Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Who thinks or writes like this?

In a short essay on Ethan Frome over at Interpolations, Kevin Neilson quotes two passages by the novel’s narrator, who says about himself only that he has “been sent by my employers on a job connected with the big power-house at Corbury Junction,” although he drops the interesting clue that he has been reading a “volume of popular science—I think it was on some recent discoveries in bio-chemistry. . . .” From this Neilson deduces that he is an “engineer, likely a manager or a supervisor. . . .” And on the strength of this deduction, Neilson objects to the prose that Edith Wharton grants to him:

When the storms of February had pitched their white tents about the devoted village, and the wild cavalry of March winds had charged down to their support, I began to understand why Starkfield emerged from its six months’ siege like a starved garrison capitualting without quarter.Neilson puts his objection in these words: “Now, have you ever met a scientific-minded engineer from the managerial class who thinks or writes like this? . . . I haven’t either.”

Now, I am not exactly sure what Neilson is objecting to here. That putting such prose into the mouth of such a man is a sin against authenticity, fatally compromising the novel’s realism? That it is impossible, destroying the novel’s tragic effect? Merely implausible, making the novel a clumsy vehicle for carrying the reader away?

Two things, at all events, that I don’t think Neilson allows for. Ethan Frome was published in 1911, thirty years after electricity first began to be generated at central stations. If the history of the Boston Edison Company is any indication, the spread and use of electrical power in Massachusetts (the setting of the book) was only becoming widespread around the time that Wharton wrote. The cost of electricity per kilowatt hour dropped by half in the city between 1886 and 1909, according to Boston Edison. The price decrease was the result of engineering improvements and increased demand.

In short, Wharton attaches her narrator to “the big power-house at Corbury Junction” in order to fix the novel’s framing story firmly in the present. An electrical engineer who had risen to have become a manager or supervisor by 1909–’11 would have had to graduate from college around, say, the turn of the century. As historians of the American university can tell you, even engineering students in the late nineteenth century received an education that would strike current engineering students as excessively literary and humanistic. Even if they did not intend to pursue one of the “learned professions,” young engineers were expected, as university graduates, to be liberally educated. A man of Wharton’s narrator’s background would be far more articulate and even poetic than his counterpart today. Neilson does not account for this historical difference.

What is more, his occupation—his interest in popular science—is intended to defamiliarize the narrator, to make him a visitor from a different world and time, almost exactly like Mr Lockwood in Wuthering Heights. The narrator’s distance from events is designed to give Ethan Frome’s story the quality of strangeness, even uncanniness. Once the frame is set by arranging to have the story told to an up-to-date visitor, it is dispensed with, and the question of authenticity or plausibility is no longer relevant (the question of possibility is another matter entirely). The frame is merely a device for generating the fiction.


Kevin said...

Hi Professor Myers, thank you for taking the time to read my post and challenge my interpretation. I greatly appreciate it. Thank you.

First, I do not think it’s a sin against authenticity or realism. Nor do I think it destroys the novel’s tragic effect. It’s an extraordinary bit of storytelling, “transcendent,” as I say in the intro. But I do think there’s an incongruity of sorts, akin to a mechanical or power engineer picking up a violin and playing a Paganini violin concerto with grace and accomplishment. It strains believability.

(Incidentally, I completely forgive Wharton, without being able to explain why. Perhaps because I love her, as odd as that might sound.)

You bring up a good point, however. Maybe I’m reading the frame anachronistically.

When you write, “A man of Wharton’s narrator’s background would be far more articulate and even poetic than his counterpart today,” I’m inclined to agree with you. But the larger point, which I hope was implied in my original post, isn’t only whether the narrator is more articulate and poetic than a power engineer in 2010, but whether his background and interests can reasonably prepare him to be as literate and poetic as a Whartonesque novelist.

Like a fine instrument, he handles his prose like a prodigy.

That’s the hiccup.

Anyhow, I'm trying to scare up letters, journals, and pamphlets written by university educated engineers in the early 1900s. If I find passages that hum with the virtuosity of a world-historical novelist, I'll buy you a beer.

Best regards,


D. G. Myers said...


Permit me to repeat a lesson that I learned from the great J. V. Cunningham: “Background information is often imparted (or learned through study) merely for the sake of believing in the foreground.”

The narrator’s background is not intended, then, as you put it, to “reasonably prepare him to be as literate and poetic as a Whartonesque novelist.” The intention is to make the foreground (that is, Ethan Frome’s uncanny tale) more believable. See? Even a modern rational man is transported by it.

D. G. Myers said...

Here is the engineer John Trowbridge writing in the journal Science in 1884, surveying the developments in elecritical engineering the year before:

“In all civilized countries, the year has brought forth innumerable modifications of telephones and telephonic apparatus. When it had once been shown that even an imperfect sentence could be transmitted by electricity, the dullest inventor could discover, among the débris of his laboratory, magnets and electromagnets which needed but a slight twist here and there to be made into telephones. A touch of genius was necessary for the first twist; and then the whole electrical world had the seed of the invention.”

Does this passage “hum with the virtuosity of a world-historical novelist”? No, of course not. Is it written with liveliness and exactitude, containing some extra for delight (in addition to any information that it conveys)? Absolutely.

I drink Negra Modelo, by the way.

Amateur Reader said...

Now I'm lost. The argument was about whether an engineer could write good prose? Or about whether he would tell the story we get in Ethan Frome in the way we get it, which is, strangely, exactly the way a novelist would tell it. To the engineer, the story is non-fiction, right?

I'm surprised you or Cunningham are so happy with "merely." You're both right, empirically, but aren't the "merely"s where the flaws are likely to be, even in a masterpiece, the places where the author had to stop and say "good enough"?

D. G. Myers said...


See my comments on “good enough” in literature earlier today.

What does it mean to say that a story is told “exactly the way a novelist would tell it”? Aren’t Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, and The November Criminals novels, and pretty good ones at that?

As far as I can tell, novelists have written novels in far too many ways to say that any one of those ways is “exactly the way a novelist would tell it.”

As I said in the post above, once the frame (viz., that an unnamed electrical engineer with an interest in modern science is passing along Ethan Frome’s story as it was told to him) is set, it is dispensed with.

The question that may arise, for anyone who suddenly notices the frame, is whether an electrical engineer in the early twentieth century could tell a story with such literary flair. My argument is that it is entirely plausible, given engineers’ degree of literary education at the time.

Amateur Reader said...

By "tell" here, I actually mean "write." Would a non-fiction account of the story of Ethan Frome be written the same way as a piece of fiction?. Whether or not the author is an engineer doesn't bother me, actually, so perhaps this takes us too far off the topic. I grant that point. I'll buy the second round.

"Exactly" means the book looks like a novel to me. Many books look like novels, so "exactly" was a bit of a joke, and maybe it looks like non-fiction to someone else. My guess is, based on Wharton's preface, that she's not interested in the issue (mimicking non-fiction), and that there's little point in pursuing it too far. But it's hardly, then, something that she really thought through (as in, say, Pnin, where the frame is explored). Her use of the frame is expert but conventional. Merely.

Is Holden Caulfield writing the story? Or are we somehow overhearing it? Fictional Huck Finn is surely not writing but telling his story to a fictional Mark Twain. Again, I'm wandering off into something tangential I've been thinking about lately, whether or not these distinctions matter.

Mostly, they don't matter at all, do they? It's amazing how flexible we fiction readers are. Write it well and I'll swallow almost anything. Really, you didn't write this book, but are just publishing a manuscript discovered in a dusty old trunk? Sure, why not.

D. G. Myers said...

Really, you didn't write this book, but are just publishing a manuscript discovered in a dusty old trunk?

The novelist who best pulled this off was George MacDonald Fraser.

I think you’ve summed up Wharton’s intention exactly, A.R., when you say that she is not interested in mimicking non-fiction.

Except that Ethan Frome is not exactly non-fiction either. It is a “story,” a piece of gossip, really—a local legend—which is a “different story” each time it is told to the unnamed narrator.

My comparison of Wharton’s narrator to Emily Brontë’s Mr Lockwood was dead center. He is a dull and sober outsider who is repeating an amazing tale that he was told.

If Wharton is mimicking anything, then, it is Wuthering Heights.

rakkeby said...

I am an electrical engineer, a retired one whose retirement began long ago. That makes me old. Over the years I have hob-knobbed with hundreds of engineers, engineering managers and even the manager’s managers. Some of them were educated, not in the last century, but the one before that. I venture not one of those hundred or so folks would describe the rigors of a New England February/March or personalize an apple orchard as Wharton’s narrator does. Not on the first try. Not on the tenth try.

If the narrator’s occupation were not known, but left to conjecture, how many readers would fashion him into an engineer vs how many would fancy him an author, and a rather poetic one at that, gathering, say, for his next novel.

So when Neilson observes that the narrator’s thinking and writing is inconsistent with that of a scientific engineer from the managerial class, Neilson’s thinking is right on. Or so say hundreds of my technical friends from the past whose thinking and writing I am and have been privy to.

Of course it is possible a technocrat could dish out prose as the narrator does, but it is not plausible as plausible implies a reasonable probability.


D. G. Myers said...

I venture not one of those hundred or so folks would describe the rigors of a New England February/March or personalize an apple orchard as Wharton’s narrator does.

That’s an interesting way to argue the case. How many of us have met anyone who can write fiction as brilliantly as Wharton?

I studied under Raymond Carver and Stanley Elkin, but they don’t really count since I sought them out for their talent and reputation.

Among my friends and professional acquaintances? No one could ever write like Wharton. Not even close. Not on the first try. Not on the tenth try.

Does this prove that no one else can possibly write as well as Wharton?

Joe said...

I am bewildered. I returned to your site several times following your last posting and each time logged back off, wondering how the original issue was lost in the commentary. And at this point I’m beginning not to care. Whether Wharton is the best or the worst fiction writer of all time is irrelevant to me, and should be to everyone else, at least for this discussion. I thought the issue was whether Wharton’s narrator, a technocrat of some sort, would carry the gift of expression as Wharton has assigned him. I believe the answer to that is a resounding “NO” and I base that on my experience of having listened to, and read reports from, a battery of power engineers whose birthdates range from the 1880s to more modern times.

I can certainly imagine there is/was an engineer so gifted as to fill the shoes of Wharton’s narrator. I can imagine that. I can also imagine that Wharton’s narrator, in filing a report on one of his problem solving missions for the Power Plant at Corbury Junction, would make reference to a burned cathode as “the charred and blackened fragments of a once proud pedestal, writhing in the searing rays of an August sun”. I can imagine that. I can also imagine the narrator buying his own drinks at any subsequent Power Plant celebratory functions and sitting alone in some corner, barred from further advancement at his place of business.

D. G. Myers said...


The argument was a logical one. My question was about the force of your saying that you had never met any engineer who writes as well as Wharton’s narrator. I was demonstrating that the claim proves nothing. I have never met anyone with Tourette’s Syndrome who could play major league baseball, but it does not follow that such a thing would be implausible.

Kevin said...

“My comparison of Wharton’s narrator to Emily Brontë’s Mr Lockwood was dead center. He is a dull and sober outsider who is repeating an amazing tale that he was told.”

But the power engineer, a preternaturally gifted novelist (apparently), isn’t repeating an amazing tale. He creates it from bits and pieces, from fragments. He puts them together, with the help of inspiration, which comes to him when, escaping a brutal winter night, he bivouacs at Frome’s ramshackle house. That’s why the last sentence of the intro-frame reads thusly: “It was that night that I found the clue to Ethan Frome, and began to put together this vision of his story.” And what a vision it is!


D. G. Myers said...

A distinction without a difference. Both narrators are reconstructing local gossip, not creating a story out of whole cloth.

Sasha said...

My two cents, of which I'm borrowing what I responded to Kevin:

"I admit that I didn't pay too much attention to the narrator when I was reading the book. Mostly because I found nothing wrong with him. He was a seamless transition between me and Ethan Frome's life. I was conscious, though, that he was a conduit. And as someone who was predisposed -- groomed, I daresay, by the author -- to be an observer, someone basically distant from the history of the town: He was every reader who'd open the pages of Ethan Frome. He delivered the story. I give him his stylistic tendencies -- he is still, after all, the product of an author's imagination; he's essentially been manipulated to tell the story the best way it can be told. [The narrator-author dynamic, augh, my head.]"

Basically, I didn't mind. Unnamed Narrator liked his prose fluid and beautiful, and that's part of what makes Ethan Frome a wonderful book, in my opinion. He was the perfect lens and frame through which we could know about Ethan's life and disappointments.

That said, a digression of sorts on the question of authenticity: A Filipino author -- realist, often gritty -- has this tendency [a signature?] of giving the best lines of dialogue to the household help characters in his stories. They wax lyrical, midwives go philosophical. It ought to be jarring, but the author, he knows what he's doing.