I enjoyed Jonathan Franzen’s essay on Edith Wharton, because I’m glad whenever anyone pays homage to the most heartbreaking novelist of all time. But I question the premise of the piece, which is that modern perceptions of Wharton’s character unfairly obstruct the enjoyment of her work.
First, unlike Franzen, I have never found Wharton to be an unsympathetic character in any way, even after touring The Mount and observing that she built Henry James a guest bathroom without a toilet.* Wealth is easy enough to resent, but an unattractive woman born to any caste in 1862 strikes me as pretty damn hard to despise on the basis of envy.
So that is the first thing.
Franzen goes on to note that the absence of beauty “tends not to arouse our sympathy as much as other forms of privation do”. This is statistically true when it comes to daily, lived experience—Daniel Hamermesh wrote a whole book about how the homely are economically disadvantaged—but I don’t think it is true in theory; that is, I don’t think it’s true when a reader’s only conception of Wharton’s unattractiveness comes from a two-inch author photo on the book’s back fold.
Also, I think that most of us tend to evaluate portraits predating, say, 1930, less as indices of hotness than as interesting old-tymey artifacts. But that’s another subject.
The point is, Franzen’s idea that “Edith Wharton might well be more congenial to us now if…she’d looked like Grace Kelly or Jacqueline Kennedy” strikes me as bizarre and invidious. If he’d had the courage to replace “us” with “me”, the sentence would strike me as simply bizarre. I don’t object to the airing of quirky personal prejudices as part of a larger tribute, but it is arrogant and irresponsible to attribute these things to the entire reading world.
Wharton deserves better!
*This was possibly (probably?) a concession to some freaky request from James. You never know.