Sean Wilentz, 19 April 1990
‘What different things Rome stands for to each generation of travellers,’ one upper-crust New York widow tells another near the start of Edith Wharton’s ‘Roman Fever’ (1936). The remark is partly fraudulent. By the story’s end, the ladies have revealed some brutal little secrets about their own youthful travels to the Eternal City, which undercut their reveries about a bygone innocent age. Fin-de-Siècle Rome, no less than Thirties Rome, turns out to have been a place for sexual intrigue and abandon for young Manhattan women on holiday. Yet Wharton’s dissembling dowagers touched on something true about Americans’ changing perceptions and depictions of Rome. Out of these changes, and the persisting themes that attended them, William Vance has fashioned this gargantuan two-volume commentary on American culture from the end of the 18th century to the present.