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Edith Wharton

I'm been re-reading the Marilyn French introduction to my frayed edition of Edith Wharton’s "The Custom of the Country," and that has set me straight on Jonathan Franzen’s odd review in The New Yorker of her work on the occasion of her 150th birthday:

Franzen begins by complaining that because she was born into privilege it is difficult to feel any sympathy for Edith Wharton or her writing. That’s odd as I have found Franzen’s writing cold and unsympathetic. And this brings me back to Marilyn French's observation that it is very interesting what men writers make of the women in their lives. I suppose one could also say the opposite: It’s very interesting what women writers make of the men in their lives. But Franzen's decision to attack Wharton for her "privilege" on her 150th birthday seems chauvinistic and cruel—chauvinism is cruel—small-minded, perhaps even envious of her great gifts.

For years, Edith Wharton’s work was relegated to the dusty shelves of libraries and she was mentioned only in passing as a contemporary of Henry James. We now know better. She was better, richer and truer in many ways than James as a writer. And Franzen is far from her class as a writer; I use class differently here, of course, though the word has some relevance.

Shame on The New Yorker for not honoring Edith Wharton and publishing one of her stories in celebration. Instead, they published Franzen's odd review. What an introduction for a new generation of readers who have never read Wharton. How are they to know that Franzen is utterly wrong about her? She wrote with empathy about many other people less fortunate than herself. She was an aid worker during World War I. Her generosity, both material and emotional, were legend. Three of her novels are masterpieces: “The Custom of the Country,” “The House of Mirth,” and “The Age of Innocence.” She wrote in bed, and that was a luxury, but she also had a serious nervous breakdown and much sadness and struggle in her life. She never had children yet she adored children and wrote tenderly about them. One could go on and on. Franzen has no such empathy or vision. He is a cold writer caught in the web of his own narcissistic middle-American origins, and blinkered by them.

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