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My Favorite Anti-Semite: Edith Wharton

There’s a barbarian at every gate

Anne Roiphe
August 10, 2018
Image: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University/Wikipedia
Edith Wharton, taken by E. F. Cooper, at Newport, Rhode Island.Image: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University/Wikipedia
Image: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University/Wikipedia
Edith Wharton, taken by E. F. Cooper, at Newport, Rhode Island.Image: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University/Wikipedia
Editor’s note: My Favorite Anti-Semite: an occasional series of tributes to writers, artists, philosophers, and others who hate us and to why we still find value in their work. 

You enter a radiant garden. The sign on the gate says “English Literature–Please Pick the Roses.” And that is when you discover that the roses have thorns and the thorns are aimed at you, your eager hands, your vulnerable heart. Of course you don’t stay surprised. You wince and you ignore and you hold in your arms a bouquet that deepens your knowledge of human nature, that tells you how it was in decades past, that helps you to think and causes you to feel almost English, almost rich in wisdom and deep and knowing. Also, you are bleeding a little—that is, if you are Jewish.

No sense in complaining at dead writers. No sense in asking writers to avoid the prejudices and cruelties of their time. Literature is not politically correct. It is not polite. It is not without moral hopes but it often falls short as even the most gifted of writers spill out the untrue—truisms of their times, the prejudices and fears of their readers, the blighted landscape of common belief. Mostly they echo the words of those around them. Mostly they use the Jews in their stories to represent all that is ugly and greedy and disrupting in their worlds. Our persons, our religion, our history are transformed into a nasty fable as familiar as the sound of reindeers landing, bells tinkling, on the roof on Christmas Eve. It hurts. It is not all right. In this post-Holocaust world it gives the Jewish reader, it even gives me, a shiver down my spine. I don’t ignore that shiver. I don’t stop reading either.

Henry James wrote the most vile portrait of Jews on the Lower East Side. He found them ugly and loud and smelling of foods that made him nauseated and he hated their accents and their voices and wished them drowned in the sea they had so hopefully crossed. He felt they had trespassed on his neighborhood and spoiled its tranquility. He said all this in print. And his friend and literary colleague Edith Wharton seemed to share his opinion of Jews, or at least so I thought until I re-read House of Mirth recently and was startled to find the issue far more complex than I had assumed in my salad days when I was a girl who would defend Ezra Pound till the last man at the bar had staggered out the door.

House of Mirth is one of those novels in which a mirror is held up to the face of American society as the 19th century enters the 20th. Carriages were moving up and down Fifth Avenue all the way up to 14th Street. Grand houses served opulent post-opera dinners to a social elite stewing in its own arrogance and limitations, constricted by rigid codes of behavior and imaginations pickled in brine. The good Christian faces reflected in that mirror are not so good at all, and hold strong opinions against outsiders and newcomers. The last two categories include by definition those Jews who stood at the edge of society, hoping for doors to open, making spectacles of themselves in their eagerness to join those who did not want them.

Edith Wharton deemed them barbarians at the gate. In House of Mirth she introduces a Jewish character, Simon Rosedale, “some little Jew who had been served up at the social board and been rejected a dozen times.” Rosedale is pushing his way into a world that doesn’t want him. A member of that society says, “Rosedale’s going to be rich enough to buy us all out one of these days. The man is mad to know the people who don’t want to know him. He is fat and shiny and has a sloppy manner. The people who are clever enough to be civil to him will make a mighty good thing of it.”

Rosedale attempts to befriend Lily Bart, our poor heroine who has hopes of marrying well that fail despite her best efforts and in time bring her to an early death, isolated, penniless, loveless, in a boarding house, with no one to rescue her, or almost no one.

It is here in the last pages of this novel that matters turn strange and defy the reader’s expectation. At the beginning of the book Simon Rosedale sees Lily indiscreetly leaving a young man’s apartment. In the closing pages of the novel Simon Rosedale, the social-climbing ugly Jew, sees Lily in the street, appearing sick and takes her for tea. He sees that she is an outcast, has no resources of her own and is ill. And now, unlike the others in her circle, he does not withdraw from her, but offers to marry her and make her safe and comfortable ever after. He does not expect great benefit from her compromised social status. She thinks he might want her to make up with her enemy from within the upper strata. But other than that, she sees that he wants most sincerely to take care of her. He says, “if only you’d let me, I’d set you up over them all. I’d put you where you could wipe your feet on ’em!”

Of course she can’t accept him. But Wharton, who has frequently in other places said vicious things about Jews, allows this character a moment of humanity that is denied to the Christian residents of the social world she is pillorying. No other character in the novel, including Selden, the not-rich-enough lawyer she has loved or could love, was so ready to protect her and save her. Odd.

Rosedale appears in the opening pages of the novel as the social-climbing revolting Jew and in the last pages of the novel as the only man in the novel with honor and kindness in his heart. So what are we to think?

Wharton’s anti-Semitism is not as simple or as brutal as it seems. More than social-climbing Jews she despises the stuffy and stupid and conventional people who make up New York society. They are the real objects of her scorn and her moral outrage. They are the villains in the novel, not Rosedale who wants what he can never have—acceptance. Wharton’s anti-Semitism serves in this book as another way of exposing the actual moral poverty in the class of people she is mocking so bitterly.

So one has to read closely and carefully when the word Jew appears on the page. It is easy to confuse the matter because our souls are raw from centuries of insult and because we know that Jew-hating is as common in the parlors of the very rich as in the bar rooms of the less favored. It is also easy enough for any writer to make of Jews a metaphor for all that is unlovely, alien, and threatening in their own world, even if the Jewish reader does not think of himself or herself as part of a metaphor.

Wharton is reported to have said on her deathbed that she disliked the Jews because of the Crucifixion. Maybe she said that but I am not sure. She disliked Jews because they were not part of the social world that she disliked even more. She disliked Jews because they represented all that her social caste did not—energy, new wealth. They were newcomers in a slice of America that did not like newness. They were pushing into neighborhoods and businesses that had recently belonged exclusively to her kind, the kind she ridiculed, the kind she knew were stifling the very life out of men and women, and were conniving, cruel, faithless, avaricious, and worst of all boring and unimaginative.

It isn’t Rosedale who put Lily in debt and began the set of events that fatally compromised her life in the only society she knew. Rosedale made an honest offer of marriage. The loan came from a shark well situated within the “good society” that Edith Wharton knew was not so good at all, which was her point in writing her book in the first place.

Rosedale may have seemed like the fool in the tale but he was not. He made more and more money. He did not lose his capacity to feel for others or to notice when a tragedy was coming. His energy was enormous. Wharton respects the way Rosedale plays his social game. She says, “He was prompt to perceive that the general dullness of the season afforded him an unusual opportunity to shine and he set about with patient industry to form a background for his growing glory.”

Today, we can fault Rosedale for his wish to join such a world and to tolerate its insults and suffer its rebuffs. Today, we can dislike Rosedale because he didn’t use his intelligence to become a heart surgeon or to write books of Jewish history with a proper feeling, liberal humanitarian slant. But the story of Jews in America is tightly bound up with business success and business opportunity. The streets were most certainly not paved with gold but gold was there for the finding and raw capitalism was not so concerned about crucifixions as it was about deeds and stock certificates. A clever robber baron was always chairman of the ball.

Jews were not really welcome, not as Jews, but it hardly gave them pause. The blue book of society names may not have included theirs but they had their own elite, their own parties, their own dancing schools and soon enough they would imitate with skill the snobbisms of their Christian counterparts. Let no one forget that Mount Sinai Hospital, which was founded for German Jewish doctors who were not acceptable at other hospitals around town, soon refused to accept into their ranks the newly minted Russian doctors, sons of Yiddish-speaking parents, newer arrivals in America—and so Beth Israel Hospital was created to serve a needy community that required kosher food, which the uptown German Jews would never offer them. In Westchester there were golf clubs for Jews of German parentage and other clubs for Jews of Russian or Polish parentage.

The need to clamber up the social ladder or to push someone else down it is as human as the need to eat and defecate. This is not to excuse the sins of snobbism and exclusivity or anti-Semitism in any form, but simply to observe that it is human to want to feel superior to someone. There is a barbarian at every gate, and you don’t want him marrying your daughter.

Wharton did not like her Christians for the most part, the wealthy ones who had estates in Rhinebeck and surrounding county. In Age of Innocence, Wharton mocks her characters’ boring habits, their lack of imagination, their rigid rules of what is and what is not acceptable. She lets Newland Archer, a man who might have been decent enough, lose his spark, his joy, his life, as he does what was expected of him to do: obey the social rules, written down in the life blood of the members of his club.

In that context Rosedale survives Wharton’s pages with his heart intact. His values may not pass today’s muster. But he would have saved Lily Bart if he could and not because at that point she could do much for him, but because she was so frail, so in need, so trod upon by those without half her soul or (only slightly compromised) decency. Certainly he is my favorite character in the book.

So maybe the secret to reading while Jewish is to look at what is being said about the other characters, too. We all know that the king’s fool is really the king in his better voice. It was the greed of his two older daughters that did him in. Cordelia did not die because of the Jews. Othello went mad with jealousy and murdered the love of his life. If he were Jewish instead of Moorish he might have kept his eye on his trading ships and taken Desdemona on an expensive cruise instead of ending her life so brutally.

English literature uses the Jew as a shorthand way of attacking greed and financial inequality. It is not fair. It is not just. But in the end, the false pride, the lax morality, the cruelties that colored orphans’ lives, the lack of adequate food, the need to steal—these are not Jewish faults but rather the result of the Christian church and the Christian state, and a Christian social order. It was not Jewish money, not English Jewish money or American Jewish money, that built an empire on the backs of natives of India, Africa, Australia, Mexico, Peru, and stripped the mines in Appalachia or in the Congo, and sent human beings in chains to work in other people’s fields and kitchens.

So when we read in fine books about Jewish veniality, or Jewish coarseness we can read those words as a stumbling attempt to protect against the knowledge of the sins of the Christian world in all its dominant glory. Compared to the wounds inflicted by the kings and queens, the courts, the financiers of Europe, on the peoples of the world, the social ineptness of one Simon Rosedale seems rather inconsequential.

Which is not to say I didn’t cry for Lily Bart at the end of the House of Mirth. Thank you, Edith Wharton, almost.

Anne Roiphe is a novelist and a journalist.