I’m not usually a fan of singling people out for one stupid sentence they probably said without thinking–unless they’re politicians with at least ten people working to make sure that never happens, rendering it quite inexcusable when it does. But it’s the prerogative of normal famous people, or even well-regarded people, to say stupid things from time to time. The bad opinion generator is exquisite proof of that. Then again, sometimes a careless thought or unbalanced opinion that has slipped the lips of someone in prominence can lead to a kind of reevaluation, a side-by-side comparison of where we really are to where we think we are in terms of general social growth. Today, on the heels of a so-far triumphant Democratic Convention, liberalism would seem to be at its height, with gay marriage a visible part of the platform at last and a fuss made about the number of LGBT attendees. It’s also the day that none other than Jeffrey Eugenides–he of the saucy Times Square advert–has let slip a pretty valuable piece of information about himself in a behind-the-scenes piece detailing his involvement in Vogue’s Edith Wharton-and-friends shoot in their September issue:
Eugenides discusses working with Natalia Vodianova, the model playing Wharton to his Henry James:
“I found Natalia to be an amazing person. By the second day, there was warmth and ease, and we were able to feel and act the friendship that Edith Wharton and Henry James had,”
“If Edith had looked like Natalia, literary history might have gone a bit differently in terms of Henry’s sexuality.”
Such a quiet, seemingly intelligent remark–and yet what a depth of ignorance it betrays. Having read this quote, I don’t really want to believe that one of America’s most celebrated novelists believes that the obviously gay James could have been converted if his close friend Wharton had been a more physically attractive woman–but isn’t that more or less what he’s saying?
Obviously, quotes are quotes. I hope that Eugenides’ own was taken out of context, and I don’t doubt that if he had heard his words played back to himself on a recorder, he would probably amend them instantly. But the fact of his having said it is troubling even so, because it’s quite a layered statement, taken apart. There’s the suggestion of gay conversion theory, which even smart conservatives have had the sense to let go of, as well as the suggestion that Wharton’s purported ugliness (which modern novelists seem to be obsessed with) was the thing standing in the way of a mad passionate James-Wharton affair, rather than the more plausible factor of Henry James’ penile limpness in the presence of ladies. On top of it all, there’s the intimation that a Wharton-James union might have changed the course of literary history, as if it wouldn’t have simply been another dreary case of two repressed people marrying each other to keep face, such as literary history is riddled with.
You may be asking yourself: how can so much be going on in one thoughtless sentence? Only in the same way that so much be going on in one careless thought, the examples of which we’ve seen, abundantly, leading up to this election. The problem is that this time the carelessness is coming from someone intelligent–someone we actually want to respect. It’s a remark we’ve come to expect from the likes of Paul Ryan, coming from the esteemed (and I must assume liberal) author of Middlesex and The Marriage Plot. The statement, coming relatively soon after Franzen’s much-criticized piece about Wharton for the New Yorker in February, seems to evidence a shared desire of the current crop of older, successful male novelists to court controversy, perhaps in the hope of staying relevant. Yet one wishes they would have faith in their novels to do that for them, without having to sound off, accidentally or not, in this tragic way.