From The Center for Fiction, via Twitter:
Roxana Robinson responds to Jon Franzen's New Yorker piece on Edith Wharton.
Jonathan Franzen (in his essay in The New Yorker, “A Critic at Large”) addresses “the problem of sympathy” for Edith Wharton. It’s a serious matter, by his account: He finds Wharton hard to like. His reasons are personal and class-related: He castigates Wharton for her privileged family, her looks, her too few women friends, her too many famous male friends, her money, her sexual ignorance, her charmlessness, and her methods of travel.
Wharton’s social standing “puts her at a moral disadvantage,” declares Franzen. “No major American novelist has led a more privileged life than Wharton did… pouring her inherited income into houses in rich-person precincts, indulging her passion for gardens and interior decoration, touring Europe endlessly in hired yachts or chauffeured cars, hobnobbing with the powerful and the famous...”
To start with, many of his sweeping claims are inaccurate. Though Wharton was born into a privileged circle, she didn’t lead a life of undiluted privilege. Her family was financially on the outer rim, and they suffered economic setbacks. Wharton had many close women friends, and was known for her talent at friendship. When she did finally become rich, it was due to her best-selling novels. Wharton’s marriage was known to be increasingly unhappy, but Franzen’s jeering description makes it sound like a soap opera. He suggests that Teddy’s mental instability was partly the fault of Edith’s success as a writer, overlooking the fact that Teddy’s father had been institutionalized for insanity. After Teddy’s embezzlement and adultery were discovered, Edith finally asked him for a divorce. Franzen characterizes this as her forcing Teddy “to pay up.” The fact that her 28-year-long marriage was largely sexless, Franzen surmises, was not to be blamed on her looks (as we might otherwise assume), but on her sexual ignorance. This remarkable statement suggests a nearly bottomless ignorance of marriage, or indeed all human relationships. In fact, it is more than likely that Edith’s husband, too, played a part in the failure of their marriage: Any man who waits 28 years for his wife to learn the facts of life is a man not eager to undertake her education.
Accuracy aside, Franzen’s tone is extravagant, contemptuous and condescending. It’s a strange way to describe someone whom he purports to admire. Even when Franzen finally declares his respect for Wharton’s great novel The Age of Innocence, he doesn’t relent in his judgment of Wharton herself. He never describes her sympathetically, but calls her an “isolate and misfit” —not terms of admiration.
From Girls Like Giants
When Franzen discusses Wharton’s books, he’s insightful and curious. I particularly like his exploration of why he wants Wharton’s characters–and literary characters in general–to get what they want, even if they want things about which he has ethical and moral qualms: more money, social status, a loveless but secure marriage. The vehemence of their desires is contagious. Eventually, they become the sympathetic reader’s own. This also explains, he says, why he wants Thackeray’s selfish, superficial Becky Sharp to climb right up that social ladder. But Franzen’s own likability and popularity, or lack thereof, is the subtext of half his personal essays as well as the blatant text (top-text?) of about a zillion pieces of Franzen-related criticism, so I think he’s more invested in the subject of ascending and descending social ladders than he’s willing to admit.
When Franzen is talking about Wharton herself, however, he gets myopic and weirdly mean-spirited. For one thing, he’s really stuck on the idea that Wharton was not a looker, which:
a) says you, J Franz!
Ostensibly he’s talking about Wharton’s appearance because it’s her “one potentially redeeming disadvantage.” But he doesn’t sound sympathetic when he talks about her looks; he sounds like he’s just observing the patriarchal dictate that before we can talk about any woman artist or intellectual or politician or activist, we must first rank her on Hot or Not. He indicates that Wharton had a tough time finding a husband because of her looks, and tips his hat at the possibility that her marriage to Teddy Wharton was largely sexless because she wasn’t pretty enough (!) before concluding no, it was probably because of her sexual ignorance (I’m thinking Teddy probably had a hand in or out of their sex life too).