Saturday, March 24, 2012

New York Society Library Exhibit

New York Society Library: ‘Edith Wharton’s New York City: A Backward Glance’ (through Dec. 31) This exhibition, a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the writer’s birth (her actual birth date is Jan. 24), includes family photographs, books and ledgers documenting the book-borrowing habits of her father, George Frederic Jones. Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Tuesday and Thursday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m., 53 East 79th Street, (212) 288-6900,; free.

WSJ: Americans Invigorate Florence

Exhibit through July 15, 2012

With the delightful new show "Americans in Florence: Sargent and the American Impressionists," the Palazzo Strozzi, under director James Bradburne, again confirms its standing as the most vibrant temporary exhibit center in Florence.

With some 110 paintings, drawings, illustrations and photographs—landscapes, still lifes and especially portraits—the show focuses on American artists who flocked to Florence and Tuscany in the second half of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th—from the end of the U.S. Civil War until World War I. Some, like the travelers in Mark Twain's "The Innocents Abroad," came to absorb the art and history of the Renaissance, bringing with them their New World energy; others were sophisticated expatriates, almost more European than American, and many of them moved in the intellectual and literary circles of William and Henry James, Edith Wharton and Bernard Berenson. They included William Morris Hunt, John La Farge, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, Frederick Childe Hassam and the Italian-American Egisto Fabbri.

National Portrait Gallery, London
'Henry James' (1913) by John Singer Sargent

The title's reference to Impressionism is misleading, given the exhibition's long time frame. Although an important influence, Impressionism is only one of many styles displayed by the 30 American artists and the small contingent of Italians on show.

Born in Florence of nomadic American parents, trained in Paris under Carolus-Duran, Sargent was by far the most widely traveled and accomplished of the Florentine coterie. His incisive portraits of the imposing Henry James (1913), the British writer Vernon Lee (1881), his fellow Florence-born friend Flora Priestly, and the young British dandy, the Earl of Dalhousie (1900)—along with a 1906 self-portrait commissioned by Florence's Uffizi Gallery—stand out above all the rest.

Among the more Impressionistic works on hand are Chase's garden landscapes and dappled olive grove. But with his majestic handlebar mustache, he was also a fine subject, painted by Frank Duveneck (1876), James Carroll Beckwith (1881-82) and Thomas Eakins (circa 1899). He did himself justice—white ascot, jeweled tiepin, pince-nez—in a 1908 self-portrait commissioned by the Uffizi.

Irene Goldman-Price and Edith Wharton

Wharton’s whispers
Last Updated: 10:18 PM, March 17, 2012
Posted: 9:44 PM, March 17, 2012

It was a time when Old Money talked — but in hushed whispers — and society women made the newspapers on three occasions: birth, marriage and death.
Edith Wharton was one of those women. Born 150 years ago into the prosperous Jones family — the clan who inspired the phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses” — she led a cosseted life in New York, Newport and Europe; married a manic-depressive; befriended Henry James and, at the ripe age of 45, discovered the joy of (adulterous) sex. Along the way, the woman known as “Puss” turned her narrow slice of society into “The Age of Innocence,” “The House of Mirth” and other brilliant books we read today.

Society girl Edith Wharton is distraught over her estranged lover.

“Edith Wharton’s New York City: A Backward Glance,” just opened at the 257-year-old New York Society Library, where her father, George Frederic Jones, was a member. The books and memorabilia on display come from the library archive, and the Mount, the Lenox, Mass., home and gardens she designed between novels.
“Edith thought New York rather ugly and mundane, compared with what she knew in Rome,” says Irene Goldman Price, author of the upcoming book “My Dear Governess: The Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann.” And yet it was at 884 Park Ave., the house Wharton shared with her hubby, Teddy, that she became a writer — when she wasn’t busy being the Tinsley Mortimer of her day. Pity Page Six wasn’t around then. Inspired by her letters and memoirs, we can only imagine . . .

Read more:
By Francine Prose:
Making Up

When Edith Wharton—then Edith Jones—was a little girl, her favorite game was called “making up.” “Making up” involved pacing around with an open book and (before she could read) inventing and then later half reading, half inventing stories about real people, narratives that she would chant very loud and very fast. The constant pacing and shouting were important parts of the game, which (according to Wharton’s memoir, A Backward Glance) had an enraptured, trance-like, slightly erotic aspect. Her parents spied on her, and it made them nervous. Edith’s Old New York, old-money-society mother tried to transcribe what Edith was saying, but she spoke too fast; Mrs. Jones’s anxiety increased when Edith asked her to entertain children who came to play because she was too busy making up.

At ten, Edith was composing sermons, poems, stories and dramas in blank verse. At eleven, she decided to write a novel. It began, “”Oh, how do you do, Mrs. Brown, said Mrs. Tompkins. “If only I had known you were going to call, I would have tidied up the drawing room.” In her memoir, Wharton described “timorously” showing her work to her mother. “Never,” wrote Wharton, “shall I forget the sudden drop of my creative frenzy when she returned it with the icy comment, ‘Drawing rooms are always tidy.’” By eighteen, she had begun to publish poems—mostly on the subject of failed love, renunciation and longing, themes that would continue to resonate in her work throughout the decades.


Her first published book, The Decoration of Houses, written in collaboration with the architect Ogden Codman, was a success. Like the rest of her work, it combined a keen intelligence, a lively sensibility, an eye for close detail, a witty and graceful prose style, strong opinions about society and about how to live, and a certain constriction traceable to the upbringing and class about which she wrote with alternating and sometimes simultaneous savagery and compassion.

For her first novel, The Valley of Decision, a historical romance set in Italy, Edith Wharton chose as her model Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma. She was determined that it be both highly literary and commercially viable. When it appeared in 1902, it sold 25,000 copies in six months and established her career as a writer of fiction. The novel begins,

“It was very still in the small neglected chapel. The voices of the farm came faintly through closed doors—voices shouting at the oxen in the lower fields, the querulous bark of the old house-dog, and Filomena’s angry calls to the little white-faced foundling in the kitchen.

“The February day was closing, and a ray of sunshine, slanting through a slit in the chapel wall, brought out a vision of a pale head floating against the dusky background of the chancel like a water lily on its leaf. The face was that of the saint of Assisi—a sunken ravaged countenance, lit with an ecstasy of suffering that seemed not so much to reflect the anguish of the Christ at whose feet the saint knelt as the mute pain of all poor downtrodden folk on earth.”


Edith Wharton’s passions were (in no particular order) literature, gardens, architecture, travel, Italy, France, friendship, and Morton Fullerton, a journalist with whom, in middle age, she had an intense and ultimately unhappy love affair. Notably absent from this list is her husband, Teddy, a proper Bostonian, suitably pedigreed and fashionably unemployed, whom she married when she was twenty-three (a late marriage for a girl of her time) and whom she divorced after his increasing mental instability turned out to involve a weakness for the ladies and a calamitous recklessness with Edith’s money. Everyone has a theory on why the marriage went so wrong and about what was troubling Teddy, exactly—was he a closeted homosexual or possibly bipolar?—and about whether the union was consummated at all. During the twelve years between her wedding and the publication of her first book, Edith was almost constantly ill, suffering from asthma, fatigue, flu, headaches, various nervous ailments, and long bouts of nausea. It is interesting, if not surprising, to track, in her novels, how often a character’s thoughts of marriage lead directly to associations of obligation, security, and boredom.

Her most famous friend was, of course, Henry James. Another was Teddy Roosevelt, with whom she discussed books, including her own. She had many friends, male and female, whom she wrote, hosted and traveled with, and who greatly affected her life and work. Many of her friends were gay men, though she mostly disapproved of the lesbians in Paris, among them Gertrude Stein. Her friends complained and mocked her domineering grand-dame manners, but one feels that these affections were mutual and intense. Given the number of her friends, it is striking how many of her protagonists are tormented by isolation, by the lack of a single soul they can tell what is going on in their hearts.


One hardly knows what to make of Edith Wharton’s love affair with Morton Fullerton. We can be glad, I suppose, that she discovered passion at all, but regretful that it should have taken her until the age of forty-six. That was when the emotionally vulnerable, sexually innocent, successful writer fell deeply in love with the American journalist, who was three years her junior and who had a tangled sexual and marital past and present. Was it good or bad that Fullerton was so much more experienced than Edith? Among his most striking qualities was the ability to make people fall in love with him and to conduct several love affairs at once. Previous lovers reputedly included his own adopted sister; the so-called Ranee of Sarawak, the wife of a British colonial governor; and the British lord on whom Oscar Wilde modeled one of his seedier fictional bon vivants. Among his many dubious distinctions, Fullerton has that of having turned down Oscar Wilde for a loan, upon the writer’s release from prison.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Responses to Jonathan Franzen's New Yorker article, part II

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!

b) relevance?

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).

Responses to Jonathan Franzen's New Yorker article, part I

Franzen's article:

From The Daily Beast:

Why Jonathan Franzen Can’t Appreciate Edith Wharton

For a certain group of successful male authors, dismissing women writers is so much more pleasant than taking them seriously.

There were many travesties committed in Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker piece on Edith Wharton, which has caused so much outcry and sizzle in recent days for its disdainful tone, its relentless focus on the author’s looks, and its odd assertion that sympathy is hard to come by for this grand dame of letters.

Among his assertions: that she was ugly, which didn’t cause her marriage to be sexless, but probably didn’t help; that Lily Bart is the opposite—beautiful—but a “party girl” whom Wharton punishes for her looks; that the central problem in reading Wharton is how to grudgingly “get over” her cosseted, wealthy existence as she swans around European hotels. But his worst sin is one of omission—what Franzen did not write about.

Specifically, how Wharton was just like Franzen—an ambitious American author who strove to balance literary reach with public taste.

This was pointed out the other night by novelist Pamela Redmond, at a book group of fellow women authors, all of us incensed by the essay. “It would have been far more interesting to find out what he identified with in Wharton,” she remarked. “That’s an essay I would have liked to read.” [more at the link above]

From Flavorwire:

Franzen argues that we don’t feel sympathetic towards Wharton for several reasons: because of her privilege, which he says “put her at a moral disadvantage,” her conservatism, her ultimate rejection of America, and the fact that “she was the kind of lady who fired off a high-toned letter of complaint to the owner of a shop where a clerk had refused to lend her an umbrella.” Her sole “potentially redeeming disadvantage,” Franzen says, is the fact that (according to him) she wasn’t very pretty, but he goes on to decide that no, that doesn’t help, because the “odd thing about beauty… is that its absence tends not to arouse our sympathy as much as other forms of privation do,” and he thinks “Wharton might well be more congenial to us now if, alongside her other advantages, she’d look like Grace Kelly or Jacqueline Kennedy.” So, he suggests, her work is neglected (is it?) or less appreciated because the author herself is not likeable.

For this author, Franzen is pretty much a walking argument against his point here. Everyone I talk to seems to express at least a little bit of distaste for the guy, and sometimes more than a little (no one crosses Oprah, even if they take it back later), but those same people will leap to tell you that well yes, they loved Freedom, and of course they count him among the great American novelists of our time, if not the greatest. Personally, he has not ingratiated himself to me by making all of those dismissive and coarse comments about David Foster Wallace, who was supposed to be his friend.

He’s also a touchstone in the ongoing discussion about how male authors get an inordinate amount of attention as compared to their female contemporaries, with many critics complaining that Freedom won Franzen way too much acclaim, to the detriment of deserving women.

From the L.A. Review of Books:

Not Pretty

Edith Wharton was born 150 years ago. Jonathan Franzen’s piece
on the occasion in the New Yorker got VICTORIA PATTERSON mad.

Victoria Patterson’s work has often been compared, for good reason, to Edith Wharton’s. This Vacant Paradise, Patterson’s first novel, is a contemporary retelling, quite consciously and intelligently, of The House of Mirth, transferred 100-plus years and 3000 miles from Wharton’s Old New York to Patterson’s Newport Beach. For all the cultural and historical distance, the two write of emotionally identical, muscular family struggles involving inheritance and strategic marriage; they chart matching dramas of cash-nexus beauty, analyze the power of sex and their characters’ debilitating combination of over-consciousness and under-consciousness of that power; and they pay the same attention to the way people find themselves, no matter their intentions or ethics, divided almost randomly into the blithe, oblivious, cruel winners and the flotsam- and jetsam-like losers strewn about as wealth patrols its waters. When Jonathan Franzen wrote about Wharton’s 150th birthday in The New Yorker (“A Rooting Interest: Edith Wharton and the Problem of Sympathy,” February 13, 2012), he harped on her looks and read the biographical record in ways that prompted Patterson to respond.

— Tom Lutz

Not Pretty

After reading Jonathan Franzen’s essay in the New Yorker about Edith Wharton, I couldn’t sleep. I admire Franzen’s work and usually appreciate his commentary about social media, eBooks, etc., but his depiction of Edith Wharton was so mean-spirited and off-key that I tossed and turned. Why would he link her husband’s mental illness with her success? Why claim that she was only interested in male friendships? And worst of all: Why would he focus on her physical appearance, claiming that she was unattractive? He’d taken a literary hero and written about her as if ranking a Maxim photo spread.

I reread the piece the following morning. Franzen’s essay is a tribute to Wharton and her work. Yet there’s a strange negative slanting of Wharton’s biography and a peculiarly misplaced concentration on her physical appearance. There are other problems with his essay as well: It is either disingenuous, or uninformed, for instance, for Franzen to reflect on Wharton’s disagreeable politics without also noting that throughout the war, she worked tirelessly in charitable efforts for refugees (mainly women and children) and, in 1916, that she received the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur in recognition of her commitment to the displaced. But it is her facial features that structure Franzen’s response, and it is his constant return to them that bothers me the most. [...]

From the New York Daily News

Jonathan Franzen's female 'problem'

image_2.jpegIt started, as it is so often does, with Edith Wharton.

To be more precise, it started with a New Yorker essay on the “Age of Innocence” author, written for the Feb. 13 issue by Jonathan Frazen. Called “Rooting Interest: Edith Wharton and the Problem of Sympathy,” the essay was, by many accounts, a snide and mean-spirited appraisal of Wharton’s career.

Anyone forced to read Wharton’s “Ethan Frome” in high school may question her talents as a writer, but Franzen went much further than that, speculating on aspects of her life that are far beyond the ken of an essayist:

“That [Edith and Teddy Wharton’s] ensuing twenty-eight years of marriage were almost entirely sexless was perhaps less a function of her looks than of her sexual ignorance.” (Franzen and Oprah Winfrey / AP)

“[Wharton] did have one potentially redeeming disadvantage: she wasn't pretty.”

“Wharton might well be more congenial to us now, if alongside her other advantages, she’d looked like Grace Kelly or Jacqueline Kennedy.”

“[The House of Mirth] can be read … as a sadistically slow and thorough punishment of the pretty girl she couldn’t be.”

This is, plainly put, nonsense. Critics pounced at once. The Kenyon Review blasted him, as did the blog Girls Like Giants.

But the definitive response to Franzen’s article did not come until last Saturday, when novelist Victoria Patterson shredded him in a fine, pithy essay in the LA Review of Books (which, by the way, is quickly establishing itself as the Left Coast’s most serious literary outlet).

wharton_pic.jpeg“He’d taken a literary hero and written about her as if ranking a Maxim photo spread,” Patterson says in the opening paragraph of the piece, "Not Pretty," pointing out that Franzen seems far less concerned with Wharton’s art than her appearance. (Edith Wharton / Photofest)

Defending Franzen

The Awl--an article by Emily Gould defending Franzen that concludes with this insight: he's just calling "attention to the fact that we all have prejudices that influence our reading."