Snowy destiny: Massachusetts, Manchuria

Here on the left of the page is an account of the sledding accident that inspired Edith Wharton to write the plot twist at the end of Ethan Frome. Over on the right, separated by the white width of the page, are a snowy Korean photograph and an article about what was shortly to become the genocidal Japanese occupation of Korea. At the bottom, under “Yesterday’s War News in Brief,” are topographic and economic details. One of the things that historical texts like these do is to fill out the blanknesses between events, as if truth-signifying footprints were being laid down word by word through snow.

The_Boston_Globe_Sat__Mar_12__1904_

But the track rarely follows a straight line. Between the day in 1904 when it passed through a printing press to the later day when it was translated into a digital image, this page has been subjected to corrigendum after corrigendum. Not long after the accident, for example, the page became subject to urgent correction when the sled’s passenger Crissy Henry didn’t follow doctors’ orders and die. In any case, Wharton probably didn’t read any of the newspaper accounts at the time, because she had spent the winter of 1903-04 in Paris. Nor did she write the first version of Ethan Frome until 1907, nor does that eight-page sketch make reference to a sled. What seems to have happened in the history of imagination between a sad snowy death in 1904 and the publication of its icily polished memorial in 1911 was that one of the survivors of the accident, Kate Spencer, grew up to become a librarian in the Lenox library where Wharton worked as a volunteer manager, and the two women became friends. Presumably that was how the novelist learned of the non-fiction and began the process of making it into fiction.

I did my diligence about all this with pages 41-43 of Suzanne Fournier’s Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome: A Reference Guide (Greenwood, 2006), which toward the end of its historical section allows itself a victory lap through the archive and crows that Miss Spencer was marked for the rest of her life with a scarred face and a limp — just (you can sense the triumphant sounds long before they become audible), just (so let’s play them again), just like Ethan.

In non-fiction, just like is an important concept. We learn it as babies and use it for the rest of our lives thereafter to negotiate our way through the world. It is at the heart of Euclid’s first axiom, “Things equal to the same thing are also equal to one another.” But fiction is less about the universe’s just likes than about its yes buts. It doesn’t want to accept the possibility of the usual. The current of the usual may be what carries us to the database called findagrave.com, where we can learn what is learnable to non-fiction about the one girl who did die in the sledding accident, but even there we will find ourselves reading as if there were interesting exceptional details. Reach item number 17673836, for example, and in its cubby you will be able to hear the name Emily Hazel Crosby singing itself through a lyric consisting only of art’s two minimal essentials, a beginning and an end: April 19, 1885 and March 10, 1904. But this lyric will come to us with a harmony in its words, because (carols Findagrave) Hazel had a mother named Alida Edna (1859-1916), a sister named Alice Edna (1881-1884), and a sister named Edna Alida (1891-1912). The names repeat yet disappear, the dates close in on them, the effect is pathos, and the aesthetic locus communis is Gray’s Elegy: another fiction. Under snowy, sleddy circumstances, in a resting place named Church on the Hill Cemetery, it offers itself as a companion text to Ethan Frome.

And between those stony fictions is the blankness where Hazel Crosby’s true story lies deep under its own stone: forever past reading now except for the interesting but now meaningless detail of three girls’ names repeating in echoless diminuendo in snow.