It’s been almost 80 years since Edith Wharton published her last book, but perhaps her most immortal character, Gilded-Age New York City, looks as new to us now as it must have to Wharton over 100 years ago. Wharton captured New York City just as it had begun to modernize. Horses were giving way to motorized cars, the elevated subway was connecting neighborhoods, and floods of immigrants were filling the city. Change is never easy, and, much like New Yorkers today, her characters often complained about it: why couldn’t New York stay the same?
In Wharton’s novels, the poor or middle class were rarely seen, and most characters lived off inherited wealth. In today’s New York, the middle class have been pushed to the edges and the poor even further out, while every column in the New York Times’s The Hunt involves family money paying for a luxury apartment. The bottom floor of Wharton’s Manhattan childhood home is a Starbucks these days, but the changes to the fabric of New York that she described are still playing out today, as noted in a recent essay on income inequality in her work at LitHub. And when it comes to more striking similarities, look no further than Wharton’s Pulitzer-winning The Age of Innocence, which, in addition capturing the rapidly modernizing city, comes complete with its own version of Donald Trump: a character named Julius Beaufort. Beaufort, as Wharton describes him, is a “heavy figured,” new-money businessman forced to declare bankruptcy towards the book’s end.
Both physically and intellectually, Beaufort matches up with his modern counterpart. In the novel he is said to be “tall and redfaced, scrutinising the women with his arrogant stare.” Wharton goes on to say that “Beaufort was vulgar, he was uneducated, he was purse-proud.” When it comes to his behavior, “his habits were dissipated, his tongue was bitter.” Aas for his manner of speaking, the author describes him as having a “loud sneering voice.” Even Beaufort’s general attitude lines up perfectly with Trump’s, as when Beaufort discusses art: “‘Painters? Are there painters in New York?’ asked Beaufort, in a tone implying that there could be none since he did not buy their pictures.” He cycles through two wives, with some of the same Trump-like overlap. Though “no one really liked Beaufort,” he had, Wharton writes, “a certain native shrewdness,” which made him interesting to watch.
When things turn sour financially for him, Beaufort denies the rumors and redoubles his efforts at appearing wealthy by continuing to spend huge sums, like a new emerald necklace for his wife acquired on loan. “I understand that the emerald necklace she wore at the Opera last Friday had been sent on approval from Ball and Black’s in the afternoon. I wonder if they’ll ever get it back?” one of the characters muses after the bankruptcy is made public. Much like his modern doppleganger, Beaufort hides his bankruptcy and leaves unpaid merchants and as Wharton would call them, trade people, in his wake.
People like Beaufort and Trump have always been part of the fabric of New York. The city attracts the pushy, the confident, the obnoxious, and the narcissists; people who are oblivious to their own faults who move with a single purpose, pursuing their own whims. They push their way into society with their outsized personalities and new money, where they equally amuse and rivile with their vulgarity. Their ultimate goal is approval and full membership in society, which Beaufort courts by regularly hosting lavish balls and sponsoring society events, and Trump by seeking out press coverage, building myths around his business skills through ghostwritten books, and attempting to get invited to the right parties, including Chelsea Clinton’s wedding.
Despite Wharton’s lament towards the end of The Age of Innocence that good, decent people don’t enter politics, unlike his modern counterpart, Beaufort never got the chance to try his hand at an election. In Wharton’s time financial scandals took longer for society to forget and forgive. After his bankruptcy, Beaufort was forced to start over abroad, where he was able to once again create a lavish life, this time of course with a younger and prettier wife.
Trump on the other hand has been able to weather his bankruptcy scandals at home, mostly unharmed, giving him the opportunity to pursue his ambition and need for validation by turning towards politics. “The whole of New York was darkened by the tale of Beaufort’s dishonour,” Wharton tells us, but with international coverage of Trump’s rhetoric on immigration, religion, and women, it seems Trump has managed to outstrip his Gilded Age counterpart in dishonor.
There is comfort then in knowing that New York has survived many Beauforts before, and will survive many Beauforts in the future. There may be a price to pay, as in the case of the stroke Beaufort’s scandal causes to the family matriarch, Catherine Mingott, or the financial hits his dealings cause to investors and merchants. But the city always rights itself in the end, society marches on, and New Yorkers complain about the latest influx of new money and bad manners, pomposity and vulgarity, and, of course, the city’s constant state of change.