Edmund White


(reviewed by Mary Whipple APR 04, 2004)

"In 1829 [Fanny Wright] had been the most controversial and notorious woman in the country but two years later no one ever mentioned her. Considering she was the first woman in America to speak publicly against slavery, the first woman ever to address a mixed audience, a notorious atheist, the first leader of the first labor party, the most radical journalist in the land, the oblivion that swallowed her whole is.stunning."

In this ambiguously entitled novel, Fanny Trollope, writer and mother of Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, looks back almost thirty years to the late 1820s and her experiences with the notorious Fanny Wright, a woman with utopian dreams, determined to improve the world. An "editor's note" in the preface reveals that Fanny Trollope was in her seventies when, in 1856, she began this biography of Fanny Wright, leaving it unfinished and tucked among her papers where it was found after her death in 1863. As the "editor" points out, the biography was never "polished by its accomplished authoress. She left many blanks and comments awaiting time and materials for research and clarification." The "editor" retains these comments throughout, including Fanny Trollope's humorous asides about the appropriateness of some of her observations.

Though Fanny Trollope had never published anything until she was fifty-three, she managed to "dash off" six travel books and thirty-five novels in the ensuing twenty-four years, a prodigious accomplishment. Her sons, Thomas and the famous Anthony, felt that this "sketchy," unfinished biographical work "defiled" her daunting reputation. The editor, however, believed "the most pious wreath that.could be laid on Mrs. Trollope's cenotaph would be her book exactly as she left it, as animated and imperfect as its maker." He then adds, disingenuously, that "someone should remind her sons that the mss. does belong to us-that we discovered it and, moreover, paid for it."

With this introduction to Mrs. Trollope's manuscript, the reader is asked to "picture a blazing, ten-log fire sans firescreen and you'll have a notion of Fanny Wright's heat and intensity (some would say her glare)." Fiercely independent even as a young girl, Fanny was always intrepid in her pursuit of ideas and adventure, and at the time the manuscript opens, she has just returned from the United States, a place she enthusiastically regards as "paradise," with "no peasants trembling in hovels," with houses "of brick and of pleasant mien," and people who "have free and easy manners and do not hold back out of deference." She lauds the freedom of the press, saving her primary criticism for the "satanic stain of slavery, which makes a mockery of America's claims to be the land of freedom." Through flashbacks the reader learns of Fanny Wright's family background, her contrasts with Fanny Trollope, and the circumstances of their meeting.

Bright and well-read-and in dire financial straits--Fanny Trollope welcomes the liberating ideas of the socially committed Fanny Wright. Having shared ideas with Stendahl, Prosper Merimee, Washington Irving, and James Fenimore Cooper in Paris, Fanny Trollope meets the revered Marquis de Lafayette through Fanny Wright. When Wright and Lafayette travel together to the United States, biographer Trollope reveals what she knows of their meetings with Thomas Jefferson about slavery, with Charles Bonaparte (brother of Napoleon) about the "atheistic, utopian, communistic society Robert Owen intends to found in Indiana," and with representatives of the Haitian government about establishing a homeland for freed American slaves.

Upon Wright's return to Europe, she recruits Fanny Trollope to help her promote a 2000-acre colony called Nashoba, on the Mississippi River near Memphis, its goals being "to liberate the Negro" and to show that "white men and women can live together without God, money, marriage, or even occupation." With her son Henry and daughters Emily and Cecilia in tow, Fanny Trollope eventually sets off with Fanny Wright on the grueling journey to the United States, a stay which lasts four years, covers much of the eastern United States and Haiti, and constitutes the main action of the novel.

When they arrive in the United States, Edmund White's story of Fanny Wright and Fanny Trollope and their differing points of view comes alive, with Fanny Trollope describing what she sees, instead of talking about what she has heard from Fanny Wright. In Nashoba she discovers a reality vastly different from Fanny Wright's description. "[Wright's] grandiosity, her mind-numbing style, and the impracticality of her ambitions" become obvious to Trollope, and they continue to become more obvious as the days pass and the money runs out. The contrasts between the two women's views of the "civilization" of the United States and its reality are reflected in Fanny Trollope's observations about the need to lift her skirts to avoid the stains of tobacco-juice on the floor and in "the general slovenliness of the people, as well as the haphazardness of their houses.they haven't existed long enough as a culture to acquire the graces." Likewise, Robert Owen's idyllic colony of New Harmony in Indiana, which Wright supports, is based on lofty concepts, but children of five or six see their parents only once or twice a year, a fact which horrifies Fanny Trollope. She notes that under communism, half of the thousand newcomers are "useless layabouts looking for a free ride" with no motivation to work because it is not rewarded.

As the women continue to travel throughout the country, the reader observes Wright's continual lack of understanding of real people, even as she plans many idealistic goals for humanity in general. She remains distant and aloof from the reader, and her tendency to do whatever is necessary to get what she wants make her a rather cold, unsympathetic character. White's depiction of Fanny Trollope, on the other hand, is infinitely more vivid, her resourcefulness, practicality, and instinctive warmth serving as a foil for Wright's intellectual calculation--qualities which may explain the immense success of Trollope's writing career as opposed to the dwindling audiences for Wright's polemics. Filled with the intellectual, social, and philosophical debates of the middle of the nineteenth century, both in the United States and in Europe, this novel is a fascinating study of two thoughtful, intelligent women who tried to make a difference.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 9 reviews


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About the Author:

Edmund WhiteEdmund White was born in 1940 in Cincinnati, Ohio and moved to Evanston, Illinois seven years later with his mother and sister after his parents divorced. Summers were still spent in Cincinnati. White attended the exclusive Cranbrook Academy, and later majored in Chinese at the University of Michigan. Moving to New York City, he worked for Time-Life Books from 1962 until 1970. After a year's sojourn in Rome, White returned to the U.S., where he served as an editor at The Saturday Review and Horizon.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, he and six other gay New York writers formed a casual club known as the Violet Quill. Meeting in one another's apartments, they would read and critique one another's work, then move on to high tea. Together they represented a flowering of the kind of gay writing Edmund White as a teenager in Illinois had longed to discover. In 1983 he moved to France; when he returned in 1990 it was to a literary landscape devastated by AIDS. Four members of the Violet Quill had died, as well as numerous other promising young writers. White, himself, was diagnoses as HIV positive in 1985.

Although White is known as a novelist whose work has been widely praised by such writers as Vladimir Nabokov and Susan Sontag, it is as a cultural critic that White has perhaps had his greatest influence. Urbane, knowing, sophisticated, he has chronicled gay life in the seventies through the nineties with wit and insight. He has become a grand arbiter of taste, though he has been criticized for the narrowness of that taste-especially after his 1992 anthology Gay Short Fiction contained no writing by men of color. Nevertheless, his 1980 travelogue States of Desire: Travels in Gay America remains a classic if insouciant (and now poignant) look at gay life at a particular cultural moment just before the onslaught of AIDS. His pioneering 1977 The Joy of Gay Sex: An Intimate Guide for Gay Men to the Pleasures of a Gay Life , written with Dr. Charles Silverstein, introduced millions, gay and straight and curious alike, to a brave new world of sexual practices and lifestyle.

Edmund White lives with writer Michael Carroll in New York City.

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