One of Edith Wharton’s many stories of New York, The Spark was published with the subtitle The ’Sixties as the third of four volumes in a boxed set, Old New York, in 1924. This novella is the story of Hayley Delane, a member of the old New York aristocracy that Wharton depicts with great realism. Married to an unfaithful, irresponsible wife whose improprieties he gracefully ignores, he fascinates the narrator, a younger man, to whom Delane seems a “finished monument” and a “venerable institution” like the Knickerbocker Club (449–450). The narrator learns that, long ago, Delane ran away from school as a volunteer to serve in the Civil War, thus increasing the narrator’s respect and desire to know him further. The narrator takes a job in the bank at which Delane is a partner, and a “filial” sentiment grows between the men (465).
One day Delane tells the narrator that after being wounded at the battle of Bull Run, he was tended to in the hospital by a rough but warm-hearted “big backwoodsman” named Walt Whitman (473). Delane confesses, “I don’t think he believed in our Lord. Yet he taught me Christian charity,” noting how the man seems to appear before him “at long intervals” to tell him “the right and wrong of it” when Delane is trying to make a decision (477). This moral center to Delane’s life, in contrast to his wife, Leila’s lack of integrity, becomes even more apparent when she leaves him for another man. Delane patiently nurses her father in a final illness and even takes Leila back when she returns just in time for the funeral.
Time passes and the narrator feels that the “central puzzle” of Delane’s life has “subsisted” (484). One day he finds Delane in his apartment. The older man has recognized Whitman’s portrait on a volume of the poet’s work. The narrator excitedly reads to him from Whitman’s poetry on war, but Delane is incredulous at its free-verse form. In a response that illustrates Wharton’s prevalent irony, Delane concludes, “I’ll never forget him—I rather wish, though . . . you hadn’t told me that he wrote all that rubbish” (488).
R. W. B. Lewis notes that in this tale “Wharton was combining the war-infested atmosphere of her infancy and her lifelong affection for Whitman with her own Whitmanesque attentions to the homeless, the wounded, and the tubercular in the more recent war” (458).
Lewis, R. W. B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.
Rae, Catherine M. Edith Wharton’s New York Quartet. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1984.
Richards, Mary Margaret. “Feminized Men in Wharton’s Old New York.” Edith Wharton Newsletter 3, no. 2 (1986): 2.
Wharton, Edith. The Spark (The ’Sixties). In Wharton: Novellas and Other Writings. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1990.