By Ginger Mayo
I created this post as a response to my friend Olivia’s doubts on a New Yorker article she read. As a girl, I’m naturally inclined to read into criticisms that seem focused on superficial details of female artists. I find female writers are often simplified to meet a certain symbol, which often neglects to recognize the complexities and depth of their works. Much to my chagrin, Alex Ross’ analysis of Wharton felt angry and invasive – it stirred an agitation in me, because yet again I read an article desperately trying to discount the success of a woman.
Ross begins his piece by stating that Wharton came from nothing but the highest privilege. He laments her extravagant spending, her “chauffeured” rides around Europe and her inability to socialize with other women of or below her class. He criticizes her distaste for America, painting Wharton as the epitome of snobbery. He even uses the phrase “…the kind of lady…” to reference Wharton, who that got upset at a store manager – as if to chuckle with all his comrades about those pesky females who are so darn picky. Ross continues to offend; starting his paragraph by stating her unattractiveness was a great asset in brewing sympathy. He continues to lambaste her “sexual ignorance”, which “squarely” resulted in the deterioration of her marriage. He fails to place any blame on the unfaithful and embezzling husband, going so far as to say that his actions were prompted by Wharton’s rejection of America.
Ross does not stop. He goes so far as saying that she “…only had sexual relations with one other man…”, and even criticizes the validity of the relation, revealing the man was bisexual. How ironic, that a female having more than one sexual relation was at the time considered flabbergasting? But Ross stands firm, disapproving of Wharton’s coldness and unimpressionable attitude. He continues, scribbling paragraphs that reduce Wharton’s father’s financial downfall to little more than too much pressure from the women in his life. And of course, he just has to compare Wharton to a male peer (Henry James), because god forbid Wharton or any other female artist could stand alone without a male counterpart.
In his analysis of Lilly Bart (House of Mirth), he completely bypasses the complexity of Lilly’s situation, both personally and externally. Ross blankly states she’s the “wrong kind of party girl,” without considering that Lilly’s choices were always limited by the patriarchal society she lived in. How superficial to assume that Lilly’s role was to act as “thorough punishment of the pretty girl she (Wharton) couldn’t be”? Within itself, Ross’ insistence of Wharton’s complete “isolation” and “misfit” behavior reinforces the stereotypes he is claiming to deconstruct – that her inability to be sexually desirable and compatible on a social scale, she was somehow an isolated and sympathetic soul.
What angers me most about this article, is the rampant double standard in literature analysis. Isolation and misdemeanor is often sought out in male writers – Kerouac’s explicit drug and sex escapades are deemed iconic, while Plath’s poems on domesticity are considered basic. Wharton’s personal life did not dictate the characterization of her female characters. I certainly don’t believe she used her own frustrations of not meeting patriarchal beauty standards as the main motive her works. I believe her connections were more complex, relating to the growth of capitalism and the recession of naturalism. Not to mention her upbringing that drew her across Europe, fostering a special connection to the continent.
The article seems to be a weakly disguised stab at Wharton’s success. Too often do I read essays upon essays, trying to explain all the flaws behind the successful woman. Whether it is her lack of sexual appeal, her coldness, her poor motherhood – there is constantly an aspect of female identity that is torn down, where critics place their triumphant “Aha! She can’t have it all!”. I fail to see this in the criticism of male artists – too often I feel their negative qualities are glamorized, or worse, their success is attributed to those qualities.
While i can’t comment too much on the actual examination of her other works, I too found the article to be quite disturbing. I feel that female artists are demanded to have a myriad of identities, but once they assume them, are deemed false or inauthentic. It feels like a relentless struggle for female artists to be recognized simply for what they produce, rather than who they are and what relationship they have with society.