To the Editors:
Regretfully, James W. Tuttleton’s “The Feminist Takeover of Edith Wharton” (March 1989) was brought to my attention and part of me would like not to dignify this “mean-spirited and condescending attack” (as Tuttleton calls that of one of the women in this article) with a reply. However, since Tuttleton’s animosity was fueled to essay-writing force in large part by his attendance at a conference I co-directed as president of the Edith Wharton Society and editor of the Edith Wharton Newsletter, I feel obligated to counter his allegations. Moreover, by publishing his assertions in a non-academic journal, he knows general readers cannot assess his scholarship.

It would take another article to contest all his charges and readings, but I address what I see as two of his greatest sources of ire, the purported rescue by feminist scholars of Edith Wharton from the “neglect of the male literary establishment” and their appropriation of her life and fiction “to buttress the ideology of... feminism.”

The first charge frankly surprises me since Tuttleton, long a commentator on Wharton, should welcome all attention paid, and had he joined the Wharton Society when he was so invited he would know that it is not a “sorority of feminists” in the frivolous or exclusionary sense, although all the women critics he mentions by name (except the two researchers) are active members. But other long and active members from the pre-Seventies world of critics are RW. B. Lewis, Louis Auchincloss, Millicent Bell, Leon Edel, James Gargano, Richard Law-son, Margaret McDowell, Lyall Powers, and Adeline Tintner. The present president of the Wharton Society is a man and the bibliographer he cites as claiming that Wharton’s status as major writer becomes most evident in recent criticism is also male. What Tuttleton also refuses to acknowledge is that all this attention has not brought Wharton into the front ranks of writers yet. Application for official status within the Modern Language Association, which has thirty-nine male author literary societies and four women author groups, was denied in 1986. The reason given—Edith Wharton is not a major author.

More important than this bickering over who discovered Wharton and when is the issue of the meaning of her work. And here I find outrageous and almost ludicrous Tuttleton’s wholesale dismissal of all feminist attempts to read Wharton’s eventful life and complex fiction as in any way exposing and challenging the long-held restrictions of women’s lives. Actually, male critics such as Blake Nevius in 195 3 wrote that “there is a lurking feminism in Wharton’s brief” and R W. B. Lewis, whom Tuttleton places (not totally accurately) in his conservative corner, pressed that Wharton “dramatize[d] the condition of women, which usually meant the repression and entrapment of women, in the social worlds she lived in” and concluded that “the victimization of women continued to be an important theme in Edith Wharton’s fiction to the end.” Yet Tuttleton protests the centrality of the women’s question to Wharton’s narratives. Puzzlingly, many of Tuttleton’s own arguments, with their contradictions, spurious reasoning, and use of partially quoted evidence, could almost be added to the feminist cause. He himself first proclaims that “[Wharton’s] life and art are testaments to how the limitations of time and place can be transcended, and her victories were celebrated in strong and independent heroines.” (Any feminist would be glad to have written that observation.) But then he twists back to state “[t]his is not to suggest that she did not value the socially cohesive values of tradition and continuity especially in social relations.” Discussing The Age of Innocence, he contends that Wharton’s intentions were to show that “men suffer equally with women . . . especially in marriage, [in] such a limited social milieu.” But again he presses that by her conclusion Wharton sanctions a marriage of convenience “as a decent life.” Moreover, that these passionless arrangements with sexually innocent brides seem to have been abetted primarily by the women in society is supported by Tuttleton’s truncated citation from the text: “a ‘factitious purity’ that had been ‘cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what [Newland] wanted, what he had a right to ….’” Tuttleton of course ignores that this statement alone exposes that women appease and please what has been dictated by men. But most damaging to Tuttleton’s assertions that Wharton’s work can in no way “serve to buttress . . . an attack on men, their domination or cruelty” is Wharton’s completion of this insight: “in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow.”

Most tellingly omitted from his plea for Wharton’s social and sexual conservatism is the full range of themes and characters this modern woman writer exploits in her large and rich art. Although the ones he does mention—”the theme of the young woman’s ordeal [my italics] in landing ... a husband . . . and crucial instances of the superior woman entrapped in marriage to . . . [an] inferior”—are clearly women’s issues, Tuttleton fails even to mention the bolder ones. He fails to enumerate the instances of would-be rapists and dope addicts, cruel and repressive husbands, in “The Bunner Sisters,” The Fruit of the Tree, The House of Mirth, “The Lady Maid’s Bell,” “Kerfol,” Summer, The Mother’s Recompense, The Buccaneers; sexual repression in The House of Mirth, The Reef, and Ethan Frome; sex outside marriage, mistresses, consummated adultery, seductions and abandonements [sic] in The Reef, Summer, and The Gods Arrive; illegitimate pregnancies in Summer, The Old Maid, The Gods Arrive; incestuous implications in Summer, The Mother’s Recompense, Twilight Sleep, The Children; and finally the boldest of all, the graphic and erotic depiction of sexual foreplay itself, not merely between a man and woman but between father and daughter, in “The Beatrice Palmato Fragment.” These works Tuttleton realizes would prove harder to convert into what Wharton called George Eliot’s later weaker fiction, “hymns of respectability.”

Moreover, if Tuttleton were really interested in a full and open exchange over a women [sic] author’s concerns, he would have quoted the feminist critics who see woman’s plight in Wharton yet support some of his contentions. Wai-chee Dimock concludes: “Wharton’s critique [in The House of Mirth] ... is essentially an aristocratic critique, a critique from the standpoint of ‘early pieties’ and ‘inherited passions and loyalties.’” Analyzing the narcissism of the entire American culture in the same novel, Joan Lidoff posits that “[t]he primary motivations that determine the plot are not actions with or among men, but feelings of resentment and revenge among the women.” And Lidoff tests all actions against her belief that “marriage is more than a literal solution for Lily and the plot: it is a symbolic affirmation of maturity.” Even one of Tuttleton’s bete noirs [sic] among feminist literary critics, Elaine Showalter, claims that “[i]t is often overlooked that Wharton develops a whole cast of male characters in The House of Mirth whose dilemmas parallel those of the women.” And she too concludes that “the hope of continuity, rootedness and relatedness [are what] Lily finally comes to see as the central meaning of life.”

Even when Tuttleton resorts to Wharton’s essay writing in her French Ways and Their Meaning for statements of conservative ideals, he fails to mention her espousal in this work of the more equal relationships of men and women in French society, or despite some of her own reservations, the French culture’s acceptance of adultery. Wharton wrote: “[Since] love is not grave enough to form the basis for marriage [according to the French]... they allow it frankly and amply, the part it furtively and shabbily, but no less ubiquitously, plays in Puritan societies.”

What makes Tuttleton’s intolerance for the feminist interpretation of Wharton intolerable is his nasty, snickering, and condescending portrayal of all feminist theorists. He fails to discriminate among them and lumps them into one monolithic anti-social, anti-family, violently upheaving voice which threatens to alienate men and “make over our society in a female image.” Or worse he sets them in coffeehouses dreaming of “a Utopia ... of sexual . . . equality,” flexing their muscles in self-confessions, and boosting Ms. magazine as their political manifesto. Again, his own essay undermines these playground tactics. Frequenting cafés, thumbing through magazines, and plotting Utopias did not produce the formidable and varied writings of feminist thinkers that Tuttleton now imagines threatening Wharton and him.

But I should be as naïve as Tuttleton pretends about Wharton’s full output and feminist convictions if I really continue to assume that his intentions are open dialogue about literary interpretation, Wharton’s reputation, or even the question of women in society. When Tuttleton concludes his arguments by smearing all feminist literary positions with McCarthy-like tactics and right-wing rhetoric, calling their true purposes not literary or “new” but “political” in “the radical socialist egalitarianism of the Enlightenment and in the Marxist extrapolation,” then what has really been exposed is Tuttleton’s true purpose. All has been a thin disguise for espousal of his political ideology, for the propagation of his ultra-reactionary platform, with its investment in preservation, or if necessary re-entrenchment, of traditional arrangements that favor white male domination in sex and politics.

What infuriates me even more is not the hypocritical political bias of Tuttleton’s article but that it was he who wrote in an academic journal a persuasive diatribe against those professors who use literature and text not for “art and or aesthetics” but for “extra-linguistic [purposes],” which Tuttleton correctly read as “conversion of the mind of the student to the ideology of the theorist.” Tuttleton, a professor of American literature, protested that “[l]iberal democracy . . . cannot survive without the university’s pursuing a disinterested inquiry into the best that has been thought and said in the world.” I then applauded his aims. But my age of innocence is over, no house of mirth awaits. I now know “disinterested” in literary criticism to Tuttleton means a thin disguise for his misogynistic and ultra-conservative ideology. I now see that tyranny can come from the Right as well as the Left. And while I remain strongly committed to open and democratic literary and political discussions and means, each in its place, I shall better understand those who cry, “Allons, enfants.”

Annette Zilversmit
Professor of English
Long Island University
Brooklyn, NY

To the Editors:
In “The Feminist Takeover of Edith Wharton,” James W. Tuttleton discusses “The Shock of Non-Recognition” (TLS, December 16-22, 1988), my analysis of R W. B. Lewis’s treatment of the sources for his life of Wharton.

I doubt that impartial readers of my article share Mr. Tuttleton’s opinion of its tone and cogency, but for people who have not seen it I juxtapose a statement by him with the relevant passage in the article. He writes:

According to Ms. Mainwaring, she had no opportunity to read and correct the Paris chapters of Edith Wharton in page proof; hence, Lewis’s errors survived into the published biography and have propagated errors in subsequent Wharton criticism.

What I in fact wrote was very different:

Lewis asked if I would read his Paris chapters in manuscript. I agreed, and was expecting to receive them when instead I received the published book. The texture of those chapters is fairly represented by the samples given here. To deal with a given error and leave a viable phrase, passage, chapter would often have been impossible.

However, it is not Tuttleton’s inaccuracy that is at issue, but Lewis’s. And the point about Lewis’s errors is that they cannot be corrected in simple linear progression; they serve as bases for other errors, more complex, they riddle his versions of materials not provided by me, and they affect his interpretation of documents which call for sensitivity and insight.

To wonder why I waited so long to expose some of his errors is natural and reasonable. A footnote explaining the delay was deleted from the TLS article in the course of editing; I am glad of this opportunity to give the reasons.

The article is in its essentials a critique written in 1975. I had done research for Lewis throughout 1969-70, in principle working gratis half the time and being paid for the other half. Though I did not quit the job till September 1972,1 spent almost all of 1971 -72 writing a book on Turgenev (published in 1973), after which I began a book on Morton Fullerton, Wharton’s lover. The new book was “announced” in London and New York journals in the customary letter reporting authorization and requesting information.

In 1975 Lewis’s book appeared. It stunned people who knew the sources, especially Mary Pitlick in Washington and myself in Paris. Lewis’s praise of my work was well intentioned. But the work, largely done at my own initiative, had been arduous and scrupulous. To see it mangled was not amusing, and Lewis’s thanks implicated me in mistakes and distortions of his which would eventually be discovered and would be attributed to me.

I immediately wrote a critique setting forth the facts as I knew them. But I was persuaded by friends to withhold publication so that I could finish my own book and be undistracted by controversy. Insofar as that book overlapped Lewis’s, it would document a true narrative rather than merely attack a false one. To have it on record that I was not responsible for his errors, I sent copies of the critique to various people in France, the U.K., and the U.S.

I expected to finish my book in perhaps two years, but it was only in rough rough draft when, in 1977, work had to stop. Severe shingles and sequelae, a broken hip, and care of two ill and aged parents and disposal of their house after their deaths made it impossible for me to carry on sustained, demanding work. Though there was nothing I wanted more than to be able to get back to the book, I could not do so until the end of 1985.

I also returned to the critique, expanding some citations and updating references to writers. It was meant for the TLS; but in 1987, at Richard Howard’s insistence, I sent it (in a form somewhat different from the one now in print) to an editor of The New York Review of Books. It was ignored, as were letters of inquiry. By contrast, the editors of the TLS saw misrepresentation of data by an academic as an important issue and gave generously of their time and space.

I am very sorry that scholars have been misled by Lewis’s errors. My own work also suffered from a long delay that was beyond my control. Because I call one book written by a woman “incisive” and say that another will correct certain misconceptions, Tuttleton concludes that my article is part of a concerted feminist “turn” in Wharton criticism. I am a feminist in the measure that every rational modern man and woman must be a feminist; but if there is a “takeover” I am not associated with it, and if Tuttleton describes it fairly I agree with much of what he says. But surely any doctrinaire reading of history or literature is deplorable, whether feminist, anti-feminist, “leftist,” or conservative; and no “ideology” ennobles attacks which, ignoring the issues, rely on arguments ad hominem.

Marion Mainwaring
Boston, MA

James W. Tuttleton replies:
Professor Zilversmit’s letter wonderfully unmasks what is wrong with criticism in the academy today. It would be easy to answer it, point by point. But something more important has been disclosed to readers of The New Criterion.

From this utterly malignant ad hominem smear, readers are in a good position to see what it costs anyone nowadays—but especially the white male English professor—to question the race-class-gender ideology of left-wing “oppression studies”: unfounded accusations of hypocrisy, misogyny, racism, and ultra-conservative right-wing “tyranny” and of wanting “white male domination in sex and politics”—that is, I suppose, the sadistic re-institution of women as chattel. I am surprised that Zilversmit didn’t claim that I want to re-enslave blacks, bomb abortion clinics, and nuke the whales while I’m at it.

This is terrorist vilification, plain and simple, but radical blacks, feminists, and Marxists dish it out all the time—in faculty meetings, at conferences, and in what passes for “literary criticism.” It won’t work. A critic must always respect the literary evidence, even if the texts are not in harmony with her political sentiments.

I am pleased to hear that Ms. Mainwaring dissociates herself from the feminist takeover of Wharton studies, and that she deplores doctrinaire ad hominem criticism. And I stand corrected that it was the manuscript, not the page proofs, of Edith Wharton that she had no opportunity to see.