A Response to Jonathan Franzen: Edith Wharton Was Hard (But Not Impossible) to Like

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Responses to Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker article “A Rooting Interest: Edith Wharton and the problem of sympathy” are flying fast and furious. He claims Edith Wharton is just plain hard to like as a person – hard to sympathize with as he puts it – and after spending years in her company while writing her biography, I would have to agree. Her intelligence was downright intimidating. She didn’t suffer fools gladly and I wondered, more than once, if she would have suffered me if I’d had the chance to interview her. By the time my book was on its way to the printer’s, though, I cared for her deeply.

Wharton once observed that a person who was both kind and intelligent was such a rarity that a new word needed to be coined to describe the condition. She was keenly aware of her intelligence, of the fact that “the attitude of looking up [was] a strain on the muscles” of those around her. She seemed to assume that her lack of innate kindness (and the sympathy that kindness attracts) was a necessary trade-off for the gift of her mind. The connection between the two was apparent from the beginning: as a child, her mother accused her, in one breath, of having no heart and of using big words. She tried to substitute scrupulous rule-following for the kindness she realized she lacked but that just made her harder-edged than ever.

By the time she was an adult, she’d learned to accommodate as best she could. A friend suspected her of “preparing herself to be bored” when she walked into a room full of people and, as often as not, the preparation fell short. She could awe, she could impress, she could work frantically to try to right the problems of those she cared for, but she could not conjure up the simple, everyday kindness that might inspire others to care warmly for her. By the time her last illness struck, she stoically planed her funeral, assuming that those attending would go out to dinner, go home, and never give her another thought.

So, yes, she was difficult to like. But she knew she was difficult to like and the thought was wounding to her. It was the very vulnerability of knowing that she knew that finally made her human enough for me to feel sympathy with and to like…a lot.