Writing Wharton’s Wrong

by Lev Raphael (Okemos, MI)

Singing about marriage, two of Steven Sondheim’s characters in A Little Night Music condemn it for inflicting so much pain: “Every day a little death….every day a little sting.”

I felt a bit like like that in college, not because I was married, but because I was an English major.  Time after time, I’d find a book I was reading and enjoying stung me because of an anti-Semitic portrait.  There was Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby, a Jewish antiques dealer in The Golden Bowl, and many more, too many to remember, but I met them at every turn in English and American books.

I understood that the authors were products of their society and a western culture that was ingrained with Jew-hatred, but it still pushed me out of the book the way a plot implausibility can make you lose faith in a movie.  I don’t remember ever not finishing a book that had a Jewish stereotype or slur, but I’d continue reading under a cloud.

Perhaps most disturbing of all for me was Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.  I had first read her Pulitzer-prize winner The Age of Innocence and fallen in love, so I worked my way devotedly through her oeuvre in paperback.  The House of Mirth was my favorite then and still is now.  It’s a stunning book about the vanity of human wishes and the damage a superficial culture can inflict on those who won’t play by its rules. Reading it for the first time in my senior year at Fordham, I was in awe: Wharton displayed an uncanny understanding of the power of shame to control behavior and crush hope.  The novel was so beautifully written, so witty and sharp-edged, such an indictment of Gilded Age New York.

And very unpleasant to read–as a Jew.  Every time the Jewish financier Simon Rosedale appeared in the book, I winced.  He was showy, loud, vulgar, spoke bad English, and came off as a buffoon when he wasn’t insidious.  Gentiles loved his money but rightly despised him, and his eye was always on the main chance.

Wharton actually pays special attention to his eyes the first time he appears, telling us he had “small sidelong eyes which gave him the air of appraising people as if they were bric-a-brac.”  How ironic that Wharton’s contempt for Jews is projected onto him, turning him into someone for whom others are merely items to assess and purchase.

Simon Rosedale does show a less mercenary side, but it’s always connected to his fierce drive to get ahead by any means necessary.  In the same way that assertive women today are seen by some people as bitches, Rosedale wanting success the way any other American might is condemned as vulgar and almost disgusting.

I hadn’t written much fiction of my own at the time, but in the following years, Jewish themes would predominate.  I often found myself returning to writers who inspired me in college, writers like Henry James and Lawrence Durrell who were hardly philo-Semitic, and yes, Edith Wharton.  The sting became duller each time, but it never went away.

And then a few years ago, perhaps because I’d been reading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern again, an idea hit me.  What if I did a Stoppard?  What if I told Edith Wharton’s story in The House of Mirth from Rosedale’s perspective, entered his mind, his past, his dreams, his fears? What if I made him a person, in other words, and not a stereotype?

Rosedale in Love was born, and it bore me along with it on massive amounts of reading about The Gilded Age and turn-of-the-century New York, all of it deepening my appreciation of what Wharton had accomplished in the rest of her novel.  And helping me let go of my regrets for the ways in which Wharton had lost the chance to make Simon Rosedale a real human being.

Because she left me a whole book to write.

Lev Raphael is a prize-winning pioneer in American-Jewish literature, and has been publishing fiction and nonfiction about the Second Generation since 1978. The author of twenty books which have been translated into almost a dozen languages, he has spoken about his work in hundreds of venues on three continents. His fiction and creative non-fiction are widely taught at American colleges and universities, and his work has been the subject of numerous academic articles, papers, and books. A former public radio book show host and newspaper columnist, he can be found on the web at http://www.levraphael.comHe blogs on books for The Huffington Post and reviews for the on-line literary magazine Bibliobuffet.com.

You can check out his latest book, the Jewish historical novel Rosedale in Love, at http://www.levraphael.com/rosedale.html

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5 Comments

Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity, Jewish writing

5 responses to “Writing Wharton’s Wrong

  1. Lev, what a GREAT revelation of the beginnings of Rosedale in Love! As an avid Henry James fan, and a liberal Catholic with a Jewish husband, I have long been troubled at the wince-inducing anti-Semitism in several of his stories and books. Like you, I have explained it to myself as “the product of his times” but still…. How wonderful that Wharton’s narrow social bias provided you with the inspiration to write this novel! I am waiting to purchase it at the Historical Novel Society in June in San Diego–and only regret that you’re unable to make there in person to sign it! Thanks for this post, I really appreciate your candor and the generosity of spirit! maryburns, author of J-The Woman Who Wrote the Bible

  2. Heidi

    To me, finding out that a favorite author is anti-semitic (or racist, or misogynistic, or hateful toward any group) is like learning that a best friend feels that way. It is profoundly disappointing, and it makes you doubt your very relationship with that person.
    I’m so glad you’re giving Rosedale a chance to right a wrong!

  3. Heidi, disappointment is a good way to put it, since writers become our friends.
    Mary, James is another problematic figure, though he never wrote a character
    who struck me as forcibly as Wharton’s did. Have fun at the conference!

  4. Wendy

    I Googled “Edith Wharton anti-semitic” and this came up. It’s because I just started reading “The House of Mirth” after reading “Ethan Frome”, “The Age of Innocence” and “The Custom of the Country” back-to-back. I felt that Wharton had become one of my all-time favorite writers…..then suddenly…..so few pages into this work and WOAH! What is THIS? I am a Latina woman, and I found this very offensive. I am not Jewish by ethnicity nor religion but I could not help but feel so disappointed and pretty much disgusted. I will be glad to look into your re-telling of the character’s tale but right now I’m not sure I can even finish the book.

  5. Becky

    I just finished your novel “Rosedale in Love”, and was so glad that I was able to find it online.

    “House of Mirth” has been one of my favorite novels for almost 15 years. I’ve read it at least 5 times, and I never weary of it.

    I agree that Wharton’s portrayal of Rosedale is very problematic, and endemic to her class and social station. BUT it has always interested me that, almost in spite of herself, Rosedale becomes increasingly sympathetic and three-dimensional as the novel progresses. By the final few chapters, I found him to be much more human than Selden ever was. In fact, Rosedale turns out to be a much truer and more loyal friend to Lily than Selden ever did. From the very beginning of the novel, Selden literally sets my teeth on edge. For the life of me, I could never find what Lily saw in him, or why she seemed to think he was so superior, not only to other men, but to her. The way I perceived this “paragon” was exactly how Rosedale and Florence describe him in your book. I laughed at loud whenever you wrote about Selden – because you caught his personality and “type” with such perfection – lazy, dabbling in law, incapable of strong emotion (until the very end), hypocritical and judgmental. He is either absent when Lily needs him the most, or he is lecturing her about her defects of character even though he has plenty of his own.
    Rosedale, unlike Selden, grew as a character during the book, and by the end, apart from Gerty, is the closest Lily has to a true friend – she just can’t get past her own prejudices and moral scruples about the letters. I’m not kidding when I say that I was always pulling for Rosedale during the first time I read the book, and thought that he always represented Lily’s best chance at the life she thought she wanted, but more importantly, her best chance at love.
    I loved reading about the events from Rosedale’s POV, and am so glad that you finally gave him a voice – and his due.

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