Skip to main content

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.

Comments

  1. 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! :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous1:08 AM

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

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment









Popular posts from this blog

MoMA in Masks

Update. Beginning September 28, MoMA will require all members to reserve tickets in advance.*Walking into the gallery devoted to Claude Monet’s Water Lilies (c 1920) at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on Saturday afternoon, I saw a woman seated on a bench. She was looking at the artist’s dreamy depiction of his garden at Giverny, and I thought for a moment she might be dreaming as well. As she was the only person occupying what is usually a packed room for fans of Impressionism, I was hesitant to invade her private garden reveries.I would enjoy my own such private moments with my favorite MoMA works that afternoon, including Marc Chagall’s I and the Village (1911). The painting depicts a colorful and geometric fairy tale of peasants and animals, memories of the artist’s childhood home outside Vitebsk. And I had a long time to feel the scorching sun of photographer Dorothea Lange’s Woman of the High Plains, Texas Panhandle (1938), a setting closer to my hometown. Later I would sit in t…

In Washington Irving Country: A Walk Between Irvington and Tarrytown on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail

A stroll in the countryside may be slow and rhythmic, accompanied by a soft breeze among the trees, but walking in this sleepy fashion doesn’t mean the brain is not alert. This pace is especially true for a walk in Washington Irving country about thirty miles north of New York City along the Hudson River. Up near Irvington and Tarrytown, just south of Sleepy Hollow, a steady yet alert pace is recommended, taking in whatever happens as the walk progresses. Walking along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail and going off the trail in whims and reveries can awaken the imagination, especially for overactive imaginations primed for the pump. You don’t want to get too sleepy near Sleepy Hollow.When I mentioned to an acquaintance not long ago that I had been exploring the woods south of Sleepy Hollow, this person affirmed with great conviction that this land was truly haunted. She said, “It suddenly gets cold and dark in the hollow.” As a child raised on the tales of the Headless Horseman and Sleep…

An Early Autumn Walk in Central Park: 2020 Edition

This week, the singer Diana Krall released a cover of “Autumn in New York,” the standard by Vernon Duke. An accompanying video, filmed in New York by Davis McCutcheon and directed by Mark Seliger, portrays the city in moody yet beautiful black and white tones. Beyond the lack of autumn colors, the film shows the empty streets of the pandemic city. The mood riffs on the underlying melancholy of the song’s lyrics, that the fall season “is often mingled with pain.”

When I think of autumn in New York, I automatically imagine walking in Central Park in the vivid colors of the season. The images here, from a meandering one-mile stroll this past Saturday, show only a hint of autumnal glory but reflect more conventional representations of both the season and the song. Yet, walking in Central Park at the beginning of autumn is tinged for me with a hint of sadness, or truthfully, with some anxiety about the coming months.

I hadn’t ventured into Central Park since before the pandemic. While I’ve b…

The Lonesome Metropolis: A Walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center

As New York City reopens, why do the attractions of the great metropolis still look mostly deserted on a summer morning? A morning walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center sought to address this question. As it turns out, there are several adequate explanations. But for what happens next, there are no right answers.

Many neighborhoods outside of tourist New York are still buzzing along. While some residents of wealthier neighborhoods have largely decamped to mountain cabins, beach houses, and other second homes, the less wealthy have nowhere to go and may still be working. Just visit Washington Heights or Corona or Flatbush, and you’ll see sidewalks full of shoppers and summer evening street partiers. Those who fled the city remain only a fraction of the total population.  

Other renowned parts of the city such as City Hall and Brooklyn Bridge have been frequently occupied, as in Occupied, with crowds protesting police violence. This week, NYPD officers in riot gear remove…

The City Turned Inside Out: A Walk from Battery Park to Fulton Street

While the cast of HAMILTON sings “The World Turned Upside Down,” New Yorkers could easily hum along to “The City Turned Inside Out” this summer. (not a real song) Where once a city’s important work took place indoors - within the soaring office buildings, famous restaurants, legendary museums, and storied performance halls, the COVID-19 epidemic has literally turned the residents outdoors. 

At least it’s summer in the city, when spending time outdoors is common and pleasant enough. Still, the city remains strange this summer of 2020. 

With the absence of tourists, and with office workers connecting virtually from home, many of the city’s main attractions aren’t attracting many visitors. A walk from the Battery to Fulton Street on a pleasant Thursday afternoon bore this out. 

It’s uplifting to at least find plants that are alive and happy. Thanks to the city’s gardeners and landscapers, the city parks are looking particularly lush and splendid this summer. The grounds of Battery Park feel…

The Company of Nature: Walking With Butterflies in Fort Tryon Park

If wandering the empty urban canyons feels a little lonely and depressing, a better idea would be to head to the nearest park. This past Saturday, a day that was sunny but not too hot, Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan turned out to be the perfect place to not only satisfy wanderlust but to rediscover the company of nature. Butterflies were there. Hundreds of butterflies - Tiger Swallowtails, Monarch Butterflies, Black Swallowtails, Cabbage White Butterflies, and Silver Spotted Skippers, among them. Moths, too, although I have not yet learned their names.  The Heather Garden is situated just beyond the entrance to Fort Tryon Park. With seasonal plantings, the garden is always a serene spot.  Observing butterflies involves watching their interaction with blooming flowers and shrubs. The Tiger Swallowtails are easy to find and found here in significant numbers. Just look for the Butterfly Bushes. The Cabbage White Butterflies are here in abundance, too, though not as showy as the swallow…

NYC Re-openings and Travel Advice

What will open, and how will you get there? This list will be updated following official announcements.
UPDATED September 25, 2020. Many favorite local destinations have now reopened. 

Openings  - General Information and Popular Destinations   
• Restaurants: Consult this NYC Department of Transportation map (updated link) for restaurants currently open in NYC. Starting September 30, NYC will allow indoor dining at 25% capacity.
• As of September 25, outdoor dining in NYC has been extended FOREVER.
• The 9/11 Memorial reopened on Saturday, July 4. Visitors must wear masks and keep social distancing practices.
• Libraries: NYPL. Starting on Monday, July 13, the library will allow a grab-and-go service.
Governors Island reopened July 15 with advance reserved tickets. 
• The High Line reopened on July 16, with several rules and limitations in place, including timed entry passes - available July 9. Entrance only at Gansevoort Street. See High Line website for details. 
The Bronx Zoo reopened J…

A Weekend Walk on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail

Imagine strolling from town to town near the eastern shores of the Hudson River, walking a well-trodden path lined with trees and stately architecture and with easy access to cafes, local shops, and train stations for an easy ride home. Imagine a weekend when the sun is bright and the sun is warm, and many other people - but not too many - are out enjoying the same weather and the same stroll. Such were the pleasures on a recent Sunday, in the latter part of this unseasonal winter, along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail not too far north from New York City.


The Old Croton Aqueduct, the system that once delivered fresh water from the Croton River to New York City, was a huge and complex marvel of engineering. The trail sits on top of the aqueduct system. This post describes a walk along just a section of the trail, the one that begins at the Keeper’s House in Dobbs Ferry and ends in Irvington.


First, catch a Metro-North Hudson line train to Dobbs Ferry, a village in southern Westchester C…

The Most Beautiful Bridge in the World

Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier (1887 - 1965), the leading proponent of the International Style of modern architecture, visited NYC on several occasions in the 1930s and 1940s, and he made much to say about the skyscraper city. He didn’t think much of the faux tops of the tall buildings nor did he care about the haphazard city planning, but he did fall madly in love with one particular bridge: 
"The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson is the most beautiful bridge in the world. Made of cables and steel beams, it gleams in the sky like a reversed arch. It is blessed. It is the only seat of grace in the disordered city. It is painted an aluminum color and, between water and sky, you see nothing but the bent cord supported by two steel towers. When your car moves up the ramp the two towers rise so high that it brings you happiness; their structure is so pure, so resolute, so regular that here, finally, steel architecture seems to laugh. The car reaches an unexpectedly wide apro…

Museums in New York Open on Mondays

Please see this post for current announcements of reopenings.
Please consult the museum websites for changes in days and hours.
UPDATED September 23, 2020
Advance tickets required for many museum reopenings. Please check museum websites for details.
• The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) reopened to the public on August 27, with new hours for the first month, through September 27: from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday to the public; and from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. on Mondays for MoMA members only. Admission will be free to all visitors Tuesday through Sunday, through September 27, made possible by UNIQLO. See this new post on WOTBA for a sense of the experience attending the museum.
• New-York Historical Society reopened on August 14 with an outdoor exhibition, "Hope Wanted: New York City Under Quarantine,” in the rear courtyard. The exhibit by activist Kevin Powell and photographer Kay Hickman will highlight how New Yorkers weathered the quarantine.
• The Metropolitan …