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 apartments they rented. Women were beginning to fight for the vote, and to take jobs outside the home, spurred by the invention of typewriting machines and telephones that provided opportunities for even middle class women to work in reasonably safe environments. Bicycles, railroads, trolleys, subways and automobiles provided even the working class with opportunities to travel for work and leisure. For the generation of American novelists born before 1880, the novel of manners proved an ideal vehicle for analysis of the impact of these changes on American life and society. Despite the architectural and economic upheaval, the “old” society they write about remained largely unchanged.
For the next generation, those born after the Centennial, and coming of age in the new twentieth century, the focus of the novel of manners shifts. Sinclair Lewis, J. P. Marquand, F. Scott Fitzgerald, J. G. Cozzens and John O'Hara are all young men when the First World War erupts, and live to experience the Second World War as well. James, Howells and Wharton are dead by 1939; Glasgow, almost deaf and in her sixties, is isolated in Richmond. Though Fitzgerald dies just after the war begins, in 1940, his age and his literary subjects place him firmly in younger group. For these writers, the novel of manners becomes a vehicle for examining business, money and power as much as marriage and family. Sinclair Lewis shifts the setting of Main Street from urban East Coast to a small Midwestern town he calls Gopher Prairie. Marquand's George Apley uses irony to show that the once powerful Boston society has become petrified, incapable of joy or change. Fitzgerald's Gatsby, self-created, displays extraordinary wealth but fails to find his dream, ending life as the victim of a tawdry, tragic violence. Cozzens sets The Last Adam in suburban Connecticut, restoring some of the comedy of manners flavor to his tale of a country doctor's battle with the more upright members of his village. O'Hara, born the same year that The House of Mirth is published, began as a journalist. While his social novels set in Pottsville are easily recognized as novels of manners, his work from the 1930s, Appointment in Samarra and Butterfield 8, portray characters whose moral codes are largely personal rather than social, and who live in a gritty world with little of the security or privilege that for the base of the earlier novels of manners.
In her autobiography, The Woman Within, published in 1954, the novelist Ellen Glasgow quotes her friend and fellow novelist James Branch Cabell as observing of another novel, “Mrs. Gerould's story is so much like Mr. Henry James that it might have been written by Mrs. Wharton” (124).
Glasgow's witticism, recorded almost two decades after Edith Wharton's death, suggests how the novel of manners had earned a reputation for “inbreeding.” Despite the continuing success of the genre in the 1950s by such authors as O'Hara, Marquand, Cozzens and Louis Auchincloss, each writer felt the influence of James, Howells and Wharton. Glasgow asserts her independence: “I wanted only to be myself, and to be myself perfectly” but a few lines later acknowledges her literary debts: “Still, I read Henry James from beginning to end …” She is not alone in...
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