Hudson River Bracketed tells a fascinating tale set in the 1920s. It features two intelligent, sensitive protagonists, Vance Weston and Halo Spear, both of whom love literature and, despite unhappy marriages to others, eventually come together. This is no sentimental novel, however, with the lovers overcoming all odds to marry and have children.
Vance Weston arrives in New York from Euphoria, Illinois, where he had been disillusioned by witnessing his grandfather make love to Vance's girlfriend, Floss Delaney. Once in Paul's Landing along the Hudson River where he stays with distant cousins, Vance dallies with two women, `Smeralda and Laura Lou Tracy, whom he marries. He also falls in love with Halo Spear, a literary young woman from a distinguished family who shares with him a love of language. Halo marries the wealthy Lewis Tarrant partly to help her genteel but impoverished parents. As Vance struggles to become a novelist--he receives praise for the novel he writes on Halo's relative, Elinor Lorburn--he and Laura Lou live in abject poverty and she grows ill and dies. Halo, who introduces Vance to classical literature and encourages him to write, is unhappy with Tarrant. The novel ends with Vance and Halo about to embark on a life together.
Readers and critics have very divided views about Hudson River Bracketed. Some find it a brilliant fictional evocation of Wharton's view of a woman's journey toward independence, whereas others find it a shrill harangue against literary modernism. Some see Halo as the true hero of the novel, with Vance another version of Wharton's "negative hero," while others see the portrayals of Halo and Vance as evidence of Wharton's failing artistic and narrative powers. Whatever the view, Hudson River Bracketed is animated with the vitality of the changing ideas of gender roles, literature, and the artistic process that made the 1920s such a significant, complex and intriguing era.
Before she had finished writing the novel, Edith Wharton determined that she would continue and complete its tale in The Gods Arrive, a sequel that she published in 1932. Indeed, Wharton listed these two novels among the top five that, in her view, represented the best work of her lifetime. Along with The Gods Arrive, Hudson River Bracketed is a kunstlerromane that contains a complicated examination of the artistic process, literary modernism, publishing issues, literary prizes, and the complex relationships among men and women as they fall in love and challenge traditional assumptions about wedlock, divorce, and pregnancy.
Discussion Questions/Ideas to Consider:
1. The term "Hudson River Bracketed" refers to the architectural style of the Willows, the house Halo inherits and to which she eventually returns in The Gods Arrive. To what degree does this American style help define or enclose the characters? Do you see the house itself as a metaphor? If so, what does it suggest about Wharton's intent?
2. Vance Weston may well be based on Morton Fullerton, with whom Wharton began a love affair around 1908. Read some of the letters that Wharton wrote to Fullerton and compare her feelings toward Fullerton to those of Halo for Vance.
3. Vance finds a source of literary inspiration in the "Faustian mothers." How do you interpret Wharton's presentation of mothers in this novel?
4. In what ways do elderly women and grandmothers play significant roles?
5. In addition to Vance, Lewis Tarrant and George Frenside play significant roles. Compare and contrast the character and function of these two men.
6. In an earlier novel, The Custom of the Country (1913), Undine Spragg, another outsider, leaves the midwest for New York City and then Europe. Do you see similarities between Undine and Vance?
7. Much of the novel concerns the coming of age of the artist and the development of and attitude toward the artistic process. What are Wharton's views on literature? On publishing? On such artistic "colonies" as Greenwich Village? Do you view Wharton as a modernist? An antimodernist?
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Helen Killoran, Edith Wharton: Art and Allusion, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996; Julie Olin-Ammentorp, "Wharton Through a Kristevan Lens: The Maternality of The Gods Arrive, " in Wretched Exotic: Essays on Edith Wharton in Europe, Katherine Joslin and Alan Price, eds., New York: Peter Lang, 1993; Penelope Vita-Finzi, Edith Wharton and The Art of Fiction, New York: St. Martins, 1990; Abby H. P. Werlock, "Edith Wharton's Subtle Revenge? Morton Fullerton and the Female Artist in Hudson River Bracketed and The Gods Arrive," in New Essays on Edith Wharton, Alfred Bendixen and Annette Zilversmit, eds., New York: Garland Press, 1992.
--Contributed by Abby H. P. Werlock, Edith Wharton Society