“Where is our Byron–our Scott–our Shakespeare? And in painting it is the same. Where are our Old Masters? We are not without contemporary talent; but for works of genius we must still look to the past; we must, in most cases, content ourselves with copies…”
This sort of lays the groundwork for the anxiety held within this novella. Written in the 1920s, there’s still a kind of irony that Wharton also has missed some of the greats of American literature. While she was a huge proponent and ally to Henry James, both of them missed Melville in their own writing for the most part. This story, which makes a reference or two to Poe, also is too contemporary to Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau, predates Dickinson and Whitman, and so there’s a kind of dramatic irony about the above anxiety.
The story itself is about a rich American father who sends his son abroad to take hold of the world and learn about the wonders of Europe and bring home some old masterpieces to use as the cornerstone of new gallery in their name. The son goes abroad and “fails” to gather the right kind of oldness, bringing instead riskier new talent.
This anxiety about the weakness of the American continent and its general artless is an old concern and even accounts for some of the anxieties Jefferson felt in his writings about our natural landscapes and animal life. It speaks to a desire to possess culture and use it as currency, something that Henry James also reminded us decades before Wharton could never buy you class.