side of the angels, were fighting the battle of the spiritual against the sensual, of conscience against appetite. (2:121)

This surprising link between eighteenth-century radical philosophy and the ascetic morality to which medieval religion aspired leads to one final parallel between The Valley of Decision and Norton’s Historical Studies. Explaining the fundamental force of the Catholic Church in medieval Italy, Norton confidently asserts: “While all else was unstable and changeful, she, with her unbroken tradition and her uninterrupted services, vindicated the principle of order and the moral continuity of the race” (Historical Studies 14).

In Wharton’s novel, the clergy are perhaps surprisingly varied in how they are portrayed—for the most part hindrances to progress and at worst devious and self-serving enemies of Odo’s plans for reform. However, in the wily and wise Jesuit abate de Crucis, Wharton encapsulates the sophisticated intelligence and political savvy of the more liberal thinkers who mentor (and manipulate) Odo. De Crucis also takes him to visit the ancient Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino, where the future Duke spends “the pleasantest days he had known” and renews his mind and spirit through “the hours of study, the talks with the monks, the strolls through cloister or garden, all punctuated by the recurring summons to devotion” (2:29). The security of this retreat; the monastery’s synergy with an impregnable mountain landscape; the monk’s devoted service to charity and education; and the daily order of worship, work, learning, and prayer, all converge in an image of the ideal, unified medieval religious community of Charles Eliot Norton’s imagination. Yet Wharton expresses something further in her novel, beyond Norton’s disappointment that such an ideal could never be achieved in the present, particularly in light of America’s fin de siècle imperial adventures. Toward the end of the narrative, when Odo visits the corrupt Bishop of Pianura’s Benedictine monastery and gardens, “he felt the old spell which the life of Monte Cassino had cast on him” (2:291) and (p.81) comes to realize that “the secret principle of the Church’s vitality” (2:294) is to be found in its message of spiritual equality. De Crucis’s explanation of Catholicism as “an ordered force” (2:296) and “a great scheme of action, working ever from imperfection to perfection” (2:295) demonstrates how far Wharton’s understanding of the Church Militant exceeded her mentor’s.

Yet in The Valley of Decision’s narrative return to the chapel of Pontesordo, with its Roman foundations, where in Book 1, chapter 1, Odo first senses the power of the old religion in faded medieval wall-frescoes of St. Francis of Assisi and St. George, Wharton illustrates Norton’s opinions about the past’s call on the present. In the novel’s final scene, Odo stops at the chapel before joining the fight for Italy’s unification. At the altar, before daybreak: “Something stirred in him as he knelt there—a prayer, yet not a prayer—a reaching out, obscure and inarticulate, toward all that had survived of his early hopes and faiths,” rising to find “when he looked up the chapel was full of a pale light, and in the first shaft of the sunrise the face of Saint Francis shone out on him” (2:311–12). Elsewhere in the text, symbolic light indicates the new order of eighteenth-century thought, but here it represents a deeper recognition of time’s measured control of human destinies, shows how morality and service are products of enlightened imagination, and signifies Odo’s historical, aesthetic, and spiritual spectrum of understanding.

The two were born a generation apart, and differing gender expectations and intellectual milieus of their early lives determined their writing careers, but Wharton and her Harvard guide shared a conviction that their work sprang from moral duty and contributed to civic virtue. Although Wharton drew from later historical referents for her literary subjects, the art of the Middle Ages features in her writing more often than is usually acknowledged by critics. The lasting impact of Norton’s teachings about medieval Italian art and the vibrant cities that produced it can also be illustrated with evidence from Wharton’s visual style. In Historical Studies, Norton writes about a special quality of Venetian architecture, as it deviated from the Gothic style of other city-states and “subordinated the effects of pure line and constructive form to those of colour. … There have been no such colourists as the Venetians” (56). In her odd early short story “The Fulness of Life,” first published in Scribner’s Magazine in December 1893, and described by the author five years later as “one long shriek” (Letters 36), Wharton includes a passage in which a newly dead woman recounts to the Spirit of Life a moment of transcendent beauty in her life, quoted here nearly complete (p.82) to show how she progressively layers her palette with visual and linguistic exuberance, spiritual reflection, and historical coloring:

It was near sunset on a rainy spring afternoon in Easter week. The clouds had vanished, dispersed by a sudden wind, and as we entered the church [of Or San Michele, in Florence] the fiery panes of the high windows shone out like lamps through the dusk. A priest was at the high altar, his white cape a livid spot in the incense-laden obscurity, the light of the candles flickering up and down like fireflies about his head; a few people knelt near by. We stole behind them and sat down on a bench close to the tabernacle of Orcagna.

Strange to say, though Florence was not new to me, I had never been in the church before; and in that magical light I saw for the first time the inlaid steps, the fluted columns, the sculptured bas-reliefs and canopy of the marvellous shrine. The marble, worn and mellowed by the subtle hand of time, took on an unspeakable rosy hue, suggestive in some remote way of the honey-colored columns of the Parthenon, but more mystic, more complex, a color not born of the sun’s inveterate kiss, but made up of cryptal twilight, and the flame of candles upon the martyrs’ tombs, and gleams of sunset through symbolic panes of chrysoprase and ruby; such a light as illumines the missals in the library of Siena, or burns like a hidden fire through the Madonna of Gian Bellini in the Church of the Redeemer, at Venice; the light of the Middle Ages, richer, more solemn, more significant than the limpid sunshine of Greece … and as I sat there, bathed in that light, … I felt myself borne onward along a mighty current, whose source seemed to be in the very beginning of things. (CS 15–16)

This image, of an eternal moment in which morality, art, and life blend perfectly together, reflects the ideal that Norton found in medieval Italy, and the “seeing eye” that he helped Edith Wharton to develop often produces in her prose glimpses of “that magical light.” She would take his lessons further, daring to express a cosmic-cosmopolitanism that accepts spirituality, transcending time and stretching the possibilities of imagined space.

(p.83) Notes

(1.) Norton’s letter advises her about an essential characteristic of permanent literary merit: “Such work as yours demands perfection of form, and should be seen and judged as a whole. It must make a single final impression. Think of reading Hamlet in five monthly parts. Most of our novel writers do not know what is meant by form. You do, and are consequently working under heavier responsibility than they.”

(2.) Two other students in Norton’s classes, Morton Fullerton and Bernard Berenson, became important figures in Wharton’s life.

(3.) Wharton’s early short stories contain similar situations involving writers who must confront the demands of the literary marketplace, often at the risk of their moral integrity. See, for example, “The Descent of Man” and “Full Circle.”

(4.) Critics have uncovered various biographical and literary inspirations for this story. Early commentators spotted the references to Thomas Jefferson Bryant’s failure to excite the New York public with his 1853 Gallery of Christian Art and to James Jackson Jarves’s later nineteenth-century collections of medieval and Renaissance Italian art, first exhibited in New York in 1863. Jarves’s Italian Sights and Papal Principals Seen through American Spectacles (1856) appeared just four years before Charles Eliot Norton’s Notes of Study and Travel in Italy. Norton led a move to acquire Jarves’s collection for Boston, then helped to persuade Yale University to purchase the works. See Kimball, Sizer, and Vance. Adeline Tintner tracks the narrative source for False Dawn to Balzac’s Le Cousin Pons (1847) (8).

(5.) Norton’s path toward agnosticism was set earlier. In an 1869 letter to Ruskin he explains: “It does not seem to me that the evidence concerning the being of a God, and concerning immortality, is such as to enable us to assert anything in regard to either of these topics. … I believe an Atheist may be as good, as pure, & under sanctions as strong as a Theist” (Correspondence 175).

(6.) Wharton probably has Norton in mind when she comments in Italian Backgrounds, “It is hard to be tolerant of that particular type of intolerance which refuses to recognize in art the general law of growth and transformation, or, while recognizing it, considers it a subject for futile reproach and lamentation.” From the standpoint of the lover of Gothic art, she continues, “the art which evolved from Michael Angelo is an art of decadence: is that a reason for raging against it or ignoring it?” (182–83). See also Vance (530) for discussion of Wharton’s interest in baroque art and Zorzi on her admiration for Tiepolo’s paintings.

(7.) While Wharton mentions Giotto and discusses Dante (1:109, 1:303) in The Valley of Decision, the narrative uses a hidden painting by the innovative Venetian (p.84) Renaissance artist Giorgione to indicate the secret sources of power held by the aristocracy, as well as hinting at their perfidy and inner corruption (1:273, 2:158).

(8.) Vernon Lee, author of Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1880), informed Wharton’s choice of historical setting for the novel. They first met in 1894 and corresponded for the next forty years. Wharton’s focus on a male protagonist’s relationship with an intellectual woman was drawn from George Eliot’s Romola (1863), concerning early fifteenth-century Florence’s political-religious intrigues and crises. Hermione Lee (103, 106–7) proposes as Wharton’s models Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795–96) and chiefly Stendhal’s La Chartreuse de Parme (1839), as well as Hawthorne’s Marble Faun (1860) and James’s Roderick Hudson (1875). Severi has identified other biographical and literary sources for and references in The Valley of Decision, including the early nineteenth-century political exile Professor Foresti and the eighteenth-century intellectual Fr. Ludovico Antonio Muratori, along with Ippolito Nievo’s novel Le confessioni di un Italiano (set in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, written 1857–58) and Day 7, Novella 5 of Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Wharton’s familiarity with the aesthetic criticism of John Addington Symonds and Walter Pater also led her beyond Norton’s fixed viewpoints on art history.

(9.) The protagonist’s names indicate the dualities of his character, one that hears (odo: I hear) the call of change in European political philosophy and an inner voice spurring him to action, yet exists within a conservative ruling class and an intellectually arid country (val secca: dry valley) that tempers his reason and foils his designs (ponte sordo: deaf bridge).

(10.) Within six months the novel sold 25,000 copies and went into a second printing (Peel, “Wharton and Italy” 289).

Works Cited

Bibliography references:

Clark, Kenneth. Ruskin Today. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1964. Print.

Dowling, Linda. Charles Eliot Norton: The Art of Reform in Nineteenth-Century America. Durham: U of New Hampshire P, 2007. Print.

Kimball, Fiske. “The Baroque and the Primitives: The Lea Collection.” Bulletin of the Pennsylvania Museum 21.103 (1926): 160–62. Print.

Lee, Hermione. Edith Wharton. London: Chatto and Windus, 2007. Print.

Lewis, R.W.B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. London: Constable, 1975. Print.

Norton, Charles Eliot. “Dante.” Studies of Great Authors: The Poets. Warner Classics. New York: Doubleday and McClure, 1899. 35–112. Print.

(p.85) ———. “On The New Life.” The New Life of Dante Alighieri. Trans. Charles Eliot Norton. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1889. Print.

———. Historical Studies of Church Building in the Middle Ages: Venice, Siena, Florence. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1880. Print.

———. Letter to Edith Wharton. 8 July 1901. Box 1, folder 2, 1900–1919, Edith Wharton Manuscripts. Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington. 26 Aug. 2013. Print.

———. Letters of Charles Eliot Norton with Biographical Comment. 2 vols. Ed. Sara Norton and M. A. DeWolfe Howe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1913. Print.

———. Notes of Study and Travel in Italy. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1860. Print.

Norton, Charles Eliot, and John Ruskin. The Correspondence of John Ruskin and Charles Eliot Norton. Ed. John Lewis Bradley and Ian Ousby. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987. Print.

Orlando, Emily. Edith Wharton and the Visual Arts. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2007. Print.

Peel, Robin. “Realism and Ritual in the Italian Short Stories of Edith Wharton.” The Short Stories of Edith Wharton. Spec. issue of The Short Story in English 58 (2012): 59–75. Print.

———. “Wharton and Italy.” Wharton in Context. Ed. Laura Rattray. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. 285–92. Print.

Severi, Rita. “Iconic Allusions, References, and Contexts in The Valley of Decision.” Conference paper. Edith Wharton in Florence: A Sesquicentennial Conference. Florence, Italy, June 2012. Print.

Sizer, Theodore. “James Jackson Jarves: A Forgotten New Englander.” New England Quarterly 6.2 (1933): 328–52. Print.

Tintner, Adeline. “False Dawn and the Irony of Taste-Changes in Art.” Edith Wharton Newsletter 1.2 (1984): 1, 3, 8. Print.

Turner, James. The Liberal Education of Charles Eliot Norton. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999. Print.

Vance, William L. “The Sidelong Glance: Victorian Americans and Baroque Rome.” New England Quarterly 58.4 (1985): 501–32. Print.

Wegener, Frederick. “‘Rabid Imperialist’: Edith Wharton and the Obligations of Empire in Modern American Fiction.” American Literature 72.4 (2000): 783–812. Print.

Wharton, Edith. A Backward Glance. New York: Scribner’s, 1933. Print.

———. The Collected Short Stories. Vol 1. Ed. R.W.B. Lewis. New York: Scribner’s, 1968. Print.

———. Collected Stories, 1891–1910. New York: Library of America, 2001. Print.

(p.86) ———. Italian Backgrounds. New York: Scribner’s, 1905. Print.

———. The Letters of Edith Wharton. Ed. R.W.B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis. New York: Collier Books, Macmillan, 1988. Print.

———. Novellas and Other Writing. New York: Library of America, 1990. Print.

———. The Valley of Decision. 2 vols. New York: Scribner’s, 1902. Print.

Zorzi, Rosella Mamoli. “Tiepolo, Henry James, and Edith Wharton.” Metropolitan Museum Journal 33 (1998): 211–29. Print.

Notes:

(1.) Norton’s letter advises her about an essential characteristic of permanent literary merit: “Such work as yours demands perfection of form, and should be seen and judged as a whole. It must make a single final impression. Think of reading Hamlet in five monthly parts. Most of our novel writers do not know what is meant by form. You do, and are consequently working under heavier responsibility than they.”

(2.) Two other students in Norton’s classes, Morton Fullerton and Bernard Berenson, became important figures in Wharton’s life.

(3.) Wharton’s early short stories contain similar situations involving writers who must confront the demands of the literary marketplace, often at the risk of their moral integrity. See, for example, “The Descent of Man” and “Full Circle.”

(4.) Critics have uncovered various biographical and literary inspirations for this story. Early commentators spotted the references to Thomas Jefferson Bryant’s failure to excite the New York public with his 1853 Gallery of Christian Art and to James Jackson Jarves’s later nineteenth-century collections of medieval and Renaissance Italian art, first exhibited in New York in 1863. Jarves’s Italian Sights and Papal Principals Seen through American Spectacles (1856) appeared just four years before Charles Eliot Norton’s Notes of Study and Travel in Italy. Norton led a move to acquire Jarves’s collection for Boston, then helped to persuade Yale University to purchase the works. See Kimball, Sizer, and Vance. Adeline Tintner tracks the narrative source for False Dawn to Balzac’s Le Cousin Pons (1847) (8).

(5.) Norton’s path toward agnosticism was set earlier. In an 1869 letter to Ruskin he explains: “It does not seem to me that the evidence concerning the being of a God, and concerning immortality, is such as to enable us to assert anything in regard to either of these topics. … I believe an Atheist may be as good, as pure, & under sanctions as strong as a Theist” (Correspondence 175).

(6.) Wharton probably has Norton in mind when she comments in Italian Backgrounds, “It is hard to be tolerant of that particular type of intolerance which refuses to recognize in art the general law of growth and transformation, or, while recognizing it, considers it a subject for futile reproach and lamentation.” From the standpoint of the lover of Gothic art, she continues, “the art which evolved from Michael Angelo is an art of decadence: is that a reason for raging against it or ignoring it?” (182–83). See also Vance (530) for discussion of Wharton’s interest in baroque art and Zorzi on her admiration for Tiepolo’s paintings.

(7.) While Wharton mentions Giotto and discusses Dante (1:109, 1:303) in The Valley of Decision, the narrative uses a hidden painting by the innovative Venetian (p.84) Renaissance artist Giorgione to indicate the secret sources of power held by the aristocracy, as well as hinting at their perfidy and inner corruption (1:273, 2:158).

(8.) Vernon Lee, author of Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1880), informed Wharton’s choice of historical setting for the novel. They first met in 1894 and corresponded for the next forty years. Wharton’s focus on a male protagonist’s relationship with an intellectual woman was drawn from George Eliot’s Romola (1863), concerning early fifteenth-century Florence’s political-religious intrigues and crises. Hermione Lee (103, 106–7) proposes as Wharton’s models Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795–96) and chiefly Stendhal’s La Chartreuse de Parme (1839), as well as Hawthorne’s Marble Faun (1860) and James’s Roderick Hudson (1875). Severi has identified other biographical and literary sources for and references in The Valley of Decision, including the early nineteenth-century political exile Professor Foresti and the eighteenth-century intellectual Fr. Ludovico Antonio Muratori, along with Ippolito Nievo’s novel Le confessioni di un Italiano (set in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, written 1857–58) and Day 7, Novella 5 of Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Wharton’s familiarity with the aesthetic criticism of John Addington Symonds and Walter Pater also led her beyond Norton’s fixed viewpoints on art history.

(9.) The protagonist’s names indicate the dualities of his character, one that hears (odo: I hear) the call of change in European political philosophy and an inner voice spurring him to action, yet exists within a conservative ruling class and an intellectually arid country (val secca: dry valley) that tempers his reason and foils his designs (ponte sordo: deaf bridge).

(10.) Within six months the novel sold 25,000 copies and went into a second printing (Peel, “Wharton and Italy” 289).