Old New York: The Spark
Old New York
By Edith Wharton
The novellas are not directly interconnected, though certain fictional characters appear in more than one story. The New York of these stories is the same as the New York of The Age of Innocence (1920), from which several fictional characters have spilled over into these stories. The observation of the manners and morals of 19th century New York upper-class society is directly reminiscent of The Age of Innocence, but these novellas are shaped more as character studies than as a full-blown novel.
Some characters who overlap among these four stories and The Age of Innocence: Mrs. (Catherine) Manson Mingott, Sillerton Jackson, Mrs. Lemuel Struthers, Henry Van der Luyden. Other families and institutions also appear in more than one place among this extended set of New York stories.
The Spark (The Sixties)
The least formally developed of the four novellas is told from the perspective of the 1890s, though its period of interest purports to be the 1860s. It regards Hayley Delane, who was a schoolboy when the Civil War started. He ran off to join the war, was wounded at Bull Run, and spent a long time recovering in a hospital camp in Washington. There he met a mysterious stranger, whose memory has stayed with him all these years, almost a spiritual or moral guide. Delane marries Leila Gracy, daughter of old Bill Gracy, a drinker and gambler of ill repute. The narrator observes that Hayley Delane seems to belong to a different age, trying to guess whether he would fit in better as a Roman or a Greek or some other ancient European. Leila alternates between being devoted to Hayley and devoted to affairs with other men. The narrator witnesses Hayley beating one of her suitors when Hayley sees him abusing a polo pony. The narrator acknowledges that there’s not much story behind the character sketch. Hayley takes Bill Gracy into his house as the old man gets older and needs assistance; Leila puts up with her father for a while and then drifts off to Europe; Hayley, unperturbed by her judgment or society’s, continues caring for his father-in-law. Hayley comes to visit the narrator one day and discovers by accident that the old fellow he knew from the Civil War hospital camp was Walt Whitman. The narrator reveres Whitman and his writing; Hayley doesn’t think much of it.