29 2 / 2012
Edith Wharton was born 150 years ago. Jonathan Franzen’s piece
on the occasion in the New Yorker got VICTORIA PATTERSON mad.Image © Paul Bausch onfocus.com
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
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.
Of Wharton’s mentally ill husband Teddy Wharton, or “cerebrally compromised Teddy,” as Henry James famously called him in private, Franzen writes: “That their ensuing twenty-eight years of marriage were almost entirely sexless was perhaps less a function of her looks than of her sexual ignorance…” It’s good to know that she wasn’t too ugly for sex, but does Teddy have no responsibility in the sexual knowledge department? Later, he notes that Teddy responded to her literary success by “spiraling into mental illness.” Had Wharton not been successful, would she have saved him from being mentally ill?