#ACreads December Pick: Ethan Frome
Warm up to Edith Wharton’s frostbitten classic
By Kimberley Jones,
11:48AM, Thu. Nov. 20, 2014
It’s not just youth that’s wasted on the young. It’s Edith Wharton, too.
It’s no mystery why Wharton’s 1911 novella Ethan Frome is a mainstay in high school English classes. It’s short. That’s not to say it’s insubstantial, or that Wharton’s inclusion on syllabi is mere tokenism – even if she has, posthumously, historically, had to shoulder the burden of being one of the few female writers to jostle her way onto the standard curriculum of Great Books Penned Mostly By White Dudes. (And before you run away with the idea of Wharton as an outsider artist, note that she was insanely wealthy.)
But, yes, Ethan Frome is short. (You can knock it out in one dedicated evening.) And its provincial setting – New England farm country – is probably easier to unpack in a lesson plan than the dizzying high society strictures that drive Wharton’s most celebrated works, The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. But I’m not sure high schoolers are, shall we say, Ethan Frome’s target demographic. I remember reading it in 10th grade and thinking it was such a drag. (Like, feminism, people? Ever heard of it?) As an adult, I come to it differently. What adult doesn’t know what it’s like to feel trapped?
It’s not a complicated story. Told from a decades-long remove and uncovered by a newcomer to the snowbound town of Starkfield, Mass., it’s about the love triangle of a farmer, his hypochondriac wife, and her lovely cousin who comes to stay with them. Wharton wrote it when her own marriage was faltering (husband Teddy suffered from crippling depression) and when she was in the happy throes of an intense affair with journalist Morton Fullerton (who would later repay the favor by selling her letters). In deference to the era, the book’s great passions play out chastely. Yet, it’s in the affair’s limitedness (not timidness) of touch that it becomes so very potent.
In a letter from Wharton’s pen pal Henry James (whose powerful shadow colored the critical reception of her work, at least early on), he assessed the book thusly: “A beautiful art & tone & truth—a beautiful artful kept-downness, & yet effective cumulation. It’s a ‘gem’—& excites great admiration here.” One-hundred years later, Jonathan Franzen called it a “frosty minor novel” in a 2012 essay for The New Yorker – yep, the same essay in which he pointed out Wharton “wasn’t pretty” and thought he was paying her a compliment. To which the Internet erupted, and I say, bravo, Internet.
This is all a long preamble to announce that the Chronicle has selected Ethan Frome for its next #ACreads Book Club selection. So.
Because the recent cold snap got us thinking about our favorite freezing-temp love stories. Because our Book Club, so far, has tucked into detective noir, dystopian YA, and contemporary fiction, and we thought it was high time for a literary classic. Because we suspect you already have a copy on your shelf and just need a nudge to dust it off. Because on staff there are a few of us who are wild about Wharton and want to convert more to our cause. Because we worry too many readers were turned off to the book – and the writer – when they had to read Ethan Frome on assignment, when this is a book (and a writer) you should come to by choice, and be rewarded in kind. Because we wonder if we’re selling the youngs short; maybe in fact Ethan Frome has lots to say to 16-year-olds.
And oh yeah: Because it’s short.
#ACreads is the Austin Chronicle’s monthly book club. Find out more at www.austinchronicle.com/ACreads and take part in the discussion on Monday, Dec. 8 by following @AustinChronicle on Twitter and hashtagging #ACreads to chat with us and other readers.