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Rewriting Edith Wharton’s Jew

Edith Wharton didn’t think F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was a perfect book, and she told him so. But his anti-Semitic portrait of Meyer Wolfsheim, now that was perfect, even “masterly.”

What did Wharton know from Jews?  Well, over a decade before she’d created her own “perfect” Jew Simon Rosedale in her bestseller The House of Mirth.  Rosedale is pure stereotype: rich, unctuous, vulgar, shifty-eyed, and beneath contempt, even though people hope he’ll give them stock market tips so they can get rich, too.

Rosedale’s portrait has nagged at me for years because The House of Mirth is  one of my favorite Gilded Age novels.  It’s witty, beautifully written, and devastatingly honest about a New York that was drowning in wealth, crazed with pleasure, and addicted to conspicuous consumption.  Sound familiar?

I’ve also never read such a fierce exploration of the power of shame in fiction. Scandal-plagued, poor Lily Bart is completely dependent on rich friends who take advantage of her any way they can.  One even uses her as a beard for an affair and then tosses her overboard almost literally, turning her into a social pariah in New York.  Ironic that Wharton could explore shame so deftly in a novel that shamed me because of its  Jew-hatred.

I suppose I could have forgotten The House of Mirth and just shrugged her off as another WASP writer stewing in her class prejudices.  But I enjoy Wharton’s work too much, have written about it and even taught her fiction over the years.  And The House of Mirth is just too powerful a book to ignore.

An answer finally hit me:  subvert Wharton by writing Rosedale’s book.  Wharton says almost nothing about who he really is, so why couldn’t I fill in the blanks and tell her story my way? Because Wharton left almost everything jewcy out, that meant I had free reign to write a Jewish version of her story.

I haven’t made Simon Rosedale a saint in my novel. But I’ve given him a life, a past, a family, dreams, fears, regrets.  He isn’t perfect, but he’s no stereotype.

Is it revision, is it revenge?  I call it Rosedale in Love.

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