This article refers to Brian Morton’s essay, ‘Virginia Woolf? Snob! Richard Wright? Sexist! Dostoyevsky? Anti-Semite!’, published in the New York Times Book Review on January 8, 2019.
Five years ago, I watched Lily Bart die, and I was glad to do it.
Edith Wharton’s ‘The House of Mirth’ was a joyless slog and Marie Kondo would be thrilled to know that I offloaded my copy the moment I slammed it shut.
I had to finish it, you see, because I was reading it for a graduate English class about writing from the period and the professor obviously hadn’t read Wharton’s book in a long time.
While I appreciated Wharton’s use of Lily Bart to provide insight into the constraints of turn of the century patriarchy, I ultimately found it difficult to muster up 329 pages’ worth of sympathy for a wealthy aristocrat spoiled for choice with viable suitors. It’s ‘Mo Money Mo Problems’ without the snappy writing or the Kelly Price hook and it’s not my cup of Earl Grey. For my woebegone epics of love, loss, and early feminist politics, I far preferred George Eliot, whose ‘Mill On the Floss’ managed to weave in a thorough and nuanced critique of class and capitalism that appeased my budding socialist leanings.
I’m not sure what Sarah Lawrence professor Brian Morton would have to say about me if he met me on a train. After all, I did finish the thing, unlike the young student in his recent New York Times Book Review article, ‘Virginia Woolf? Snob! Richard Wright? Sexist! Dostoyevsky? Anti-Semite!’. In it, Morton meets a college-age writer on a train car and takes him to task for tossing Wharton’s book from his home after encountering what the young man thought to be an intolerable amount of antisemitism. Morton goes on to imagine the state of academic literature if students with a similar ‘passion for social justice’ had their way, discarding every old book with traces of antisemitism, classism, racism, or sexism. He uses the great authors of the Western canon (all but one he lists are white, and all but two are men) to construct a figurative time machine, which transports the reader to the past, whereas students like our traveler have it the other way around.
‘I think we’d all be better readers if we realized that it isn’t the writer who’s the time traveler. It’s the reader. When we pick up an old novel, we’re not bringing the novelist into our world and deciding whether he or she is enlightened enough to belong here; we’re journeying into the novelist’s world and taking a look around.’
The idea seems to be that the canonical works of Western literature are so indispensable that the reader must either suffer through their dated prejudices or suffer the greater consequence of not knowing whatever else it is they have to say. There is a lot of trouble with this line of thinking.
The trouble with establishing a literary canon at all, no matter the content, is that, too often, it cultivates an unexamined, self-affirming complacency. Morton suggests that Wharton’s antisemitism is simply a misfortune that we must endure if we are to learn from her ‘astonishingly well-written sentences’, as if a Jew has never written a great sentence. Canons can be a dangerous thing in the hands of men like Morton, who insist on their supremacy in spite of massive and sometimes dangerous shortcomings. On the contrary, if we are to have a ‘canon’ at all, we must always ask what that particular canon achieves, and we must then ask if something else could not achieve this, and perhaps achieve it better.
But Morton’s logic further implies a troublingly totalitarian control not only over what of the canon may be challenged, but how it may be challenged. Had the young traveler taken issue with Morton’s claim that Wharton’s sentences are ‘astonishing’, or her criticism of ‘the cruelties of her historical moment’, or her ‘subtle sense of how moral strength and weakness coexist in each of us’, would Morton have engaged him then? What, in Morton’s mind, constitutes a valid literary critique? In the intellectual match over which Morton presides, racism, of all things, falls outside the bounds of critical fair play. Why is this?
Morton argues that this is because the reader is meant to time travel backward, rather than the author time traveling forward and all that, and that we’ve all ‘misunderstood’ this fundamental relationship. But if we are not meant to judge a book by our own tastes, experiences, and values, by what are we meant to judge it? If a book offends us, for any reason from its dull plodding to its blatant racism, may we not put it down? Surely there are other places where we might find an ‘astonishing’ sentence.
Morton himself is happy enough to bring Wharton into the present when it suits him, noting that she was ‘ahead of her time’ in her ‘awareness of how women of her era were suffocated by the social roles imposed on them’. Why then cry foul when her racism is brought into play?
I suspect it is because Wharton’s racism makes her unexceptional. The canon must be exceptional. This, above all other criteria, is what makes it canon. The canon is always threatened by its mundanity, and Wharton’s racism is mundane. It is old and, though certainly not ubiquitous, altogether common. But mundanity, in Morton’s article, goes by another name: ‘context’. By calling it ‘context’, we are to disregard the troubling parts of Wharton’s book simply as products of their time, and, instead, focus on what it is that separates Wharton from her contemporaries, which, as Morton would have it, is her literary prowess.
The trouble here is that we are being told to take Wharton’s antisemitism for granted. With a flick of the wrist and a roll of the eyes, we are to move along, as if everyone was doing it (they weren’t), and that, in any event, that would somehow make it okay (it wouldn’t).
To Morton, the racism of Wharton’s time is, like Wharton’s literary supremacy, an unimpeachable fact, and the young bibliophile who thinks otherwise is, consequently, missing the point. This view is a shockingly nimble balance of over-cynicism about the past (was there no writer alive who didn’t hate Jews?) and over-optimism about the present. By dismissing Wharton’s antisemitism as ‘historical context’, we run the risk of forgetting that antisemitism is not simply historical; it is current, as a moment’s reflection on recent events would confirm.
Must the young reader endure Wharton’s antisemitism simply because it is older, as if bigotry grows more harmless with age? Or because the book’s literary merits are to be measured with more value than its racist content? Or is it something more sinister? Is it because Morton’s (literary, academic, ‘rational’) experience of Wharton’s sentences are to be measured with more value that the student’s (personal, emotional, ‘irrational’) experience of her racism?
I don’t know if Morton’s young student is Jewish. Morton does not say, because he did not bother to ask. But, either way, Morton’s dismissal of the young man’s concerns has its roots in academia’s troubling history. Morton and his prioritization of rational analysis over other forms of critique is a product of an Academy which has built itself on a history of antisemitism, racism, misogyny, and classism. The tenets of the Academy are upheld, in part, by restricting and controlling the kinds of critical responses it deems valid. When personal, emotional objections like the train-traveling student’s fall outside the bounds of validity, they are dismissed. Ironically, the Academy cherishes, with its unemotional intellect, works which depict the deepest resonances of human emotion. May students not respond to those works with that same emotion?
When I came through the Academy, we were taught the New Critical method of separating the art from the artist. Analysis of a text must reject biographical and historical context and sustain itself on the text and the text alone. The trouble here is that the distinction between art and artist is not always clear, as Morton himself describes: ‘Whenever Rosedale appears in [‘The House of Mirth’], Wharton describes his repulsiveness with such gusto it’s clear that she isn’t just describing Lily’s feelings; she’s describing her own.’ However, Morton neglects to consider the fact that separating the art from the artist is, ironically, a deeply personal affair (as the #MeToo movement has played out over and over again). If we are to have any respect at all for each other, we as readers must be left to determine for ourselves what we will and will not separate.
This separation was not always the fashion in literary circles, and it is becoming increasingly less so. Morton, however, wants it both ways. At once, the young passenger is meant to relinquish Conrad’s racism, Hemingway’s sexism, and Wharton’s antisemitism to the annals of history in order to better appreciate their sentence structure. But he is also meant to take into context the fact that their bigotry was, apparently, all the rage; Morton refers to their bigotry in summary as ‘the prejudices of their age’.
Morton, being a white male professor at a prestigious liberal arts college, is particularly free from the harm of his canon’s rampant misogyny, racism, and classism. Unfortunately, Morton doesn’t pause to meditate on why it might be that a man in his position feels so flippant about oppressions he has not endured. Nor does he engage with the difficult fact that his brand of thinking-over-feeling criticism, paired with his desire to dictate and control the acceptable forms of critique, are products of an academic establishment whose foundation was built upon the prejudices of Wharton’s age and the ages before it.
Morton doesn’t see the mote in his eye (to borrow his phrase). Instead, Morton sees a trend. He writes, ‘Anyone who’s taught literature in a college or university lately has probably had a conversation like this.’ But this trend is not new, and it is not a trend. Antisemitism has always been offensive. Racism, sexism, and classism have always been offensive. The difference is that the Academy is finally, after honest-to-god centuries, beginning to admit the types of people who these prejudices offend, harm, and kill. Finally, (though far too slowly), colleges and universities are just now starting to become the types of environments in which marginalized people feel safer expressing their discomfort, dissatisfaction, and anger with a canon that considers them to be of the wrong sex, race, or class. This is unequivocally a good thing.
‘If we were to sign up for a trip to the New York of 1905,’ Morton imagines, ‘we’d understand, even before buying our tickets, that we were visiting a place where people’s attitudes were very different from ours. […] Knowing all this before we went back in time, met Wharton and discovered that some of her opinions were abhorrent, we’d be prepared. We wouldn’t be outraged or shocked. Instead, we’d probably be curious.’
Does Morton realize that many of his students wouldn’t buy a ticket in the first place? That doing so might be flat-out fatal? What is a historical curiosity for Morton is a dangerous everyday reality for others.
And there, as an old racist once wrote, is the rub. Perhaps the most disappointing (and telling) thing about Morton’s article is that he asks the student to extend a level of empathy, context, and understanding to Lily Bart that Morton himself does not extend to his young trainmate. ‘If we arm ourselves with a little bit of knowledge and a little bit of curiosity,’ Morton writes, ‘we’ll be able to see the writers of the past more clearly when we visit them, and see ourselves more clearly when we get back.’ But what about the young writers of the present? In his story of the student on the train, Morton misses an opportunity to connect, across generations and cultures, with someone whose experiences he does not understand. Instead of asking, ‘What role has antisemitism played in your life?’, ‘How did it feel when you read that passage?’, ‘How do we reconcile progressivism in some areas with regressivism in others?’, Morton extrapolates a superficial narrative of generational naivety, trendy knee-jerkism, and social justice gone too far. What Morton fails to see is that it is he, not his young companion, who has failed to learn the lessons of his books.
In his final paragraph, Morton imagines what it would be like to visit Wharton, Conrad, and Hemingway in their own time, and understand ‘that in their limited ways…they…were trying to make the world more human, just as we, in our own limited ways, are also trying to do.’ If only Morton would have visited this young writer in his.