Jane Austen’s New BFs? Cornel West and Fran Lebowitz? I Think Not!

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.

25 Responses to “Jane Austen’s New BFs? Cornel West and Fran Lebowitz? I Think Not!”

  1. Bonnie S. Calhoun Says:

    LOL…enough is never good enough. The Bible says that there is nothing new under the sun, and this is another prime example. Just when you think you know everything there is to know about a person…”Whoops! There they go again!”


    LOL…Lynne, you’re giving them an unending treasure trove of info to use when they start doing the Wicked Witch on Broadway :-)

    Note from The Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Bonnie Calhoun is the Director of the Christian Fiction Blog Alliance where she edits 200+ book reviewers. She is also the Owner/Publisher of Christian Fiction Online Magazine.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    You don’t like Cornel West?

    Hey, I think Jane Austen is an overrated, insulated upperclass twit.

    Why are you sending me this stuff?

  3. Bridget K. Says:

    Thoughtful and most intelligent analysis of The Morgan Library Exhibit; an interesting and insightful review which I found thought-provoking.


    Note from The Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Bridget currently lives in the UK. She was an editor at one of the leading trade fashion magazines in the US. She is also the author of a mystery novel that the WWofP thought was incredibly clever and hilariously funny.

  4. Tom Clavin Says:

    This continues an annoying trend of having people pontificate on subjects that at best they have a peripheral connection to. There are always shows on TV about “Top 100 Songs of the ’60s” or “Best All-Time Movie Lines,” and the people given face time to make irrelevant or unknowledgeable comments are C-grade movie or TV stars, or worse, “personalities” who did a game show once. I guess they’re cheap and eager for the exposure, but they invalidate the premise of the show. Do I really want Tom Arnold talking about “Play it, Sam”?

    Note from The Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Tom Clavin is the author or co-author of eleven books. For fourteen years he covered sports, business, and entertainment for The New York Times, Newsday, Good Housekeeping, Child, Cosmopolitan, Family Circle, Parade, Reader’s Digest, Woman’s Day, Golf, Men’s Journal and other publications.

  5. John D Says:

    I’m not a fan per se, but certainly an admirer of her talent. Yes, a strange, but I believe (deliberately) controversial, choice of (Black) political activist and dyke.

    They weren’t really seeking intellectual or academic commentary, but rather some critiques of Ms. Austin and her work.

    And sadly, no one to balance the ‘picture’.

  6. Richard Venezia Says:

    I think that Cornel West curled up with “100 Years of Lynchings” by Ralph Ginzburg, and not “Emma” by Jane Austen.

  7. Lynne Says:

    Here’s a comment that came in via email:

    “People are making too much of a very dated, veddy snobby author. I’m more interested in Dickens than Austen.

    I, too, can’t identify with twits.”

    Note from The Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): “Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:

    ‘Please, sir, I want some more.’

    The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupified astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear.”

    Even I like an occasional bowl full of grim gruel.

  8. Lynne Says:

    Posting has been picked up by Frank Wilson over at Booksinq.com, one of The Sunday Times top 100 best blogs.

    Also picked up by Jacketflap, Bookblips, Wikio.UK and Prau.

    Click here to see what “Editorial Ass” just had to say on the same topic yesterday.

  9. Lady T Says:

    Lynn,I saw this video awhile ago at the Morgan Library site and while you may not expect people like Cornel West and Fran Leibowitz to appear on a Jane Austen tribute clip,that’s the whole point. Both of them are writers who appreciate Miss Austen’s wordplay,which may not be your standard for being included here but it’s far from being totally off the wall.

    I know you appreciate Austen,too but frankly your implications that Mr. West and Ms. Leibowitz were simply chosen due to political correctness is insulting to both of them as well as the numerous Austen fans out there who may not fit the stereotypical template of who would and would not like Jane Austen. I’ve participated in many discussions,outings and meetings with admirers of JA who ,contrary to popular belief,are not all little old ladies going to tea, prim and proper studious types or Colin Firth obsessed fangirls. People of all different ages,races,social backgrounds and beliefs are Jane Austen fans and yes,some of them are even men (shudder! gasp!)


    Also,just because Mr. West does not teach Jane Austen does not mean he’s not qualified to give his impressions about her work. If you felt that Ms. Leibowitz was rambling in her comments ,that’s fine but to say that Mr. West would be better off to have ” pontificated about David Mamet’s play, Race, now on Broadway. “sounds rather presumptuous and PC to my ears.

    You don’t have to like the video that the Morgan Library put together,of course,but there’s no need to disparage a couple of established literary folk for participating because some of the speakers chosen didn’t suit your personal criteria for being an Austen authority (btw,Austen is not considered a writer of the Victorian era-her work is set in the Regency period).

    The sure sign that any writer has become worthy of being called a legend is that their work appeal to people from all walks of life. Prejudging who their audience should be made up of is rather condescending and something that Miss Austen herself would not approve of, in my opinion.

    Note from The Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Thanks, Lady T, for weighing in. I appreciate your comments, but, frankly, I believe West was winging it and that Lebowitz made no sense.

  10. Brother René Says:

    I tend to agree with Lady T on this one. The Wicked Witch can be quick to criticize, often without thoughtful recollection. But, that’s the immediate nature of blogging. Is Ms. Scanlon in real life as prone to negatively judge the words and actions of others? Only her family, friends and associates would know. My guess is that what we have here is a perspicacious woman who under the guise of a literary sorceress just loves to stir the pot.

    Round about the caldron go;
    In the poison’d entrails throw….
    Double, double toil and trouble;
    Fire burn, and caldron bubble

    Note from The Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): “Thoughtful recollection” as in “religious contemplation?” Hmmmm. Meanwhile, love your chanting, Brother Rene.

  11. Dave Newton Says:

    Thank you for elevating the intercourse today, Lynne. This really is a literary joint.


  12. Gina Burgess Says:

    Let’s see… Dickens, Shakespeare and Austen. A most excellent afternoon. Thanks, Lynne, I appreciate your wit and sarcasm. Coming here usually stirs the blood in one way or another. The comments are never dull.

  13. Russell Bittner Says:


    I haven’t yet seen the exhibit, nor (obviously) have I seen the docurama, but I think your point is a perfectly valid one, and I have NO idea what Lady T is talking about.

    If, by agreeing to watch the video (always an option), we’re asked to consider the opinion of two “authorities,” one has every right to expect that those authorities will speak with some kind of authority on the subject-matter. If not, why not just interview Everyman on the street? Lots of taxi drivers in NYC would no doubt be willing to weigh in on Ms. Austen. After all, they weigh in on most everything else.


    Hell, I’d like to hear from Paris Hilton on Jane Austen. After all, she’s got a world-class first name and a well-known brand for a family name. Doesn’t that make her an authority of the first rank?


    Note from The Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Russell has published stories with The Edgar Literary Magazine; The International Journal of Erotica; Beyond Centauri; SwillMagazine; The Angler; Sein und Werden; and Hobart Park. One of his stories was published by St. Martin’s Press in May, ’07 in an anthology titled Next Stop Hollywood: Short Stories Bound for the Screen. An additional piece was published in Sein und Werden in the late fall of ’09.

  14. The Curmudgeon Says:

    My interest in Jane Austen is equal to my interest in transsexual frogs.

    Yes, it would seem that an Austen scholar would be more appropriate than Cornel West and Fran Lebowitz as commentators. Martin Amis, for one. Or perhaps the ubiquitous and monumentally ignorant Alec Baldwin.

    West’s admiration for Emerson is interesting in light of a recent critical piece at The Chronicle Review: http://chronicle.com/article/Giving-Emerson-the-Boot/63512/.

    The short film is available on line at: http://www.themorgan.org/video/austen.asp , along with the interviews with West and Fran Lebowitz (who recently won the Oscar Wilde look-alike contest).
    They are both arrogant pretentious elitist intellectuals. And Lebowitz uses “you know” as an interjection/verbal ejaculation, which is pathetic.

    They are not likable people.

  15. Peter R Says:

    Fairly incredible… don’t tell me, Ms. Lebowitz is expounding 20th century values to a 19th century heroine?

  16. Lynne Says:

    From AustenBlog in response to my sending notification that I had blogged about their heroine and my visit to The Morgan.

    We paid a visit to the Morgan Library last weekend to see the current exhibition, “A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy.”

    The day before our trip, we received an e-mail from an individual rejoicing in the self-imposed title The Publishing Contrarian containing a link to her own report on the exhibit, which e-mail, since we invite correspondence and links, we hesitate to characterize as spam, but apparently we were one of a large pool of recipients, one of whom complained about receiving the e-mail in the comments to the post linked, so: we report, you decide. We were not sure if we wished to notice this commentary, but since it was thrust upon our notice, we found we have some things to say in response. This individual took offense to the film, or at least to a couple of the Austen enthusiasts featured in it, to wit: Fran Lebowitz and Cornel West.

  17. Maralyn Rittenour Says:

    Lynne, an excellent critique as always. It whetted my appetite though I was planning to visit anyway, in fact I originally invited you as my free guest.

    Enough has been written about the controversial documentary, so I will only comment on Jane herself.

    My parents lived near the former Austen home in Hampshire and I have my mother’s complete works of JA, should you ever wish to borrow any of her novels rather than reading them on your Kindle.

    Ariel Levy described JA as a writer of romantic comedy in a recent issue of the New Yorker. While that may be true, I’m one of those fans who believe that she is all about money; inheriting it, marrying into it, but in an un-crass way – no self-made millionaires in the Regency era – fortunes mostly derived from land-owning. Nevertheless the pursuit of wealth, its comforts and security, render her writings quite topical today.

  18. Warren Adler Says:

    I suspect that the idiots at the Morgan Library imagined that they were being “relevant” by choosing two people from the bullpen of the politically correct to achieve whatever illusive goal they had concocted. Perhaps their next project will feature Osama Bin Laden and Mel Gibson as they discourse on the Old Testament to promote the library’s magnificent collection of Bibles.


    Note from The Wicked Witch of Publishing(TM): Warren Adler is a world-renowned novelist, short story writer and playwright. His books have been translated into more than 25 languages and two of his novels, The War of the Roses and Random Hearts, have been made into enormously popular movies, shown continually throughout the world.

  19. Vivian Says:

    Gosh, some of the comments here are quite vitriolic….and one was quite nasty about the Wicked Witch herself. I guess being a blogger requires a thick skin, and a sense of humor.

  20. Maralyn Rittenour Says:

    Mr. Adler’s comment is brilliant! Time to see “The War of the Roses” again on Netflix.

  21. Vivian Says:

    The Austen blog people sound like they should thank you for letting them know about the exhibit at the Morgan Library since they hightailed it to NYC the day after receiving your email about your posting. Instead, of saying “thank you,” they make snotty comments about you.

  22. Lynne Says:

    “Emma” returns to television on Sunday in a new BBC mini-series on PBS. Romola Garai (“Atonement”) stars as Emma Woodhouse. Alessandra Stanley, TV critic, for The New York Times, gives this version of “Emma” excellent reviews.

    Sunday, January 24, 2010.

  23. Peter L. Winkler Says:

    Neither West nor Leibowitz present themselves as final authorities on Austen, which is different than being presumably educated individuals who are familiar with her work who obliged an invitation to provide their opinions of her work. So big deal. I’m not familiar with West’s writing, so I won’t dismiss him out of hand. I’m a fan of Fran Liebowitz, who is a witty curmudgeon. She gives very entertaining extemporneous interviews, as she did a couple of times for Vanity Fair magazine in the last few years. She comes off poorly in this interview, that I’ll grant you, but she shouldn’t be judged solely by one bad performance.

    I notice hat no one commenting here seems to have watched any of the other video commentaries, which may be no better than West’s or Liebowitz’s.

  24. Dave Newton Says:

    This feature in today’s NYTimes might shed a bit more light on why Cornel West was asked to comment on Jane Austen. To wit: The curators were, in the words of a supermarket boss ad client I once served, hitting the staff a hot grounder. (Baseball expression.) Tweaking the traditionalists.


    Note from The Wicked Witch of Publishing(TM): I don’t know, Dave, I listened again to the full interview and still feel West was out of his element, knew it, and was covering up by sounding erudite, if not knowledgeable .

  25. Karen Says:


    I went to see it and i couldn’t agree with you more. ANYthing would have been better than that film.

    The exhibit itself was really fabulous — I wonder whether the necessity of writing so small to save paper didn’t give her a better concept of the structure of the entirety?

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