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:
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.