Jonathan Franzen (in his essay in The New Yorker, “A Critic at Large”) addresses “the problem of sympathy” for Edith Wharton. It’s a serious matter, by his account: He finds Wharton hard to like. His reasons are personal and class-related: He castigates Wharton for her privileged family, her looks, her too few women friends, her too many famous male friends, her money, her sexual ignorance, her charmlessness, and her methods of travel.
Wharton’s social standing “puts her at a moral disadvantage,” declares Franzen. “No major American novelist has led a more privileged life than Wharton did… 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…”
To start with, many of his sweeping claims are inaccurate. Though Wharton was born into a privileged circle, she didn’t lead a life of undiluted privilege. Her family was financially on the outer rim, and they suffered economic setbacks. Wharton had many close women friends, and was known for her talent at friendship. When she did finally become rich, it was due to her best-selling novels. Wharton’s marriage was known to be increasingly unhappy, but Franzen’s jeering description makes it sound like a soap opera. He suggests that Teddy’s mental instability was partly the fault of Edith’s success as a writer, overlooking the fact that Teddy’s father had been institutionalized for insanity. After Teddy’s embezzlement and adultery were discovered, Edith finally asked him for a divorce. Franzen characterizes this as her forcing Teddy “to pay up.” The fact that her 28-year-long marriage was largely sexless, Franzen surmises, was not to be blamed on her looks (as we might otherwise assume), but on her sexual ignorance. This remarkable statement suggests a nearly bottomless ignorance of marriage, or indeed all human relationships. In fact, it is more than likely that Edith’s husband, too, played a part in the failure of their marriage: Any man who waits 28 years for his wife to learn the facts of life is a man not eager to undertake her education.
Accuracy aside, Franzen’s tone is extravagant, contemptuous and condescending. It’s a strange way to describe someone whom he purports to admire. Even when Franzen finally declares his respect for Wharton’s great novel The Age of Innocence, he doesn’t relent in his judgment of Wharton herself. He never describes her sympathetically, but calls her an “isolate and misfit”—not terms of admiration.
Sympathy for an author, or for her characters, is a subjective matter, but most of us don’t restrict our sympathies because of checking accounts or zip codes. We may feel sympathy for Henry James (born into privilege), who lived with servants in an English country house. We may feel it for Fitzgerald (prep school and Princeton) and Hemingway, (doctor’s son), despite the fact that both of them made their way into a world of extraordinary international glamour, with villas on the Riviera and private African safaris. Most of us feel sympathy and respect for writers because of the work they do, not because of the houses they live in or the people they know.
Franzen’s antipathy is directed toward both the heroine of The House of Mirth, Lily Bart (whom he calls “the worst sort of party girl”), and Edith Wharton (“Privilege like hers is hard to like.”). Maybe this judgmental attitude derives from a sweeping class-based animosity toward anyone whom Franzen defines as rich or privileged, though it’s hard to take such a stance seriously. ((Does it mean all rich people are bad? And does that mean all poor people are good? Who gets to define “rich” and “privileged”? Are you considered privileged if you’ve gotten rich by writing best-selling novels?)
Or maybe Franzen’s inability to feel sympathy for them derives from something more fundamental. “We all know,” he says, “…the deliciousness of watching other people make [a mistake]…” This response to someone in trouble presumes a deep emotional aloofness and an absence of empathy. It would certainly interfere with compassion, and in fact this might be the real cause of what Franzen calls “the problem of sympathy.” Mr. Franzen himself may take a delicious pleasure in watching other people’s travails, but he’s wrong to assume that this response is universal. We don’t all share that feeling of “deliciousness” at the sight of someone in trouble. Another way of reading Lily Bart’s story would entail a deeper form of engagement, one that involved tolerance and humanity; one that required forgiveness, not judgment; empathy, not schadenfreude.
Many of us have met Wharton first through her writing: great work, which requires our sympathy and our compassion, as well as our admiration. Many of her readers offer this willingly, both to the books and to the writer who produced them