Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, set in Manhattan in the “early 1870s,” begins with Christine Nilsson singing at the Academy of Music. The opera is Gounod's Faust. The “world of fashion” has assembled in the boxes. In their own eyes the embodiment of “New York,” the fashionables are prisoners of convention: Newland Archer arrives late because “it was ‘not the thing’ to arrive early at the opera; and what was or was not ‘the thing’ played a part as important in Newland Archer's New York as the inscrutable totem terrors that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago.” Newland takes his place among “all the carefully-brushed, white-waist coated, buttonhole-flowered gentlemen who succeeded each other in the club box, exchanged friendly greetings with him, and turned their opera glasses critically on the circle of ladies who were the product of the system.” That “the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences” seems “as natural to Newland Archer as all the other conventions on which his life was moulded: such as the duty of using two silver-baked brushes with his monogram in blue enamel to part his hair, and of never appearing in society without a flower (preferably a gardenia) in his buttonhole.” The box opposite belongs to “old Mrs. Manson Mingott, whose monstrous obesity had long since made it impossible for her to attend the Opera.” It contains a surprise: the Countess Olenska. This finding is assessed by Laurence Lefferts; the “foremost authority of ‘form’ in New York,” he has devoted long hours to such questions as when to wear a black tie with evening clothes and the matter of pumps versus Oxfords for the feet. The countess is next appraised by Sillerton Jackson, as great an expert on “family” as Leffert is on form.
Joseph Horowitz's previous writings about the Gilded Age include his award-winning history of Wagnerism in the United States, Wagner Nights. His five other books include Understanding Toscanini: How He Became an American Culture God and Helped Create a New Audience for Old Music. His article in this issue is adapted from Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall, to be published by Norton in 2005. Formerly Executive Director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra, he serves as an artistic advisor to half a dozen American orchestras and writes frequently for the New York Times and The Times Literary Supplement. His upcoming projects include an interdisciplinary festival, “New Worlds: Dvořék and the Search for America,” at the University of Texas at Austin in November.