An Introvert as Social Observer
How did a solitude-loving bookworm who described her 1879 coming out as a disaster of “speechless misery” blossom into an author renowned for describing the customs of New York City’s social elites?
In this month’s Introvert Book Club post, I explored the paradox of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s character Jay Gatsby being associated with parties even though Gatsby himself never participated in Roaring Twenties drinking and dancing. Let’s now consider a related conundrum: how an introvert can incisively chronicle the workings of high society while not a party animal herself.
Author Edith Wharton was born in 1862 to well-to-do parents whose ancestors had come to America nearly 300 years before. She had two brothers, but in her autobiography A Backward Glance she comes across as a child who gleefully spent much of her time in solitary pursuits. Before she knew how to read, she understood the enchantment of books. She would pace around the house holding – usually upside down – a densely printed volume, rapturously making up a story out loud and turning pages at just the same speed an actual reader would. Although her parents arranged for her what we’d now call play dates, she much preferred what she called “making up.”
When Edith graduated to real reading, she explored every last volume in her father’s library. She remembered squatting on its thick Turkish rug, dragging out book after book from low, glass-doored bookcases “in a secret ecstasy of communion.” Whereas she froze in large gatherings, like many introverts she felt free and easy in small groups of friends. A few years ago when I visited The Mount, the estate in Lenox, Massachusetts where she lived from 1902 to 1911, I was fascinated to see that her circular dining room table fit just six people. She cherished “good talk” – exchanges of ideas and jokes with cultured, educated people – but again like a typical introvert, enjoyed it only in intimate gatherings of six or fewer. In that cozy setting, fellow novelist Henry James, a frequent guest who struggled with a stammer, spoke with hesitations that evoked not impatience but delicious expectation.
Other clues to Wharton’s introvert personality include several adjectives ascribed to her by some contemporaries: “reticent,” “aloof,” “snobbish” and “arrogant.” The last three of those often come up not because a person actually has an attitude of superiority but because extroverts feel uncomfortable with an introvert’s reserve. Someone who doesn’t readily chitchat gets suspected of looking down on others. Wharton also had a serious streak of independence, bucking expectations in deciding to write fiction and to spend months traveling to out-of-the-way locations in Europe and North Africa. Her family and her husband’s family regarded that as an “almost unheard-of mad scheme.”
So how did someone who didn’t care for the flitter and flutter of big social events become famous for her bull’s-eye literary portrayal of insular, old-money New Yorkers? For instance, Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921, depicts men and women of leisure either relishing a multitude of proprieties or pushing up against traditions just enough to show their individuality and no farther. First, Wharton grew up in that world. Hardly any of her parents’ relatives or friends worked, though they might have to be careful with expenditures. They went to the opera, employed cooks and maids to feed their dinner guests and taught their children ultra-correct manners. Second, she felt detached from that circle’s little “shoulds,” “musts” and niceties. “Though I had always lived among the worldly, I had never been much impressed by them,” she wrote. That is, she knew their values and taboos the way a birdwatcher knows how warblers or crested grebes fly and strut.
As I reread The Age of Innocence recently, I was struck by the familiarity and distance of the storytelling. When the novel came out, the review in the New York Times noted that “New York society and customs in the seventies [1870s] are described with an accuracy that is almost uncanny.” Yet while Wharton dramatized the judgments and worries of her characters with empathy and precision, her ironic tone showed that she herself didn’t accept their small-minded standards. To my mind, that knowledgeable skewering comes directly from the arm’s-length stance of an introvert, observing everything but staying somewhat detached from the tyranny of duties, appearances and social approval.