Jane Austen co-starring in a documentary with Cornel R. West and Fran Lebowitz? What in the world was The Morgan Library thinking?
Ok, let’s admit it. Jane Austen has not been allowed to rest in peace. Quite the contrary! That poor woman has had “Janeites” pouring over her personal letters, peeking into her dresser drawers, and analyzing every word she ever wrote until her death in 1817. When it comes to knowing everything knowable about Jane Austen, as Mick Jagger said about his excesses: “Too much is never enough.”
I Felt So Guilty Reading Jane Austen’s Personal Mail
But somehow I got over that. What a treasure trove on display at the Morgan Library exhibit “A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy.” And what a crazy quilt of sentences filling every inch of the page. First left to right and top to bottom. Then the paper turned upside down and sentences written in between the first sentences. Then the paper turned sideways and more sentences written cross-wise across all the other sentences. Yet, this “cross-hatching” technique is completely readable. Amazing! When I think of the paper we waste today. Jane (may I call her that? Everyone else seems to) puts us to shame.
Yell: FIRE! Pull the Alarm and Run Screaming from the Theatre. It’s Cornel R. West and Fran Lebowitz Opining About Jane!
Tucked in the corner of the exhibit and hidden behind a catty-corner screen ran a short documentary about Austen titled “The Divine Jane: Reflections on Austen.” The “noted Italian” director Francesco Carrozzini was specially commissioned to film interviews with artists and scholars such as Siri Hustvedt, Sandy Lerner, Colm Tóibín, Harriet Walter, and . . . Cornel West and Fran Lebowitz???!!!
West is, per Wikipedia: “the American philosopher, author, critic, actor, and civil rights activist, as well as a prominent member of the Democratic Socialists of America.” This self-professed “Jane Austen freak,” teaches in the Center for African American Studies and in the department of Religion at Princeton University. Who is he to hold forth on Jane Austen? (You remember West? Didn’t he storm out of Harvard after President Lawrence Summers questioned grading standards in West’s Black studies courses? ) West has zero credibility with me on the subject of Jane Austen. She isn’t even remotely in his subject area. Yet, for some reason that eludes me completely, he opens and closes the documentary and expounds on her “diverse corpus.” I’m thinking Sparknotes.
Was this an attempt at a PC choice? Black and male? If so, surely there were other more appropriate people with a well-known appreciation of Victorian (whoops, Regency Period) “sensibilities” than Cornel West. We’d be better served if Cornel West pontificated about David Mamet’s play, Race, now on Broadway.
And I’m not too crazy about the selection of American author Fran Lebowitz, either, to hold forth on “our” Jane. Here’s what Wikipedia says about Lebowitz: “Born and raised in Morristown, New Jersey, Lebowitz is best known for her sardonic social commentary on American life through her New York sensibilities. After being expelled from high school and receiving a GED, Lebowitz worked many odd jobs before being hired by Andy Warhol as a columnist for Interview. This was followed by a stint at Mademoiselle. Her first book was a collection of essays titled Metropolitan Life, released in 1978, followed by Social Studies in 1981, both of which are collected (with a new introductory essay) in The Fran Lebowitz Reader.”
For more than twenty years she has been famous in part for not finishing “Exterior Signs of Wealth,” a long-promised novel purportedly about rich people who want to be artists, and artists who want to be rich. Recently she has made recurring appearances as Judge Janice Goldberg on the television drama Law & Order. No doubt she works on the novel between takes.
Those credentials certainly qualify her as an authority on Austen, don’t they? Who chose Lebowitz and why? Lebowitz said she would not even want to meet Austen, and that Austen is only popular because she is misunderstood. The tape is replete with psychobabble, yet Lebowitz gets a round of applause after her interview.
Janey, Janey, How We Miss You
Despite my aversion to the documentary, the exhibit, which opened in November 2009 at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City, is spell-binding. (Yes, it’s true! I don’t want her to die either!) It runs through March 14, 2010. You’ll rub elbows with other Janeites (a notably civilized group the day I visited) and get a chance to view more than 100 works, including Austen’s early illustrated editions (Pride & Prejudice, Emma in three volumes), personal letters (including an excruciatingly painful one from Austen’s sister upon Jane’s death) and related materials (such as an etiquette book from Austen’s era), many of which The Morgan has not exhibited in over a quarter century.
Fork over the $12 admission. What a deal!
Note from The Wicked Witch of Publishing ™: By the way, if you haven’t been to The Morgan Library & Museum since 2006, don’t plan on entering through the grand doors of the original building at 33 East 36th Street off Madison Avenue. A carbuncle, er, new addition with modern entrance (designed by Francisco Piano) has been grafted onto the side of The Morgan’s beautiful National Historic Landmark building with the result that there is now a big glass enclosed entrance located on Madison Avenue.