September 12, 2008

New York in The House of Mirth: Social Class, Money, and Speculations on Wall Street

Many people are under the impression that it takes a lot of money to live in New York, and compared to other major American cities, yes, New York is expensive. But the expense is tied to personal values, tastes and social expectations, the same as it is everywhere else. If I felt I needed to buy a lot of designer clothes or frequently eat out at hot new restaurants, then I would find New York expensive. But because I frequent the greenmarkets, make my own coffee, wear blue jeans and black shirts, and seem content enough to blog about movies and wander around looking at art and architecture, I get by fine.

The House of Mirth (Oxford World's Classics)Money, not having enough of it; Wall Street, making it too fast and then losing it; friends, relying on them too much for financial advice; status, buying whatever it takes to achieve social stature - it's amazing how much Wharton discusses money in The House of Mirth. In polite circles of 1900 or even now, it's not something to bring up, but the very frank discussion of Lily Bart's finances, or lack thereof, separates the story from a lesser turn-of-the-century tale. Accounting must be made.

As I explained in the previous post, in The House of Mirth, published in 1905, novelist Edith Wharton tells the story of a beautiful unmarried socialite, Lily Bart, age 29, and her precipitous fall down the social ladder of New York society. Eight years older than the average age for marriage in 1900, she's nervous about her precarious position within New York society. She runs with a fast crowd, and she must keep up appearances. She needs clothes, fine accessories and the means to travel abroad, and unfortunately, she requires available cash to bet on cards at her friends' gatherings. Toward the beginning of the story she loses three hundred dollars in casual gambling. She's vague about how money works, and it gets worse from there.

Lily shouldn't be betting on cards, but she's not aware of personal finance, and she's caught up in pastimes of her wealthy friends. The women with whom she plays can afford to lose money; they're engaged in the games as just another idle pursuit. Lily, whose father lost money before his death, and her mother, who was excellent at keeping up appearances, requires the money in order to maintain her own illusions of social stature. She looks down on the shabby genteel or indeed anything shabby. She's even dismissive of her best friend, Gerty Farish, a woman who works on behalf of the poor and lives contentedly in her own place. Lily thinks she's above all that.

Lily's circle of friends in New York do not just have money but they have serious money, the type circulating in Fifth Avenue circles in 1900. We're talking Astor money, Vanderbilt money, Morgan money. In November of 1900, the marriage of Louisa Pierpont Morgan, daughter of J.P. Morgan, to Captain Herbert Satterlee, in New York City was the the social event of the season. In addition, a whole new class of bourgeois muscled their way into the city, building one ostentatious house after another up a swath of Fifth Avenue. Outside the WASP establishments, many prosperous Jewish merchants sought the same sort of status afforded to members of Old New York. In The House of Mirth, the character Simon Rosedale courts Lily to be his wife in order to legitimize his rise and break into the establishment. With his rapidly accumulating wealth he repeatedly presents her with a way out of her financial predicament, but she wants nothing of it. It's just not done. In a real life New York equivalent, she could have married someone like millionaire B. (Benjamin) Altman, but for her, and presumably for Wharton, such a proposal could not be considered.

Gus Trenor, a wealthy married man with a Fifth Avenue mansion, offers to help her out with her financial predicament. He suggests a little Wall Street transaction. Wharton writes, "She was too genuinely ignorant of the manipulations of the stock-market to understand his technical explanations, or even perhaps to perceive that certain points in them were slurred; the haziness enveloping the transaction served as a veil for her embarrassment, and through the general blur her hopes dilated like lamps in a fog."

More like a deer in the headlights. Initially, Trenor makes money for her in investments, and Lily resumes the shopping spree. What she doesn't understand is that Trenor expects something in return. When he demands some of her time and company, friends and remaining family members take notice and start to gossip. Her reputation starts to slide. Her ailing aunt is likely to leave her much of anything, and suitable suitors fade away. Her reaction to her predicament is to sustain denial as long as possible.

If this story happened today, her friends would hopefully corner her in a room and arrange for a tactful intervention.
...

In 1900, the largest stocks traded on the New York Stock Exchange included U.S. Steel, AT&T, Westinghouse, Eastman Kodak, Procter and Gamble, Pillsbury, Sears, Kellogg, and Nabisco Crackers. On May 17, 1901, the market crashed for the first time in its history over control of the Northern Pacific Railroad, and while the large railroad owners prospered with the eventual compromise, thousands of smaller investors were wiped out.

If I ever find myself in serious financial trouble in New York, it wouldn't be through playing cards, ordering too many dresses or chasing elusive tips on Wall Street. It would be because I had developed an unhealthy dependence on good restaurants.

Images from a stroll down West Broadway on the evening of September 11, 2008.

UPDATE 9/15/08: At the time I wrote this post, the crisis of the financial houses on Wall Street was brewing. See follow-up post - Walking Off the Wall Street Bears, Part II: The Crisis at Lehman Brothers, and You.

See New York 1900: Edith Wharton and The House of Mirth, A Walk and a Map for the several related posts.

2 comments:

Pekky said...

If I felt I needed to buy a lot of designer clothes or frequently eat out at hot new restaurants, then I would find New York expensive. But because I frequent the greenmarkets, make my own coffee, wear blue jeans and black shirts, and seem content enough to blog about movies and wander around looking at art and architecture, I get by fine.

I heart this quote and I can totally relate. Thank you! :)

Anonymous said...

I really liked this it was very well written and was spot on.