Magazine article The New Yorker

A Rooting Interest

Magazine article The New Yorker

A Rooting Interest

Article excerpt

The older I get, the more I'm convinced that a fiction writer's oeuvre is a mirror of the writer's character. It may well be a defect of my own character that my literary tastes are so deeply intertwined with my responses, as a person, to the person of the author--that I persist in disliking the posturing young Steinbeck who wrote "Tortilla Flat" while loving the later Steinbeck who fought back personal and career entropy and produced "East of Eden," and that I draw what amounts to a moral distinction between the two--but I suspect that sympathy, or its absence, is involved in almost every reader's literary judgments. Without sympathy, whether for the writer or for the fictional characters, a work of fiction has a very hard time mattering.

So what to make of Edith Wharton, on her hundred-and-fiftieth birthday? There are many good reasons to wish Wharton's work read, or read afresh, at this late literary date. You may be dismayed by the ongoing underrepresentation of women in the American canon, or by the academy's valorization of overt formal experimentation at the expense of more naturalistic fiction. You may lament that Wharton's work is still commonly assumed to be as dated as the hats she wore, or that several generations of high-school graduates know her chiefly through her frosty minor novel "Ethan Frome." You may feel that, alongside the more familiar genealogies of American fiction (Henry James and the modernists, Mark Twain and the vernacularists, Herman Melville and the postmoderns), there is a less noticed line connecting William Dean Howells to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis and thence to Jay McInerney and Jane Smiley, and that Wharton is the vital link in it. You may want, as I do, to recelebrate "The House of Mirth," call much merited attention to "The Custom of the Country," and reevaluate "The Age of Innocence"--her three great like-titled novels. But to consider Wharton and her work is to confront the problem of sympathy.

No major American novelist has led a more privileged life than Wharton did. Although she was seldom entirely free of money worries, she always lived as if she were: pouring her inherited income into houses in rich-person precincts, indulging her passion for gardens and interior decoration, touring Europe endlessly in hired yachts or chauffeured cars, hobnobbing with the powerful and the famous, despising inferior hotels. 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. 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, intellectually attracted to the relentless world view of Darwinism, hostile to the rawness and noise and vulgarity of America (by 1914, she had settled permanently in France, and she visited the United States only once after that, for twelve days), and unwilling to support her friend Teddy Roosevelt when his politics became more populist. She was the kind of lady who fired off a high-toned letter of complaint to the owner of a shop where a clerk had refused to lend her an umbrella. Her biographers, including the estimable R. W. B. Lewis, supply this signal image of the artist at work: writing in bed after breakfast and tossing the completed pages on the floor, to be sorted and typed up by her secretary.

Edith Newbold Jones did have one potentially redeeming disadvantage: she wasn't pretty. The man she would have most liked to marry, her friend Walter Berry, a noted connoisseur of female beauty, wasn't the marrying type. After two failed youthful courtships, she settled for an affable dud of modest means, Teddy Wharton. 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, the blame for which she laid squarely on her mother. …

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