“I can’t tell any longer whether I’m really improving it, or only undergoing an attack of scrupulosis.” Edith Wharton wrote to her former lover, Morton Fullerton, on May 15, 1911, about her work on The Custom of the Country, the novel she referred to the next day in a letter to her friend Bernard Berenson as “a real magnum opus.” She told Berenson it was “a vast novel that is piling up the words as if publishers paid by the syllable.” What do you think of her word “scrupulosis”? I think it’s a great word for that feeling of being obsessed–perhaps to the point of paralysis?–with making the revisions absolutely perfect.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of that “magnum opus,” and I hope you’ll celebrate with me! Starting this summer, I’m going to write a series of posts about The Custom of the Country and I hope you’ll join the conversation here about the novel Wharton considered one of her best. To make sure you don’t miss these posts, you can follow my blog or subscribe by e-mail, if you aren’t already doing so.
In honour of Wharton’s controversial heroine, Undine Spragg of Apex, U.S. of A., who is determined to conquer America from the Midwest to Maine, Virginia, and New York, I’m planning to launch the series on the 4th of July.
In the meantime, I’ll wrap up my series on rereading Pride and Prejudice with posts on “Pleasure, Pain, and the Past” (next week) and “How to Write a Happy Ending” (the week after), and I’ll share with you some of the highlights from the first issue of The New Compass, the on-line literary journal I founded and co-edited. Michael DiSanto and I launched The New Compass ten years ago next month—I’m finding it hard to believe it’s a decade ago that we dreamed up this project and brought together the many wonderful writers who contributed essays, fiction, poetry, and reviews to the journal.
The quotations from Wharton’s letters are from Letters of Edith Wharton, ed. R.W.B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis (New York: Macmillan, 1989).