My Life With Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton is often on my mind, and not just this week, which saw her 156th birthday.

I fell in love with Edith Wharton’s novels and short stories in college, given that I grew up in Gilded Age New York. The building on upper Broadway I was raised in was one of two massive apartment blocks built circa 1900 by Harry Mulliken with gorgeous tapestry brickwork and stone detailing, like Mulliken’s more elaborate Lucerne Hotel on 79th and Amsterdam.

The public library I visited every week was a Venetian palazzo designed by McKim, Mead, and White. It was a temple of books, a sanctuary, and a doorway to another more elegant world. Perhaps most enthralling for me as a young boy was our family’s regular bus route downtown: along Riverside Drive past one Gilded Age mansion, brownstone and apartment building after another.

The past was all around me as it might not be in other parts of New York City, and so discovering Wharton in college was like claiming part of my own history. I bought every single book of hers then available in Scribner paperbacks and read them many times, awed by her wit, her powers of description, and her sharp eye for hypocrisy and foolishness. In the summer of 1975 I read R.W. B. Lewis’s riveting Pulitzer-winning Wharton biography that launched the revival of her work, and through reading about Wharton’s life I felt even more inspired to pursue my own career as a writer.

That career of publishing in many genres has led me back to Wharton three times. In the early 90s I published a study of the emotion of shame in her writing and her life, something that had never been discussed before. A few years after Edith Wharton’s Prisoners of Shame, I invented two fictional Wharton societies and pitted them against each other in an academic mystery, The Edith Wharton Murders.

More recently, I re-entered her world in a whole new way.  Undoing Wharton’s anti-Semitic stereotyping, I’ve re-imagined The House of Mirth from the point of view of Lily Bart’s suitor Simon Rosedale, giving him a home, a family, a history, and a tormented heart. In writing Rosedale in Love, I haven’t tried to imitate Wharton’s style, but I have written the book in a period voice, after immersing myself in writings of all kinds from the early 1900s.

I don’t know how she would have felt about my novel, but for me, it’s been one of the most exhilarating adventures of my writing career.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  After close to twenty years of teaching at the university level, he now offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

How Philip Roth Changed My Life

My first Roth book was Portnoy’s Complaint, which I read as a teenager.  It blew my mind because I’d never read a first person narrative that was so anarchic. As Roth has written: “Nobody expects a Jew to go crazy in public.” It was also wickedly funny, and broke many other taboos. Nothing I read for school came even close to being so alive–and so entertaining.  The book changed American literature forever, as the Washington Post reported today.

It hit home for me. The over-protectiveness as well as the carping of Alexander Portnoy’s parents reminded me of my own mother and father who sometimes said things just as diminishing and weird. And his rage against anti-Semitism was revelatory.  But it would be awhile before I found the courage to write freely about being Jewish, the son of Holocaust survivors, and gay.

Soon after college, I read The Ghost Writer. I was in love with Henry James at the time and it seemed very Jamesian, like one of the Master’s tales about the “madness of art”–with a Holocaust twist. I read it over and over. The prose struck me as perfect, the story profound, and I thought that if I could someday write a book even half that beautiful, I would have really accomplished something fine.

I did a report on Portnoy’s Complaint in graduate school which had the seminar in hysterics because I read sections of the book aloud. It taught me something about writing as performance which I would utilize years later on my many book tours. I followed his work almost religiously, reading his criticism as well as his fiction, and the anger of his critics in the Jewish community sobered me. My first book, which combined Jewish and gay themes, got some savage reviews in the Jewish press, though nothing as bad or as widespread as Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus.

Years later, my memoir about coming terms with Germany as a son of Holocaust survivors was basically ignored by the Jewish press, including publications that had published my short stories and essays. I was relieved in a way. I didn’t have the skill to skewer critics the way Roth did, and I would not have relished a firestorm.  It was bad enough that when I spoke about that memoir at a famous Jewish venue, I was attacked by members of the audience for saying anything remotely positive about my experiences in Germany.  My favorite angry comment, which seems right out of a Zuckerman novel: “Okay, so you’ve been to Germany, why go back?  There aren’t other countries in the world?”

Before I became a regular reviewer for the Detroit Free Press, I was asked to review his memoir Patrimony and I declined.  I felt too humbled by the power and precision of his work.  Now I’m sorry that I didn’t at least try.

I met Roth when he spoke at Michigan State University.  He seemed bored by the questions from the audience, including mine, and when I had him sign one of his books afterwards, he was as aloof as if the experience pained him.  I’d given him one of my own books with a Roth quote written above my signature and he seemed startled, “Did I really write that?”

It was a chilly interaction, but that didn’t stop me from reading and enjoying later novels, and assigning his work in a Jewish-American literature class whose students loved The Plot against America.  And I’m proud to say that an essay of mine appeared in a collection where he was one of the star contributors. Better still, a reviewer in the Washington Post compared my novel The German Money to Roth (and Kafka!).

I haven’t uniformly admired all his books, but he’s still a model for me of dedication, insight, and perseverance–and his dialogue is some of the best any contemporary American author has written.  Along with James, D.H. Lawrence, Anita Brookner, Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, he’s been an abiding, inspiring presence in my life as a writer.

As Dwight Garner puts it so well in the New York Times, “His work had more rage, more wit, more lust, more talk, more crosscurrents of thought and emotion, more turning over of the universals of existence….than any writer of his time.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including the historical novel Rosedale in Love (The House of Mirth Revisited).  He’s been  teaching creative writing at Michigan State University and you can study with him online at writewithoutborders.com

My First Hate Mail as an Author

I’ve warned creative writing students that they can’t expect that everyone will like their work.  Some people may actively hate it.  Who knows why?  That’s just a writer’s life.

I’ve never thought about hate email, though, until I recently posted a blog on The Huffington Post titled “Why Don’t Jewish Lives Matter?” It was about the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket massacres; I wondered whether the world would have been as outraged if the terrorists had only targeted the supermarket.

french-police-officers-investigate-the-hyper-casher-kosher-grocery-store-in-paris-on-january-9-2015By the time the blog had received close to 800 Likes, Facebook Shares, and shares on Twitter (it eventually more than doubled that), it also got plenty of vicious response, too.  No surprise, there.  People seem completely unashamed to parade their full range of prejudices on line, especially on places like The Huffington Post responses boards.

I was surprised, though, to get a long,vicious email in my Inbox from someone apparently enraged by the blog’s title.  This person’s screed was the same illogical slumgullion you see with all kinds of haters, while reading as if it were checking items off a list from Anti-Semitism for Dummies.  In other words, vile, but totally unoriginal and cookie-cutter.

Naturally it started off by saying that Israel was the problem because of its treatment of Palestinians.  This is classic post-war anti-Semitism because it blames all Jews everywhere for every action of every Israeli government.  Are Americans responsible for the drone strikes deaths in Yemen and Pakistan? The half million dead in Iraq since the U.S. invasion?

As you might might expect, the ribbon on the package was the equation of  Israelis with Nazis.  See?  All Jews = Israelis = Nazis.  That explains everything.  But the writer wasn’t done.  There was more venom to spew.  The other ridiculous charge was that Jews were misusing the Holocaust to their own ends and playing the victim.  Charming, no?  Finally it slid into some Old School Jew-hatred by labeling Jews as repulsive, arrogant, and unbearably cruel.

The email reeked of contempt, disgust, and brutality.  A psychologist might see a writer with tremendous shame issues coping with that shame by expressing grotesque superiority over others.  If you click the link to the original blog you’ll find comments just as vicious. These people clearly aren’t at all troubled by going public with their Jew-hatred, unlike the person who sent me the email.  Feel free to guess why my correspondent wanted to write privately.

I started writing this blog on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and was moved to finish it because of the shootings in Copenhagen.  King said that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  I’ve revered MLK since 4th grade, but I don’t think there’s enough light in the universe to bring these haters out of their own darkness?  It makes them feel too good.

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Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books, most recently Assault With a Deadly Lie, a novel of suspense.  You can read about his other books at the Lev Raphael Amazon page.