Wylie, Elinor Hoyt
WYLIE, Elinor Hoyt
Daughter of Henry M. and Anne McMichael Hoyt; married Philip Hichborn, 1905; Horace Wylie, 1916 (divorced); William Rose Benét, 1923
Elinor Hoyt Wylie, the eldest of five children born into a socially and politically prominent family, grew up and attended private schools in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Her elopement in 1910 with a married Washington lawyer, Horace Wylie, and abandonment of her husband and son became a highly publicized scandal. To escape the notoriety, the couple lived for a few years in England as Mr. and Mrs. Horace Waring. There she published—privately and anonymously—her first book of poetry, Incidental Numbers (1912). The pair returned to the U.S. before World War I, living first in Boston, then in Augusta, Georgia, and Washington, D.C.
In Washington, Wylie became friendly with the writers William Rose Benét, Edmund Wilson, and John Dos Passos, who encouraged her to take her writing seriously. After separating from Wylie in 1921, she moved to New York and captivated the literary world with her beauty, elegance, conversation, and acid wit. She married Benét in 1923.
During the eight years from 1921 until her death, Wylie served as a contributing editor of the New Republic and wrote short stories, literary criticism, four volumes of poetry, and four novels. Two of the latter derive from her great interest in the Romantic movement, especially in the poet Shelley. The Orphan Angel (1926) is a fantasy of Shelley searching across the expanding American West for a mysterious and beautiful woman. Mr. Hodge and Mr. Hazard (1928) recounts the decline of romanticism in the tale of "the last Romantic poet" confronting the bourgeois world of the Victorians. Much careful scholarship went into the backgrounds of these novels.
Wylie's talent is notable, but problematic. A tension between opposing impulses often led her to miss her mark; but when these tensions were confronted and developed, her work achieved its full potential in powerful poems of heightened irony. Wylie's technical facility and taste for elegance produced in her novels and some of her verse a polished surface with little sustaining depth. No doubt aware of this, she called her first full-length novel, Jennifer Lorn (1923), "a sedate extravaganza." One critic described it as "a dish of curds and cream flavored with saffron." The book's heroine is such a delicacy herself—elaborately confected, a visual delight, but entirely unsubstantial. One focus of the novel's rather mild satire is society's vision of women as decorative objects.
The Venetian Glass Nephew (1925, reprinted 1984) concerns itself with the conflicting claims of art and nature, but thematic development is submerged to elegant sensual richness. Rosalba Berni undergoes the painful transformation into glass in order to become a suitable bride for the manufactured Virginio. One of the characters notes, "The result, although miraculous, is somewhat inhuman. I have known fathers who submitted their daughters to the ordeal, husbands who forced it upon their wives."
In her best poetry, Wylie dealt more pointedly with the conflicts that claimed her attention: the problem of the feeling self smoldering beneath its decorative surface. Statements of this theme appear in "Sleeping Beauty," "Sanctuary," "Where, O Where?," "The Lie," and "Full Moon." In the last poem, the speaker, dressed elegantly in "silk and miniver," cries, "There I walked, and there I raged; / The spiritual savage caged…." Images of falsehood—masks, disguises, and costumes—convey the tension between beautiful exterior and turbulent interior, between felt passion and enforced restraint.
Carl Van Vechten called Jennifer Lorn "the only successfully sustained satire in English with which I am acquainted." Praise for her other works was equally adulatory. Recent criticism has been scanty and less favorable. The inclusion of Wylie in recently published anthologies of women poets indicates a reawakening of appreciation; it is time for her to receive a full-scale literary reappraisal.
Nets to Catch the Wind (1921). Black Armour (1923). Angels and Earthly Creatures (1928). Trivial Breath (1928). Collected Poems of Elinor Wylie (1932). Collected Prose of Elinor Wylie (1933). Last Poems of Elinor Wylie (1943, 1982).
The Beineke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection at Yale University holds papers of Elinor Wylie and William Rose Benét; in addition, Wylie's correspondence is also housed with that of the Hoyt family in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library.
Auchincloss, L., The Man Behind the Book: Literary Profiles (1996). Blanck, J., Bibliography of American Literature (1991). Colum, M., Life and the Dream (1947). Farr, J. The Life and Art of Elinor Wylie (1983). Gaggke, C. T. et al, eds., Poetry Criticism: Excerpts from Criticism of the Works of the Most Significant and Widely Studied Poets of World Literature, Volume 23 (1999). Gray, T. A., Elinor Wylie (1969). Gregory, H., and M. Zaturenska, A History of American Poetry, 1900-1940 (1942). Howe, F., ed., No More Masks! An Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Women Poets, Newly Revised and Expanded (1993). Hoyt, N., Elinor Wylie: The Portrait of an Unknown Lady (1935). Kazin, A., On Native Grounds (1942). Olson, S., Elinor Wylie: A Life Apart (1979). Philip, N., ed., Singing America (1995). Ruihley, G. R., An Anthology of Great U.S. Women Poets, 1850-1990: Temples and Palaces (1997). Van Doren, C., Three Worlds (1936). Walker, C., Masks Outrageous and Austere: Culture, Psyche, and Persona in Modern Women Poets (1991). West, R., Ending in Earnest (1931). Wilson, E., The Shores of Light (1952). Woodard, D., This More Fragile Boundary: The Female Subject and the Romance Plot in the Texts of Millay, Wylie, Teasdale, Bogan (dissertation, 1993).
Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
Dial (June 1923). ES (Dec. 1938). NR (5 Dec. 1923, 6 Feb. 1929, 7 Sept. 1932). PMLA (1941). VQR (July 1930).
—KAREN F. STEIN