Roderick Mengham Special Commissioned Essay on the American Novel of Manners Essay - Critical Essays

Special Commissioned Essay on the American Novel of Manners, Roderick Mengham


Special Commissioned Essay on the American Novel of Manners Roderick Mengham

This special topic entry, written by Roderick Mengham, presents an overview and analysis of American Novel of Manners.

The following chronology provides an overview of the key social, political, and cultural events in America during which the novel of manners emerged.

1861-1865: The American Civil War, or War between the States, as it is more commonly known in the South, raises the question of American political and economic identity, and the victory of the Union solidifies the power of the new industrialized Northeast, where the supremacy of the “Robber Barons” emerges through steel mills, railroads and factories. New money acquired through these ventures rises to challenge the social supremacy of the Old Money in Boston and New York.

1873: Financial panic hits the Stock Market in late September.

Ellen Glasgow is born in Virginia.

1880: The population in New York reaches 1.2 million.

Henry James publishes Washington Square.

Andrew Carnegie develops the first large furnace for making steel, the source of his wealth.

New York streets are first lit with electricity.

1881: James publishes Portrait of a Lady.

Charles Darwin dies. His theory of evolution was read by Ellen Glasgow, who used it to underscore her novels of social change.

1883: Ivan Turgenev, the Russian writer who was read by Edith Wharton, James and many others, dies.

The new Metropolitan Opera House opens in New York.

The Brooklyn Bridge is completed and opened to traffic.

The first skyscraper, ten stories tall, is finished in Chicago.

The luxurious train the Orient Express makes its first run from Paris to Istanbul.

1884: Mark Twain publishes Huckleberry Finn.

1885: Edith Newbold Jones marries Teddy Wharton in New York City.

Sinclair Lewis is born in Sauk Center, Minnesota.

The sport of golf is introduced to the United States.

1886: James publishes The Bostonians.

Karl Marx's classic attack on industrial capitalism, Das Kapital, is published in English.

John Singer Sargent's painting “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” is completed.

The Statue of Liberty is dedicated in New York.

1888: Raymond Chandler is born in New York.

The very first beauty pageant is held in Spa, Belgium.

1889: The first May Day, celebrating workers of the world, is held in Paris, causing concern among Industrial Capitalists.

1890: The first motion picture shows open in New York, providing the medium in which novelists like Wharton and F. Scott Fitzgerald will have their work adapted.

The Daughters of the American Revolution is established in Washington, D.C. In response to rising numbers of immigrants, such groups attempt to define themselves as an American aristocracy or High Society.

1891: Thomas Hardy, the English novelist whom Glasgow met and admired, publishes Tess of the Durbervilles.

Herman Melville, a cousin of Edith Wharton's, and author of Moby Dick, dies.

1892: The Homestead Strike pits railroad workers against Henry Clay Frick and Pennsylvania Railroad. Frick brings in military to break the strike, resulting in the deaths of many strikers. Frick's success establishes the power of the Industrialists to join with the federal government to overpower workers.

The American poet Walt Whitman, admired by Wharton, dies. She took the title of her autobiography, A Backward Glance, from his work.

A major strike by iron and steel workers occurs in the United States.

1893: Henry Ford builds the first automobile, creating the symbol of speed and mobility that will change the manners of America.

J. P. Marquand is born in Wilmington, Delaware.

1894: Thomas Edison opens the Kinetoscope Parlor in New York, while in Paris the cinematograph is invented by Louis Lumiere, both leading to wider public access to motion pictures, with the first public film being shown the next year in Paris.

1896: Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was among the first best selling works of fiction in America, dies.

The Nobel Prize in Literature is established.

F. Scott Fitzgerald is born in St. Paul, Minnesota.

1897: Wharton publishes her first major work, The Decoration of Houses, with Ogden Codman, a designer who helped her with The Mount, her house in Lenox, Massachusetts. The book's success points to Wharton's skillful eye for interior decoration, key to understanding her use of rooms, furnishings and architecture throughout her fiction.

1898: Ernest Hemingway is born in Oak Park, Illinois. Along with Fitzgerald and other Modernists, he is one of the younger writers whom Wharton feels see her as outdated after the First World War.

1901: Queen Victoria dies in England; Edward VII ascends the throne (which he will give up in favor of marriage to Mrs. Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee).

President William McKinley is assassinated by an anarchist; Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, a close friend of Wharton's, becomes President.

1902: A nationwide coal strike cripples the United States from May to October.

1903: James publishes The Ambassadors.

The first sound recording of an opera, Verdi's “Errani,” appears.

Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully fly a plane with an engine.

Emmeline Pankhurst, an advocate of women's suffrage, starts the National Women's Social and Political Union in England. Suffrage and education for women become current issues throughout the United States, but especially visible when embraced by wealthy socialites.

The Ford Motor Company is founded.

1904: Roosevelt is re-elected.

James publishes The Golden Bowl.

In Paris, France, the ten-hour workday becomes law.

The Broadway subway line is opened in New York, making travel to work easier for workers.

A woman is arrested in New York City for smoking a cigarette in public.

Foreign shipping lines reduce the cost of a steerage-class fare to ten dollars, enabling more immigrants to leave Europe.

1905: Wharton publishes The House of Mirth, her first novel, initially as a serial in magazine form, and on October 14 as a two-volume novel. It is a best-seller, with over 100,000 copies sold by the end of the year.

Wharton also publishes Italian Backgrounds, essays on Italy which she has been writing for the last decade.

1906: Lewis publishes The Jungle, a muckraking novel exposing abuses in the meat-packing industry.

The population in New York reaches four million, while an earthquake devastates San Francisco.

1907: Austria extends suffrage to women.

The United States bars Japanese immigrants.

J.P. Morgan brings $100 million in gold from Europe to stop a panic that leads to a run on the banks.

The U.S. restricts immigration by law.

1908: Ford makes the Model “T” a popular car.

1910: Twain dies.

1911: Wharton publishes Ethan Frome, a short novel set in a fictionalized version of Lenox, Massachusetts.

James visits Wharton in Lenox. She later sells The Mounts, and separates from her husband, living in Europe.

1912: In Lowell, Massachusetts, textile workers go on strike. The impact is national, affirming the power of the unions.

The Titanic sinks, resulting in the deaths of many socially-prominent figures, as well as immigrants and workers.

1913: Demonstrations for women's suffrage occur in London.

The U.S. government passes the 16th Amendment, establishing the Income Tax.

Wharton publishes The Custom of the Country.

Sargent completes his portrait of James.

Cornelius Vanderbilt opens the new Grand Central Station, asserting the wealth of railroads even as the automobile is growing increasingly popular.

1914: World War I begins.

Booth Tarkington publishes Penrod.

Immigration to the U.S. between 1905 and 1914 exceeds ten million. Most arrivals are from eastern and southern Europe.

1915: Margaret Sanger, an advocate of birth control, is arrested and put in jail for publishing Family Limitation, a book offering advice on contraception.

The first transatlantic telephone call, from New York to San Francisco, is completed.

Ford produces his one-millionth car.

1916: James dies.

Wharton receives the Legion of Honor from the French government in recognition of her work helping refugees.

Sanger opens a birth control clinic, the first in the U.S.

A congressional bill makes literacy a requirement for citizenship, thus restricting the number of applicants.

Bobbed hair becomes the fashion, and will appear as a frequent image in the fiction of Fitzgerald, representing the freedom of the “flappers.” The U.S. Congress rejects President Woodrow Wilson's bill for broader suffrage.

1919: WWI ends with the Treaty of Versailles.

Race riots devastate Chicago.

Dock workers strike in New York.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox, a popular poet satirized by Wharton and others, dies.

Frick and Carnegie, both wealthy industrialists, die.

Congress attempts to further limit immigration.

1920: William Dean Howells dies.

Lewis publishes Main Street.

Wharton publishes The Age of Innocence, which wins the Pulitzer in 1921.

Fitzgerald publishes This Side of Paradise.

The population in New York City exceeds five million.

1921: Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti are found guilty of murder. The trial of the two Italian immigrants accused of being anarchists stirs national interest and protest.

Christine Nilsson, the Swedish opera singer featured in the first chapter of The Age of Innocence, dies.

James Joyce publishes Ulysses, a modernist novel Wharton dismissed as mere pornography.

Lewis publishes Babbitt.

Emily Post publishes Etiquette, which becomes the standard guide to manners in the United States.

The Stock Market “boom,” begins.

Tarkington wins the Pulitzer Prize for Alice Adams.

1922: Two hundred thousand people participate in a Ku Klux Klan gathering in Indiana.

The Teapot Dome Scandal erupts in Washington.

Sanger opens the first birth control clinic in New York.

1924: A congressional bill excludes Japanese from immigration quotas. Theodore Dreiser publishes An American Tragedy.

Ford Motor Company produces the ten millionth car.

1925: Fitzgerald publishes The Great Gatsby.

Hemingway publishes In Our Time.

Lewis publishes Arrowsmith.

Sargent dies.

1926: Hemingway publishes The Sun Also Rises.

Lewis rejects the Pulitzer Prize.

Lewis publishes Elmer Gantry.

Charles Lindbergh flies nonstop from New York to Paris in 33.5 hours.

Sacco and Vanzetti are executed.

1928: Amelia Earhart flies across the Atlantic; she is the first woman to do so.

George Gershwin writes An American in Paris.

1929: Hemingway publishes A Farewell to Arms.

Lewis publishes Dodsworth.

Thorsten Veble, author of Theory of the Leisure Class, dies.

Black Friday, the day the Stock Market crashes, signals the end of the Jazz Age and the beginning of the Great Depression.

1930: Lewis wins the Nobel Prize in Literature for Babbitt.

1931: The Empire State Building is completed.

1932: Grant Wood's satirical painting Daughters of the American Revolution is completed.

1933: James Gould Cozzens publishes The First Adam.

1934: Fitzgerald publishes Tender Is the Night.

John O'Hara publishes Appointment in Samarra.

1935: Gershwin produces Porgy and Bess.

1936: Fitzgerald publishes The Crack-Up.

1937: Wharton dies, and is buried in France.

Hemingway publishes To Have and To Have Not.

Marquand publishes The Late George Apley, which wins the Pulitzer Prize in 1938.

Earhart is lost over the South Pacific.

1938: Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf appears in English translation.

Joyce publishes Finnegan's Wake.

Wharton's incomplete novel The Buccaneers is published posthumously.

1939: World War II begins in Europe.

1940: Fitzgerald dies.

Hemingway publishes For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Raymond Chandler publishes Farewell, My Lovely.

Introduction And History

Roderick Mengham (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Mengham, Roderick. “American Novel of Manners.” In Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 130, edited by Scott Darga and Linda Pavlovski. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group, 2002.

[In the following original essay, Mengham provides an overview of the American Novel of Manners, focusing on its history, representative writers, hallmark works, and critical response.]


In The Writing of Fiction, Edith Wharton praises the French novelist Balzac, whom she greatly admired, for the ability “to draw his dramatic action as much from...

(The entire section is 5172 words.)

Representative Writers

The years during which James, Howells, Wharton and Glasgow produced their novels of manners were those in which the “American Century” was being defined. In 1876, the nation celebrated its centennial. Questions of national identity emerged from the increasing number of immigrants arriving from Europe and elsewhere; from the emergence of the first millionaires, whose wealth was based on industry rather than agriculture; on the adaptation of the culture to the presence of freed slaves; to the expanding cities beginning to display the new architecture of skyscrapers. New technologies affected the behavior of individuals as they rode elevators and streetcars in crowded urban centers and lived in the newfangled...

(The entire section is 7565 words.)

The Relevancy Of The Novel Of Manners


The novel of manners has played an important role in the development of an American voice in literature, as distinct from a European voice. The examination of society, of conduct, of manners, is, in fact, an examination of who Americans are, and are not. From the period following the Civil War, until today, novelists have used the form of the novel of manners to explore just what being American means. The form is also a vehicle for examining the relationship between morality and behavior, a frequent theme in a culture whose puritanical roots were not too far beneath the surface. The argument that adherence to a code of conduct—good manners—reflected...

(The entire section is 5366 words.)

Hallmark Works In The Novel Of Manners

Surveying the many novels of manners that were published in American in the years from the Civil War to World War II reveals more similarities than differences in the plots, styles, techniques, and characters of the works. The authors share an interest in portraying American life through detailed descriptions of everyday life, the frequent use of dialogue, irony, material culture and social behavior. Common elements include themes such as American innocence and experience, rituals of marriage and divorce, transatlantic contrasts, social climbing, education for women. Characters most often are drawn from the upper levels of society where social codes have had a significant amount of time to become defined, or frozen in...

(The entire section is 11517 words.)