thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Jonathan Franzen, Edith Wharton, and the Problem of Personality

In gender on February 11, 2012 at 7:53 am

Sarah Todd

The basic gist of Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker article on Edith Wharton is, “Whar-dawg, I do not dig you as a human being because you had too much cash flow and too few socially liberal political beliefs, but I do dig the hot fudge sundae that is your novels’ complex protagonists. Radical?” (Franzen talks like a surfer-dude undergrad from the 1960s with hip-hop influences. No, he doesn’t really. I wish.)

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).  

I haven’t read Wharton’s biography, so it’s possible that her appearance was in fact a big deal for her. But Franzen doesn’t quote from any letters or cite any historical research that proves it was, so the article’s emphasis on her looks comes across as Franzen’s own obsession. Moreover, after several paragraphs he discounts the reason he introduced the subject of her appearance in the first place: “An odd thing about beauty, however, is that its absence tends not to arouse our sympathy as much as other forms of privation do.” He suggests that we might find her more sympathetic if she had looked like Grace Kelly or Jacqueline Kennedy. I’d suggest he reconsider precisely what we he’s talking about.

Franzen also displays a shaky understanding of mental illness in the article. Writing about Wharton’s marriage to Teddy, he says, “When, in her forties, she finally battled free of the deadness of her marriage and became a best-selling author, Teddy responded by spiralling into mental illness and embezzling a good part of her inheritance.” The phrasing of this sentence implies that Teddy decided to get mentally ill, the way one decides to take up badminton or make an omelet. Somewhat insidiously, it also implies that Wharton was responsible for her husband’s mental illness and embezzlement. Franzen isn’t trying to argue that Wharton shouldn’t have been a successful writer, but he is suggesting that her literary achievements broke her husband down. But if Teddy had manic depression, as historians believe he did, then Wharton’s actions had little do with his biological mood disorder.

The underlying problem in Franzen’s article may be that in trying to articulate what he finds unsympathetic about Wharton, he becomes increasingly unsympathetic himself. He treats his antipathy toward the author as a universal sentiment, writing, “To be rich like Wharton may be what all of us secretly or not so secretly want, but privilege like hers isn’t easy to like; it puts her at a moral disadvantage.” But while I’m very concerned about present-day income inequality, I have trouble mustering much resentment toward a lady who had a lot of money a hundred years ago.

Plenty of other writers had a lot of money too, which Franzen acknowledges as he tries to explain precisely what his beef is with Wharton: “And she wasn’t privileged like Tolstoy, with his social-reform schemes and his idealization of peasants. She was deeply conservative, opposed to socialism, unions, and woman suffrage…” All true, and here my own sympathies align with Franzen’s. Yet if Wharton was conservative in her politics, in life she often went against the grain. After all, she was an outspoken woman in a literary boy’s club, and she pursued her career against the wishes of her highly traditional family. But Franzen is unfailingly reductive on this subject. Writing of her friendship with Henry James, Bernard Berenson, and other men, Franzen says, “She wanted to be with the men and to talk about the things men talked about.” He makes Wharton’s desire to have an intellectual life sound like a put-down, and criticizes her for not cultivating friendships with other female writers–although surely he must know that other female writers, while existent, were hardly easy to come by at the turn of the century.

In the end, how much does it matter whether or not we find writers sympathetic? To me, it only seems important insofar as a writer’s personality and beliefs are reflected in his or her work. This is the conclusion Franzen reaches too, by the article’s end.  Whatever his feelings about Wharton herself, he can’t help but root for her creations Lily Bart and Undine Spragg and Ellen Olenska. As for me, whenever I read Franzen being Franzen, I seem to start thinking maybe I’m allergic to stone fruit or that new soap I’ve been using. But when it comes to Patty Berglund or Denise Lambert, well! What can I say? I’m always on their side.

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  1. Ack! Franzen annoys me so much. Also, wealth is a matter of degree, right? It would not surprise me to find that Franzen himself is a 1%-er in his own right. And holding Edith Wharton accountable for her inheritance in a world in which women didn’t have too many options to earn a white-collar living seems a little mean-spirited. Anyway, I very much enjoyed this.

    • Thanks, Ehren! And good points. I also feel like… I don’t know, obviously the rich don’t need people defending them, because they’ve got a pretty good deal and defense resources are better spent elsewhere. But Franzen’s working off the assumption that rich people are necessarily jerks unless they are Tolstoy or similarly liberal-minded, which seems flawed. Especially given that, as you point out, he’s probably not doing so badly himself!

  2. Funnily enough, this reminds me of something I heard about Wharton’s writing process, which went a little like this:

    While lying in bed, Wharton writes a page by hand and then tosses it to the ground. A maid comes and picks it up, then types it for her.

    I don’t know whether that account was apocryphal, but if it’s at all true, I imagine that Jonathan Franzen might feel slightly resentful of not having the same deal. Also, Wharton wrote Ethan Frome in order to practice her French, then translated it into English afterward. I don’t want to insinuate that she didn’t have a difficult life (because I know she did), but from Franzen’s point of view, he surely would love to have the amount of free time that she did.

    • Carissa, you’re so on point! Franzen actually mentions that very same story about the maid in his article as one of his grievances against her. He’s painting it like that’s so self-indulgent (and it is, of course), but I think you’re probably right that he may be a little jealous of that kind of leisure.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this. I read your essay right after finishing Franzen’s, and was incredibly disheartened (and, frankly, pissed off – although not overly surprised) that such sexist crap had surfaced in the New Yorker.

  4. [...] recent swivel-eyed New Yorker piece on Edith Wharton so that I don’t have to. Here’s Sarah Todd, who says what needs to be said very well: Ostensibly he’s talking about Wharton’s appearance [...]

  5. I first heard about the Franzen article on the Diane Rehm Show today during the discussion of Ethan Frome (it’s a great discussion: http://thedianerehmshow.org/audio-player?nid=15486)

    In responding to the Franzen article–particularly the part about Wharton throwing her pages to the floor, one of the panelists makes the point that there are plenty of male authors who have behaved much more abominably (or were simply depending on women in their writing) and they don’t get picked on. No one faults Wallace Stevens for dictating (in his law office) his poems to his secretary to transcribe (which is something I’ve been curious about, how much editing she might have done in the transcription).

    Thank you for your post here!

    • Thanks for the link, Monica–I can’t wait to check it out. That’s also a great point about potential gender bias in who gets picked on for being a self-indulgent writer.

  6. This was great-great-great, especially refreshing in light of the onslaught of “Franzen is a sexist boor!!” tweets I’ve been reading all hour. He was certainly flip when discussing Wharton’s looks, but he was adoring in evaluating her work. Not the most well thought out article, but not the blatant misogyny it’s being framed as.

  7. Of course, Frazen is Brad Pitt, Ryan Phillippe and George Clooney all rolled up into one gorgeous studd, right? EW’s sex life and genetics are none of JF’s business, nor should they be—I’m waiting for his essay on Poe’s sexiness. Sad that our current literary poster boy is so shallow and insecure, instead of basking in the limelight provided by Time magazine. He may not like Ms. Wharton, and that’s his privilege, but to paraphrase Tina Turner, what’s looks got to do with it?

  8. I’m a huge Edith Wharton fan and am currently reading Franzen’s ‘Freedom’. I think ‘Freedom’ is very good–it’s a novel by a person who really things deeply and likes to think. I enjoy a lot about it but I have felt that Franzen seems a bit sexist. He presents Walter as this super good guy and Patty as bad in large part because Patty wasn’t so sexually interested in Walter. But Walter had young women in college who were very into him but weren’t ‘lookers’ who he didn’t date. He wanted to marry a woman with much better looks than he had. He knew she wasn’t that into him sexually and he married anyway. He fell in love with another when his wife was depressed. I think he isn’t any more innocent than Patty and certainly not a better person. I find his female characters harder to believe than his male but the male characters are not all fully believable, either. I did not read what Franzen wrote about Edith Wharton and am hearing it here 2nd hand but I think Edith Wharton looked just fine! I never thought of her as bad looking. I always admired her skill as a writer. The idea that bad looking or less attractive people have less sex is funny! lol! I really don’t think that’s how it works, especially when a person is married. I agree about your ideas on mental illness. People don’t cause others to be mentally ill, especially not by becoming successful at something. Bipolar is a genetic disease. In ‘Freedom’ Franzen seems to treat his female characters a bit like his male character, Richard Katz by focusing hugely on their looks. He has Patty so obsessed with her looks that she literally wants to hide herself from her former lover because she looks like she is in her 50s (which she is at that point in the story). Lucky her that Walter takes her back after she has lost her attractiveness to the men in Franzen’s story. He gives his male point of view on American life. I don’t think he gives a full picture because he does not seem to fully know women and how we think but he does write very well. I still like his book and will read ‘The Corrections’ soon in spite of the flaws I see in him.

  9. [...] detractors pounced, attacking his underlying gender discrimination, as well as his pension for assuming everyone shares his [...]

  10. [...] Sarah T. tackles literary sexism in “Jonathan Franzen, Edith Wharton, and the Problem of Personality.” [...]

  11. Oh my gosh. I agree with your last sentiment so hard.

    As someone who has read way too many of his essays, I can’t but dislike Franzen as a person (since he’s the sort of douchebag who wants all other humans to kill themselves so he can go birding) but, when it’s good, his writing is spectacular.

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