February 17, 2019

The Time Machine of Literature

“Not long ago, during an Amtrak ride, I met a college student who told me he was a fiction writer. I asked him what he’d been writing and reading, and he said that he was writing a novel about time travel, and that he was reading — well, he had been reading Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth,” but after about 50 pages, he said, he’d tossed it into the trash.

“The House of Mirth,” which was published in 1905, describes the efforts of a young woman named Lily Bart to find an acceptable husband. The student explained that he had been sailing along until he came to a description of one of Lily’s suitors, Simon Rosedale: “a plump rosy man of the blond Jewish type, with … small sidelong eyes which gave him the air of appraising people as if they were bric-a-brac.” At that point, the student said, he lost sympathy not only for Lily, but for the novel as a whole.

It would have done no good for me to lecture him about the difference between a character’s point of view and the author’s. Whenever Rosedale appears in the novel, Wharton describes his repulsiveness with such gusto it’s clear that she isn’t just describing Lily’s feelings; she’s describing her own.

Wharton’s anti-Semitism, the student said, filled him with rage. “I don’t want anyone like that in my house,” he said.

Anyone who’s taught literature in a college or university lately has probably had a conversation like this. The passion for social justice that many students feel — a beautiful passion for social justice — leads them to be keenly aware of the distasteful opinions held by many writers of earlier generations. When they discover the anti-Semitism of Wharton or Dostoyevsky, the racism of Walt Whitman or Joseph Conrad, the sexism of Ernest Hemingway or Richard Wright, the class snobbery of E. M. Forster or Virginia Woolf, not all of them express their repugnance as dramatically as the student I talked to, but many perform an equivalent exercise, dumping the offending books into a trash basket in their imaginations.”

Read more

JJ Editor's Daily Picks

"Have world leaders really got the will to bring peace to Yemen? We hear much about Yemen’s crisis, but far less about the hypocrisy of states fuelling the very conflict they condemn."

"No poll so far in our database has tested Trump against the relatively unknown Weld... Indeed, Weld seems like one of the weakest candidates that anti-Trump Republicans could put up in a national campaign. "

"An initiative by the mayor of Tiberias for the municipality to help provide public transportation on the Sabbath has caused the issue of the social status quo to the forefront of public discussion."

"Like “30 Rock,” “Kimmy Schmidt” obviously slanted leftward, but most always exhibited a similar eagerness to skewer politics more generally than just the GOP."

"Yes, we’re all overwhelmed with email. One recent survey suggested that the average American’s inbox has 199 unread messages. But volume isn’t an excuse for not replying."

"... platforms now have a stranglehold over publishers who, individually and even as a group, have little-to-no bargaining power when it comes to algorithmic changes, ad rates, and much else."

"[There's] a subgenre known as National Socialist black metal, which espouses neo-Nazi views and has been described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as aiming to recruit youth to white-supremacist causes."

"“The Ideas That Made America” by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen is an anomaly in the genre. Its brevity is a point of pride, yet it aspires to do a little of everything."

"My wish is to die in my own bed, cared for by people I love—clean, comfortable and relatively free from pain. I hope to have time to say my goodbyes and give my final blessings."

"A diet for fast weight loss is a pipe dream. Many of us want to lose weight without making permanent changes, because we view thinness instead of health as a success."

"Opportunity casts a long shadow over all subsequent Mars rovers, setting a gold standard of JPL engineering. Customized versions of its mobility software are used on the rovers Curiosity and upcoming Mars 2020."

"Biblical scholarship has deepened our understanding of the Torah and at the same time challenges us to consider the implications of our declaring the Torah to be emet. What is emet and what does it mean to say that the Torah is emet?"