A meta-blog-post about blog posts

This curiosity may be of little interest to people not named James Rosenzweig, but I’ve been puzzling over something for months about the blog, and I thought that perhaps a few of my faithful readers/commenters (you know who you are!) might be willing to offer their thoughts?

The curiosity has to do with why some blog posts get a lot of hits and attention, and others don’t.  Every blog’s stats probably look something like mine—the home page has a ridiculously high number of hits (since that’s where most people click through to), and then each post has a small number of hits from people clicking through to it in particular.  Some types of posts are marginally more popular than others, but that’s not really my question.

My specific question has to do with this strangely popular blog post about The Age of Innocence.  It seemed simple enough when I wrote it—a few nice observations maybe, but nothing flashy.  That one blog post, written over two years ago now, remains one of my blog’s most popular posts almost every single week.  Second only to the home page in number of unique hits, its thousands of hits surpass the total hits for blog posts #3-#8 combined.  Now, I might have accepted this if it was one of my reviews—perhaps one of a famous novel, one that high schoolers would search out for book reports?  Or if maybe it was a post on a popular holiday…something that might come up frequently for casual searchers.  But instead, it’s that post—a little intermediary thing, one of a dozen or so posts about that particular novel, and somehow head-and-shoulders ahead of everything else.

By way of comparison, consider this post from early in One of Ours, and this post from later in One of Ours.  I’d call them about the same kind of work as that Age of Innocence post: reflections on characters (one even including a healthy quotation) from a novel by a well-known author.  I grant you, AoI is more popular than OoO, and Wharton more than Cather, but surely not by multiple orders of magnitude?  And yet until I linked to them here, each of those posts on Cather’s novel had garnered but one hit apiece in the 2+ years they’ve lived on my blog.

So I ask you—what is it about that odd little post on The Age of Innocence?  Did I inadvertently use a keyphrase everyone searches on Google?  (If so, what’s the phrase?)  Is it just really good reading?  Should I try to repeat the feat, or accept that I will never in my life write anything as broadly popular as this one curious little musing on Newland Archer and the Countess Olenska?  I hope someone has some thoughts, since I’ve gotten a whole lot of nowhere, thus far.

P.S. For those who say “it’s just that it’s a post on The Age of Innocence, and it’s a really well-known novel “, I give you this: a post on The Age of Innocence, as old as the wildly popular one, that up until today had a total of 3 hits.  Buridan’s ass may be able to tell the difference between them, but I’m having a heck of a time working it out.

New York Magazine on The Age of Innocence

Sam Anderson, writing for New York Magazine, was asked to choose the “New Yorkiest” novel ever written…and chooses, perhaps counter-intuitively, The Age of Innocence.  Given my glowing review of that novel, and specifically how I liked it, I really enjoyed reading his perspective on it: I encourage you to have a look (especially if, unlike me, you’re familiar with New York City in real life) and to offer comments here on whether or not Anderson’s thesis rings true for you.  As much as I liked the novel, I’m not entirely sure he sells me on his pick, but given my ignorance on the topic, I’m hoping to get other perspectives.

Alternate plots for The Age of Innocence

I know I moved on from The Age of Innocence a while ago, but I found this really interesting piece of information about the book that I thought was worth sharing.  It seems that, in her papers, Edith Wharton left behind her two different alternate plots for the story of Newland Archer, Ellen Olenska and the rest.  They’re stored in an archive at Yale: here’s the gist of each alternate plot.

In one, Newland is already engaged when he meets Olenska.  He falls in love with Ellen, but goes through with the marriage to May.  His love for Ellen, though, cannot be silenced, and so he runs off with her for a secret tryst in Florida, with the idea that from there they’ll leave society behind (and he’ll tell May their marriage is over).  In Florida, though, he realizes that he will never feel at ease living outside the society he has always known.  Ellen, meanwhile, realizes how boring Newland truly is, and the two of them mutually agree that they really have nothing in common.  Newland returns to New York, no one the wiser, and settles down to married life, while Ellen leaves for Europe.

In the other alternate plot, May manages to convince Newland to break off the engagement.  May marries another man, and Newland marries Ellen.  They begin well, feeling truly in love and enjoying their honeymoon, but after returning to New York, they rapidly realize how ill-suited they are to each other.  Newland can never really be happy outside of the closed-off society he’s learned to move in all his life, and Ellen can’t bear to remain on this side of the ocean when a life of culture, etc., awaits her in Europe.  They agree to a simple and formal separation—Ellen moves to Europe to live on her own, and Newland moves in with his mother and sister to live out the rest of his days.

I found this really fascinating.  I’m wondering, for those of you familiar with the novel, what you think of these plots, why you think she chose to reject them, and whether she made the right choice.  I have my own opinions, but I’d like to hear from others first.

1921: The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton

I’m switching “Historical Value” out for the phrase “Historical Insight” for the reasons I mentioned in the review of The Magnificent Ambersons, but otherwise this follows the established format.

Literary Merit:

It’s hard to encapsulate the positive things I have to say about Wharton and this novel.  The ending was marvelous (so much so that I don’t want to reveal the very last events of the book: if you haven’t read it, I want you to experience it for yourself)—it combined being unexpected with being somehow the perfect fit with the rest of the novel.

But to say some broader things about why I think Wharton works.  She respects her characters—I’d almost say she likes them, but “like” might imply that she always casts them in a positive light, and she doesn’t.  The characters are their own people, and I never got the sense that they were being “used” to advance the plot.  It’s not just the main characters—the exotic Countess Olenska, the infatuated Newland Archer, the perceptive and not-to-be-trifled-with May Welland Archer (Newland’s wife)—even relatively minor characters like the Beauforts, or Mrs. Manson Mingott, or the van der Luydens seem real and honest in a way that none of Tarkington’s characters ever did.  One of the books’ greatest delights, for me, was that I was never forced to see any of these people as “good” or “evil”, and I remained engrossed in the story without having to choose, for example, whether I was rooting for May to win Newland’s affections back or rooting for Ellen to whisk him away to Europe.

Wharton’s use of the narrator was especially skillful.  Though the narrator is 3rd person, the perspective is so close to Newland that we are severely limited by his point of view, and limited in interesting ways.  We gradually become aware, as he does, of what New York society thinks of him, of how much May knows about him and how much she suspects, of what Ellen and May are really up to in their quiet side conversations.  The shifts are so subtle and lifelike that it’s hard to believe, once any particular truth is revealed openly to Newland, that I could have been in any doubt as to the realities of the situation, and yet if I am honest with myself, only a page before I would have been as deeply in the dark as the young Mr. Archer.

Lastly, I have to say (without saying too much) that Wharton manages an ending that is truly excellent.  Epilogues are hard in any novel, especially when an author (as in this case) moves ahead many years to follow the consequences of characters’ decisions.  J. K. Rowling, for example, attempts this at the end of her Harry Potter series (and did what I would call a disastrous job of it—poor enough to taint my positive memories of the series and toss the book down with some displeasure), and I’ve certainly seen other authors try and fail.  Wharton manages success here, as she often does, by letting the characters be real, by letting the reader only gradually understand the truth of a situation, and by not letting the conventions of storybook romance get in the way of what real love looks and acts like.  I can’t believe I’ve never read Edith Wharton before, and I intend to read more of her work.  Based purely on my assessment of her literary skill, and knowing nothing about the other novels of 1921, I have to say this is a worthy recipient of the Pulitzer Prize.

Historical Insight

This isn’t a novel about the “problems” of contemporary America (as was His Family) or a frank assessment of how America was changing (as The Magnificent Ambersons was at least intended to be), so honestly it doesn’t rate as highly in this category as it perhaps might.  But it was fascinating to contemplate the existence in American society of a world as tense and shackled by convention as anything Jane Austen and the Regency authors might have experienced.  The van der Luydens may not be the Bingleys (and Mrs. Manson Mingott may not be Lady Catherine de Bourgh), but the stifling confines of upper class life, the way that a look or an apparently innocent comment can convey an ocean of contempt or scorn, the conflict between how people do live and how they believe they ought to live—these things dominate the lives of Newland and May Archer far more than I would have thought possible in post-Civil-War America.  I’d say it’s making me more aware of what it once meant to be “important” in the U.S., at least on the East Coast in the big cities, and that’s of interest to me.  But this doesn’t illuminate any of the larger questions of what it means to be American, as far as I can tell.

Rating:

My aversion to numerical or scale-based ratings continues, but in case it wasn’t obvious, The Age of Innocence gets my highest rating: “You Must Own This Book”.  It is, in my estimation, possibly the most accomplished and well-composed novel written by an American, at least of those novels I am familiar with.  I don’t know that it ranks as “The Great American Novel” (largely because of my hesitation on the Historical Insight of the book, see above), but it certainly deserves to rank among America’s greatest novels, and I’d recommend this book to essentially any literate friend I have.

Last Word:

As has become my custom, I leave you with a more extended snippet from somewhere close to the end of the novel (though this time I pull back a bit farther from the end, so as not to spoil it), allowing Wharton to close this thoroughly enjoyable chapter in my journey in her own distinctive voice.  Here, Newland sits at the head of the table at a farewell dinner for the Countess Olenska, who will return to Europe tomorrow, despite his unrequited desire to run away with her on his own.

Archer, who seemed to be assisting at the scene in a state of odd imponderability, as if he floated somewhere between chandelier and ceiling, wondered at nothing so much as his own share in the proceedings.  As his glance travelled from one placid well-fed face to another, he saw all the harmless-looking people engaged upon May’s canvas-backs as a band of dumb conspirators, and himself and the pale woman on his right as the centre of their conspiracy.  And then it came over him, in a vast flash made up of many broken gleams, that to all of them he and Madame Olenska were lovers, lovers in the extreme sense peculiar to “foreign” vocabularies.  He guessed himself to have been, for months, the centre of countless silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears, he understood that, by means as yet unknown to him, the separation between himself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved, and that now the whole tribe had rallied about his wife on the tacit assumption that nobody knew anything, or had ever imagined anything, and that the occasion of the entertainment was simply May Archer’s natural desire to take an affectionate leave of her friend and cousin.

It was the old New York way of taking life “without effusion of blood”: the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than “scenes,” except the behaviour of those who gave rise to them.

“How shall I explain? … It’s always so. Each time you happen to me all over again.”

Newland Archer is becoming a sad little figure, but no less fascinating.  His desire to escape his society marriage to May Welland for the exotic allure of the Countess Ellen Olenska is getting caught up in many things—her lingering marriage to the unpleasant Count, her perhaps-not-concluded connection to the Frenchman who helped her “escape” her marriage, the financial ruin that Mr. and Mrs. Beaufort (relatives to both Ellen and May) now find themselves in, along with its resulting chaos in the tiny in-bred world of “the best families in New York”—it’s hard to see how much of the relationship is real, and how much is Newland getting swept up in the mere idea of something else.

I’m struck by Wharton’s repeated insistence that Newland can’t really remember Ellen…that he thinks of her constantly, but every time he sees her again, he realizes he’d forgotten what she looks like, how her voice sounds.  This most recent time he even comments on it to her directly (in the title to this post).  Am I meant to conclude that Newland doesn’t really care about her?  Or that his attachment to her is more spiritual/emotional than it is physical?  It’s hard to say.

What isn’t hard to say is that Ellen and May are both wiser about the world than Newland is.  May, in particular, manages to play the perfect upper class wife (so restrained, no cross word ever escapes her lips), but within that tension she manages to both keep Ellen well away from her husband, and communicate to Newland in no uncertain terms that she knows what’s happening, and she has no intention of losing him.  There is something both sad and admirable about May, who suspected before the wedding that Newland could not be fully hers, and married him anyway.  I hope Newland realizes her real value, and avoids hurting her any more than he already has.

And Ellen is no less realistic than May…and no less concerned about Newland.  Ellen’s great advantage, though, is the ability to tell him directly the truths that she is wise enough to understand, and that no one else in society could possibly tell him.  There are many passages that show how unequally matched she and Newland are, but I include the following as an exceptionally revealing exchange:

“Is it your idea, then, that I should live with you as your mistress—since I can’t be your wife?” she asked.

The crudeness of the question startled him: the word was one that women of his class fought shy of, even when their talk flitted closest about the topic. … Her question pulled him up with a jerk, and he floundered.

“I want—I want somehow to get away with you into a world where words like that—categories like that—won’t exist.  Where we shall be simply two human beings who love each other, who are the whole of life to each other; and nothing else on earth will matter.”

She drew a deep sigh that ended in another laugh.  “Oh, my dear—where is that country?  Have you ever been there?” she asked; and as he remained sullenly dumb she went on: “I know so many who’ve tried to find it; and, believe me, they all got out by mistake at wayside stations: at places like Boulogne, or Pisa, or Monte Carlo—and it wasn’t at all different from the old world they’d left, but only rather smaller and dingier and more promiscuous.”

How sharp she is, how devoid of “pretense”—she has seen the world and is weary of it, and not even love (for she truly does love Newland, I think) will erase the memories that are etched into her.  How can we blame Newland for loving her, at least a little?  For all of the good, admirable things about May, his wronged wife, there are no such bleak but true things in her heart for her to share with him, even if she would let herself be honest with him.  And May (and the rest of Newland’s friends and family) will never be honest with him: it may be an age of innocence, but it is also an age of deceit, where good people are expected to lie even to themselves (perhaps most of all to themselves).  My next post will be a review—by now you might have guessed that it will be a very positive one—and I’ll see what I make of the end of the book (which, even now, I couldn’t possibly predict with any confidence).

“His whole future seemed to be suddenly unrolled before him…

…and passing down its endless emptiness he saw the dwindling figure of a man to whom nothing was ever to happen.”

I don’t know how she keeps doing it—I hate to keep gushing about Wharton as though I’ve just discovered electricity or sliced bread, but returning to this book (having set it down for a week or more) was almost exhilarating.  There’s something so immediate about her characters: a few paragraphs of Newland Archer’s anxiety about the coming years, and I’m immersed in him somehow.

It’s odd (or maybe it isn’t) how Newland combines anxiety and despair with a sense of destiny—that somehow Ellen is meant for him, that around some corner lies his real life, the one in which his marriage to May dissolves almost soundlessly and freedom opens up like a parasol.  Part of what delights me about the book is that Wharton doesn’t seem to tip her hand about her attitudes…I may be dense, but I can’t tell if she admires or dislikes Newland.  I can’t tell if I’m meant to root for him to break free of the confines of his society life, or be disappointed in his willingness to turn from a loyal and sweet wife to chase after the not-quite-real romance he thinks Ellen Olenska is waiting to offer him.

What’s strange is that Ellen believes in destiny almost as fervently as Newland does, but a different kind of destiny.  He needs to believe in her, to believe even simply in the idea of her, if he’s going to survive….if he’s going to accept that life can be worthwhile.  But she needs to believe in Newland and May, in the idea of love that can persist—in the extended free-fall from her not-quite-over marriage to the Count Olenski, she loves Newland, but she needs to believe in his love for May even more.  And that’s such an unexpected (and, somehow, wonderful) emotional response.  I don’t understand entirely where she’s going.  Newland, I understand.  In the end he’ll either make peace with New York society or he’ll break spectacularly, and either way I think I can get a handle on that.  But Ellen could do anything in the next chapter.  That’s why I’m fascinated by her–perhaps why Newland is also.

I want to say more but I’m realizing these posts work better when I keep them as short as I reasonably can.  I know I’ll say more eventually on other things–on Newland’s ability to “trick” himself into crossing paths with Ellen “without meaning to”, on Ellen’s belief in America (specifically, the fact that Newland has somehow, in spite of himself, made her believe in the innate value of the very American society he’s learning to reject), and probably much more.  I’m closing in on the end here, and although I’m frustrated at the giant blog slowdown of the last couple of weeks, it’s been great to take the time to savor this book a bit.  I hope Wharton’s as capable at journey’s end as she has been all along the way.

“Nobody ever had built above Fortieth Street—no, says I, nor above the Battery either, before Christopher Columbus discovered America.”

Mrs. Manson Mingott, in her great wisdom, offers a reflection on New York society’s resistance to being unconventional, but of course in many ways it’s the mildest example of this in the book, right now.  As “Book One” finishes, Newland is about to throw himself into the arms of Countess Olenska (if she’ll have him) and is horrified that his advice about “society’s expectations” may have trapped the Countess by convincing her to reject divorce as an escape from her marriage to a cruel man.  May Welland, his fiancee, suspects something is up, and insists on lengthening the engagement so that Newland has time to consider his feelings, time even to abandon her and love someone else, if he wishes.

At first it may seem a little hard to believe that these people, raised in a rigid society, would have the strength to try and cast it off.  But they seem entirely believable.  They know what life is really like—Newland knows that trapping the Countess in a loveless separation (but without divorce) simply means affairs with unscrupulous men, rather than a second marriage to a man of quality.  May knows that, despite all the talk that marriage cements two people together, it can be the thing that wedges two people apart who are not made for it.  They know the truth that is present in every tree root that buckles and bursts through the pavement, the reality that the poet Dylan Thomas called “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower”.  Life, real aggressive energetic life, cannot be contained, perhaps least of all by the mere expectations of others.  They can hide who they are—they cannot cease to be who they are.

This force, though, is destructive; it threatens to consume them, particularly Newland, caught between the woman he wants to love but can’t quite commit himself to loving, and the woman he knows he shouldn’t love but cannot help loving.  It’s not clear if he loves Ellen Olenska or the idea of her, but it will matter very little to May Welland, in the end.  It matters to Ellen, though, who will not destroy Newland and May, even in response to Newland’s fervent pleas.  There is something substantial about her—she came to New York for a reason, and not merely to flout convention.  There’s a depth to her: she’s seen the real world, seen the real folly and catastrophe that can follow passion in its wake.  She doesn’t want to throw herself from that cliff again…or maybe she’s just stalling (there’s a bit of book still ahead of me, after all).

This is a powerful novel, despite Wharton’s continued care to avoid preaching or obvious moralizing.  I have no idea what its “message” will prove to be, other than that nothing is more certain, or more deadly, than the truth that the human heart will not be ruled by any order or intellect that attempt to impose upon it.  I only wonder this (and hope even those of you not reading the book can chime in on this)—what’s the solution?  If societal norms and rules are simply going to be broken, do we give them all up?  Don’t things like engagements, manners, and propriety (hey, even marriage is a social construct, in a sense) serve a useful purpose?  Maybe Newland is just quick to “see through” them because it serves his purposes….then again, maybe there really is something that harms us at the heart of all that convention.