Friday, February 24, 2012

Henry James was never called ugly*

So, I really enjoyed this podcast of the Diane Rehm Show today.  It was about the Edith Wharton novel Ethan Frome, in part in recognition of Wharton's 150th birthday this year.  In the midst of an enjoyable discussion (though I found some of the callers inane--who on earth thinks that high school students don't enjoy depressing books?), there was mention of Jonathan Franzen's New Yorker article (the link is to the abstract--I read it through the library subscription to Factiva) about Edith Wharton.  What readers generally agree seems to have intended to be a positive reading of Wharton instead--despite some nice analysis of her texts, especially Custom of the Country--reads as sexist jealousy.

Basically, Franzen's reading of Wharton is based on the fact that he finds her--the author--almost completely unsympathetic as a person because of her wealth and privilege.  To Franzen, Wharton had only "one potentially redeeming disadvantage: she wasn't pretty."  Franzen sees Wharton's major works as being strongly motivated by her unhappiness with her own looks, and her disappointing marriage and love life.  (He even reads her affair with Morton Fullerton as "somewhat embarrassing.")  He does own up to his own jealousy of her lifestyle, which he assumes the reader shares: "To be rich like Wharton may be what all of us secretly or not so secretly want, but privilege like hers puts her at a moral disadvantage."  I don't really get this perspective, as there are plenty of authors I know I wouldn't have wanted to have met--some of my favorites even (Faulkner, for example, being pretty high up on the list)--but I don't think it's appropriate to let my distaste color my reading.

Franzen's preamble is unfortunate, because like I said, some of his insights into her work are quite interesting.  His recognition that "the alchemical agent by which fiction transmutes my secret envy or my ordinary dislike of 'bad' people into sympathy is desire." However, his focus on Wharton's appearance undermines what insights he does have.  His claim that, "An odd thing about beauty, however, is that its absence tends not to arouse our sympathy as much as other forms of privation do.  To the contrary, Edith Wharton might well be more congenial to us now if, alongside her other advantages, she'd looked like Grace Kelley or Jacqueline Kennedy."  He goes on to claim that Wharton was fully aware of her own ugliness and created characters such as Lily Bart in part as a way of torturing pretty women to make up for her own shortcomings. 

When trying to find the original Franzen article, I came across several responses I agreed with: Jonathan Franzen, Edith Wharton, and the Problem of Personality, for example, Shut Up, Jonathan Franzen, and--a brilliant perspective--Kenyan Review's Jonathan Franzen on Edith Wharton.

In terms of my own work, even though he's not talking about southern literature, the fact that he is so focused on Wharton's own lack of beauty is striking.  First of all (as many people have pointed out, even though all of this should really be irrelevant when talking about Wharton), is this an image that many would characterize as "not pretty"?

Second, I'm intrigued that Franzen seems to think that the absence of beauty is an unforgivable privation.  Poverty, we have sympathy for; ugliness, we don't.  Especially if it's ugliness that gets to loll about in bed all day and write.  Jealousy is assuaged if the person is pretty--meaning deserving--enough?

*With apologies to Jonathan Richman, a Jonathan whose opinions I always agree with (well, those I know about, anyway).