I was very busy last week. I spent my free time in an old building, dusting and decluttering a collection of archival artifacts. I went to a “farm to table” dinner and talked to more than a few foodies. I chased stories for the Sun Journal‘s Basilica series and I had the distinct pleasure of walking with an old friend, talking about beauty. As I sit here composing this post, I’m untangling some ugly green metallic string I bought 20 years ago.
Behold the beautiful dish of whipped butter.
Gaze upon the simple ceramic ramekin, the workhorse of the restaurant world. Imagine the soft, rich goodness of the butter, extended and enhanced by whipping with chives. Meditate upon the simplicity of the purple flower, adorning this delicious creation.
It was so beautiful I took a picture of it.
Today, it’s not easy to label things as “beautiful” or “ugly.” I’m not suggesting it is always one or the other. Sometimes there are gray areas of simplicity, utility, and form which transcend labeling. Consider the plain coffee mug, which provides the early morning jolt and is then whisked lovingly into the dishwasher. It is not ugly or beautiful. It is purposeful.
Although it’s not politically correct to label things, we all know something beautiful when we see it. (Notice I said “politically correct” and not “polite.” There is a difference here as well.)
Yesterday, I found my copy of The Decoration of Houses by Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman, Jr. Wharton, a lover of the beautiful, once described the exterior of her Newport house, Land’s End, as “incurably ugly.”
What a refreshing time that must have been, to say it like it was and have no fear of social media reprisal, job loss, and shaming. I often wonder what Edith Wharton would say if she were time-traveled into 2017. Would she boldly tell it like it is and address the “incurably ugly” things all around us? According to Jonathan Franzen’s 2012 New Yorker article written in celebration of Wharton’s 150th birthday, Wharton was “hostile to the rawness and noise and vulgarity of America…she was the kind of lady who fired off a high-toned letter of complaint to the owner of a shop where a clerk had refused to lend her an umbrella.”
Franzen made the mistake, early in his essay, of writing “Edith Newbold Jones did have one potentially redeeming disadvantage: she wasn’t pretty.”
This sentence, early in the article, unleashed a furor of op-ed pieces. You can search the internet yourself and see things like “Jonathan Franzen is a sexist!” and “Jonathan Franzen is a pig.” Perhaps, somewhere in the lower intestinal tract of the internet, someone even said “Jonathan Franzen is literally Adolph Hitler.”
I have a 1994 illustrated biography of Edith Wharton, written by Eleanor Dwight. I’ve looked at its portraits and candid photographs of Wharton; the formal images are limited. Many are blurry. Edith Wharton was plain; she was not celebrated for her looks. She was celebrated for her writing. Franzen celebrated her writing in his article, too, but I don’t know how many critics read beyond his faux pas.
I’ve read four of Wharton’s novels. I enjoyed them and would read them again, time being of no consequence. I’ve referenced and skimmed The Decoration of Houses, but reading it completely now is important as I contemplate my summer historic house visits. Wharton’s volume kicks aside other nightstand books by Henry Beston and Patrick Leigh Fermor.
Ugly, isn’t it?