It’s fitting that I only finally read The House of Mirth, Wharton’s great novel about the decline and fall of a socialite by the name of Lily Bart, around the time I was leaving New York.
Given my current state of affairs, it comes as no surprise that the story of how someone else lost their New York would speak across years of distance and unfamiliar social custom. I’ve left a job I’d hated and felt trapped in for years, which was in and of itself a good development, but it meant I hadn’t a work visa anymore, and no work visa, for me, means no New York. I was just hitting my stride there, socially speaking. Five years in and I had a lot of friends, as well as the circle, particular to big cities, of the kind people I didn’t really know but recognized in the streets, and most importantly, a local coffee shop where the baristas said only, “The regular?” I’d always felt like New York was home, from the moment I set foot there for a job interview for that wretched employer, but it had only recently started to love me back, or so it seemed.
I read the book while I had some time to myself before I left, where I wasn’t really doing much of anything, and I had gotten into the habit of wandering the streets a lot. Every once in awhile I would resist a sudden urge to clutch at the sidewalks with my fingernails. I know that’s melodramatic, But, being kicked out of somewhere due to visa restrictions is a peculiar experience, you see, not like a regular leaving. Just like Lily Bart’s excommunication from her social circle left her New York beyond her reach, it’s not entirely clear, no matter how much I like the place, that I’ll ever be able to come back for more than a visit. And so to the extent you’ve invested your identity in where you are, become in your mind part of the scenery, you’re swallowing a full loss. I’m not sure, even now that I’ve physically left and realized, as Lily’s friend Gerty Farish says in the book, that I’m becoming “of those to whom privation teaches the unimportance of what they have lost,” I’m ever quite going to get over it.
Of course, I don’t live in a melodrama, and I’m not, like Lily, planning to develop a drug habit anytime soon to cope. Reading the novel just now was probably catharsis enough for me. Lily had no bureaucrats blocking her way back to her life of teas on Fifth Avenue, but the situation was in some ways just as hopeless, perhaps more so because her obstacles are internal. Her pride has a habit of saving her just before she teeters off the edge of a life, though not before she has lost a significant amount of footing in the process. She loves the right man, a young lawyer by the name of Selden, but won’t admit so to him because he isn’t rich enough; she feels a kind of higher calling to repay a debt to the florid blowhard, Gus Trenor, who took advantage of her absence of financial savvy, even though there’s no real pressing obligation to do so; she helps a friend, Bertha Dorset, even when that same woman has twice betrayed her and thrown her to the wolves. In short, Lily has what armchair therapists today might call, “an idiosyncratic sense of priorities.”
And yet, her idiosyncrasies feel incredibly real, even across these gulfs of experience and time. To Lily, you see, New York is more of an identity than a place, an idea of who she was and what was worth admiring and respecting, rather than an assemblage of streets and sidewalks. It’s tempting to brush such a conception of New York off as the product of historical context, but it’s just as true now as it was then that the ideas we have of New York are imprisonments of a kind. If your idea of New York is the right parties, the right friends, the achievement of the early-millennial version of Lily’s social status in the form of fame and professional success, you are walking just as fine a line as she did, even if the criteria are different. I used to say that the experience of living in New York, as a young person of some measure, though not an unlimited one, of means, felt like I was constantly following other people’s gazes to the heavens. Of course, before I could reach out and actually touch the sky, some erstwhile Bertha Dorset would always stop me: “Ah ah ah! Not for you, my dear.”
For that reason, I’m a little surprised that since the crash, as the volume’s risen on the twentysomething refrain that the social compact is not abiding by its end of the bargain, not delivering jobs and material success in exchange for good grades, this book hasn’t experienced something of a revival. Just as I was leaving New York, after all, I could see the annual crop of college graduates arriving, thinking they’d made it, just by dint of sharing a three bedroom in Williamsburg, the modern equivalent of the land of high fashion and strong ambitions. I wanted to hand them all this book. the lesson of Lily Bart, after all, is the one we maybe all need to learn in this time of little money and less certainty: you can do and say all the right things, you can be pleasing on the eyes, interesting to talk to, well-bred and well-liked, and have all the right intentions, and still it’s all likely to come to nothing, nevertheless if you’re expecting the stars. Maybe we’ll all risk less disillusionment if we start keeping our eyes on the ground.