To say, “I started watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians because of Edith Wharton,” is, I’ve found, either a wonderful icebreaker at parties or a perfect way to end an unwanted conversation. People are either intrigued to hear how Kourtney and Scott’s breakup might relate to Newland Archer and Countess Olenska (hint: it doesn’t, but it’s a parallel I’ve tried to draw), or they’re totally repulsed by me even comparing one of America’s greatest writers to the Kardashians. I can’t really blame them for either of those reactions, but I also add that I think the Kardashians would make wonderful characters in a Wharton novel. There’s a bigger connection between the writer and Kim and Co. than my doubters may realize.
“She knew its men and women of property; she knew their history and their origins, their prejudices and their ideals, the source of their money and how they spent their summers,” Louis Auchincloss wrote in his essay, “Edith Wharton and Her New Yorks.” Auchincloss, much like Wharton, one of his biggest influences as a novelist, was born into money and privilege in 1917, a Wharton sweet spot situated between her two greatest novels, 1913’s The Custom of the Country and 1920’s The Age of Innocence. Although both writers came from the upper echelons of New York society, there was one glaring difference between them, which Auchincloss himself pointed out: “There was never an Auchincloss fortune… each generation of Auchincloss men either made or married its own money.” Wharton, on the other hand, was born Edith Newbold Jones, of “keeping up with the Joneses” fame. While you might be born into money, inherit a great fortune, or build your own vast network of wealth, there’s only one name so synonymous with the high life that even the Kardashians have to give it a nod. Wharton was born with the money, but she was also born with the name.
Everybody had their own Joneses, even if they didn’t know a thing about the New York City family that the idiom was derived from.
The name Jones has its roots in Wales, and first began popping up sometime in the 13th century. But it wasn’t until around 1839, when Isaac Jones took over Chemical Bank after his father-in-law, John Mason, passed away, that they became worth keeping up with. Mason’s daughter, Mary Mason Jones, was Edith Wharton’s great aunt. The family owned a large swath of Midtown Manhattan, purchased by Mason in 1825, when it was still pretty much untouched by man. The origins of the term “Keeping up with the Joneses” are murky; some attribute it to Mark Twain, others say it had to do with the number of Joneses and their relations on a famous list of the four hundred most important people in New York City society, but the one thing that’s for sure is it gained popularity in the 20th century with the debut of a comic strip by Arthur R. “Pop” Momand. “Keeping Up With the Jonses” featured a well-to-do family, who wanted to do even better, using their neighbors, the Joneses, as a measuring stick for success. The comic was syndicated all across the country, and in no time everybody had their own Jonses, even if they didn’t know a single thing about the New York City family that the idiom was derived from.
Wharton came from a history of great names when names really meant everything.
The Jones line could be traced back all the way to the English conquest of what was once known as New Amsterdam in 1664, which they renamed New York, after the Duke of York. But in her 1934 autobiography, Wharton writes how her family’s colonial ancestry began 300 years earlier, and her family tree does indeed predate the English takeover. She mentions that her father, whose Dutch blood “accounted for his gastronomic enthusiasm,” was a Schermerhorn on his mother’s side, another old New York family whose name you still see up on walls throughout the city. But it’s through her mother, Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander, that Wharton can trace her lineage back to one of the oldest and wealthiest families in the United States, not the Jones side. Yet it was the name Jones that served as a brand the way Hilton or Kardashian might signify wealth today.
Wharton came from a history of great names when names really meant everything. Some, like Schermerhorn and Rhinelander, were impossible not to know in 19th century New York, and, even today, anybody who has spent time riding the A and C trains into Brooklyn knows the Hoyt-Schermerhorn stop. To this day, if you were to meet somebody with one of those last names, there’s a good chance they could probably trace their lineage back to the Netherlands. Yet how many people do you know with the last name Jones? It’s a sturdy one to have, no doubt; a surname shared by famous people like Grace, Quincy, January, and Tommy Lee, but there’s a good chance you know almost as many Smiths, Browns, Cohens, or Johnsons. In fact, as of the 2000 census, there were 1,362,755 Joneses, making it the fifth most common surname in America. Unless maybe you’re a Kennedy, Clinton, Bush, Trump, Obama, or, well, Kardashian, today there’s very little chance somebody would bother asking if you’re related to those Millers or the Callahans. If your last name is Jones, it is unlikely anybody will bat an eye and wonder if you’re one of the Joneses they’re meant to keep up with. The Joneses, those Joneses, aren’t around any longer.
Our world of celebrity selfies and the Rich Kids of Instagram would probably look like a total dystopia to Wharton.
“When I was young it used to seem to me that the group in which I grew up was like an empty vessel into which no new wine would ever be poured,” Wharton wrote in her autobiography. She was right, and in many ways that single sentence can adequately sum up what most of her great works are about. The old ways weren’t great, but the new ways aren’t that wonderful either. The old money she came from¬–the kind that was acquired before the Gilded Age—and its ways had been replaced by a new class of wealthy people; by new money. And judging by characters like Julius Beaufort in The Age of Innocence or Undine Spragg from The Custom of the Country, Wharton saw new money as having no class, and ripe for ridicule. Could you imagine how she’d portray Kris Jenner in one of her books?
Of course Edith Wharton died in 1937, and really had no way of knowing what the new American bourgeoisie would look like. Our world of celebrity selfies and the Rich Kids of Instagram would probably look like a total dystopia to her. Yet, whether we like it or not, we keep up with the Kardashians the way people would have the Joneses a century ago. We might ridicule Kim, Kourtney, and Khloé when we’re hanging out with our friends, but we are legitimately fascinated by them; their lives, their antics, and their money. Our culture is equally obsessed with the people that don’t share their surname (specifically Kanye West and Caitlyn Jenner) but are connected by blood or marriage. These people are on the front of magazines, they make millions by attaching their names to everything from apps to sneakers, and we love to loathe them for that—yet we can’t help but try and keep up with them. We like knowing about their every move, how Kim and Kanye keep their money separate, or whatever Lord Disick is up to; we claim not to like them, but we can’t stop watching. They are our Joneses, for better or worse.