Plenty of transatlantic women writers including Edith Wharton visited, lived in, and wrote about both Europe and the US. One famous writer, however, published work on America despite having never crossed the pond. In 1938 an American magazine, Hearst’s International, asked Virginia Woolf: ‘What interests you most in this cosmopolitan world of today?’ She replied with her article ‘America, Which I Have Never Seen’. To read it in full check out The Dublin Review. Woolf’s article gives me the perfect excuse to write about my favourite author.
So how do you write about a place you’ve never visited? Apparently you ‘Sit on a rock in Cornwall’ and let Imagination (‘not an altogether accurate reporter’), ‘fly to America and tell you’ all about it. Woolf claims that ‘America is the most interesting thing in the world today.’ Given the recent US elections, some might agree with this sentiment, though for reasons altogether different from Woolf’s.
In her article, Imagination flies across the Atlantic, passing fishing boats, steamers and a cruise ship, until she finally sees ‘the Statue of Liberty. Liberty introducing America!’ In New York ‘everything shines bright’, the city ‘is made of immensely high towers, each pierced with a million holes.’ Here, ‘The old English words kick up their heels and frisk. A new language is coming to birth –’
Woolf interrupts Imagination, she wants to know more about how people live. Imagination replies, ‘The houses stand open to the road. No walls divide them; there are no gardens in front and no gardens behind.’ Imagination sees a building which in England ‘would be the King’s palace. But here are no sentries; the doors stand open to all.’ Perhaps things were different when Woolf wrote this article in 1938, or perhaps she was being naïve. I doubt it, given that she wrote her pacifist manifesto Three Guineas that same year. She certainly wasn’t ignorant of exclusionary politics and rejected nationalist boundaries, claiming that ‘As a woman I have no country, as a woman I want no country, as a woman my country is the whole world’ (Three Guineas, p. 234). Woolf uses Imagination to remind her readers of the values the nation is built on, and what life could be like, what the alternatives could be. In her article she says that ‘America has room for all ages, for all civilizations’ and from ‘this extraordinary combination and collaboration of all cultures, of all civilizations will spring the future –’ And here we are, in what was then the future.
Well. That was 1938. Back then, Woolf asked Imagination to ‘tell us about the Americans in the present – the men and women. What are they like now, the inhabitants of this extraordinary land?’ That question is just as pertinent now as it was then. The answer is complex, and we have an exciting series ahead of us to help navigate our understanding, not just of Americans, but of Europeans, and the transatlantic relations that shape our cultures. There are new boundaries, yes. But there are also new connections. Woolf says that, while the British ‘have shadows that stalk behind us’, Americans ‘have a light that dances in front of them. That is what makes them the most interesting people in the world – they face the future, not the past.’ Bringing transatlantic women writers together we can look at both the past and future, and reassess the shadows and light of the present.
At the close of Woolf’s article, she says ‘we must remember, Imagination, with all her merits, is not always strictly accurate.’ The accuracy or inaccuracy of Woolf’s Imagination probably had a lot to do with the books she read by or about Americans. After all, she’d never visited the USA. So what does Woolf think of American writers, specifically American women writers? Our answers might be found in Woolf’s article ‘American Fiction’. In it, she praises Willa Cather and a few other women writers who I’ll admit, I’ve never heard of, including a Miss Canfield and Miss Hurst. Woolf claims that ‘Women writers have to meet many of the same problems that beset Americans’, as they stumble, ‘eager to shape an art of their own.’ They have some of the same opportunities too, as each is ‘the worker in fresh clay’. She waxes lyrical about Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman: ‘the real American undisguised’.
Woolf is not so generous when it comes to Edith Wharton, who we’ll be discussing at our first reading group. Woolf claims that Edith Wharton and those like her are ‘not Americans; they do not give us anything that we have not got already.’ She accuses Wharton of having an ‘obsession with surface distinctions’ and of ‘exaggerating the English culture, the traditional English good manners, and stressing too heavily or in the wrong places those social differences which, though the first to strike the foreigner, are by no means the most profound.’
Is Edith Wharton as shallow as the lead character of her novel Custom of the Country? We wouldn’t have selected it for our book club if we thought so, but the best way to find out is to read the novel and discuss it with us. Whether you side with Woolf of Wharton, or neither, there’ll be plenty to talk about. We’ll be holding our first book club session on January 30th but in the meantime, give our Edith Wharton competition a go, and make sure you keep an eye out for the series launch on January 16th too. See you soon!
Virginia Woolf. ‘American Fiction’. The Complete Works of Virginia Woolf. Hastings: Delphi Classics, 2014.
—, ‘America, Which I Have Never Seen’. Ed. Andrew McNeillie. The Dublin Review. Issue no. 5 (winter 2001-2) © The Dublin Review 2016. Available online at: http://thedublinreview.com/article/virginia-woolfs-america/
—, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas. Ed. Morag Shiach. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1998.