This article examines a tension in Edith Wharton’s social ideal between the conflicting virtues of reverence and curiosity. Wharton, it shows, was quite conscious of the potential clash between the centripetal claims of tradition and the centrifugal tendencies of inquisitive individualism, and addresses it directly in her French Ways and Their Meaning. Part of the agenda of that slim primer was to illustrate, on the basis of the French example, that (if properly handled) curiosity and reverence are not antagonistic but mutually animating cultural values. Achieving this ideal state, Wharton claims, requires drawing a sharp distinction between the private-intellectual and social-practical realms or, as one of her characters puts it, between the “things you read about” and the “things you do.” Curiosity, if it is to be sanctioned by Wharton, must be quarantined to the former sphere, to one’s private project of self-cultivation. The article critically assesses this position, traces its implications in Wharton’s fiction and nonfiction, and briefly reviews its place within the broader context of liberal thought from Kant, through Matthew Arnold, to Lionel Trilling.
“Interested in Big Things, and Happy in Small Ways”: Curiosity in Edith Wharton
Nir Evron is a lecturer of English and American Studies at Tel Aviv University. He publishes on the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century novel. His current book project deals with post–World War I novelistic representations of cultural extinction.