Monday, September 29, 2008

The curse of the dread Merkin

I thought I was finally free of her - I had not read anything by her in a year. Mercifully, she is no longer a regular contributor to the New Yorker and I haven't noticed her byline lately in the NYTimes.

Daphne Merkin and I have a bad history. I slammed her in my blog a couple of years ago - I had come to loathe her whining style and her reliance on second-hand evolutionary psychology to understand gender politics and folkways. And then one day to my surprise I received an email from someone who claimed to be Merkin herself. She was not pleased by my critique of her work, and proceded to insult me and my blog. I blogged about in June 2006

I recently began work on a play about Charlotte and Emily Bronte, and thought I'd better re-read Emily's "Wuthering Heights." And since I wanted the luxury if reading it in-hand rather than online, I hied me to Amazon to look for a good edition of the work.

And there she was. The dread Merkin wrote an introduction to the Barnes & Noble Classic edition of WH.

And predictably, she made a mess of it. She mainly peddles second-hand gossip about the Brontes, but she doesn't even get THAT right. Or rather, in classic Merkin style, you aren't quite sure what she means - does she think it's gossip, or does she believe it? Observe:
But by far the most intense (and screwy) psychological scrutiny was reserved for the close relationship between Branwell and Emily. After Charlotte had given up on him as a bad egg, Emily continued to stand by her older brother, calming him down and getting him to bed during his drunken outbursts. This aspect of the Brontë family life led to speculations about a possible incestuous aspect to Branwell and Emily’s relationship, especially in regard to its being the model for the relationship between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. (One theory suggested that Heathcliff was in fact the bastard son of Mr. Earnshaw and thus Catherine’s half brother.) Of course, this theory clashed with yet another view that saw Branwell as doomed by his closet homosexuality, which may or may not have emerged during the period he spent as a live-in tutor to a young boy, Edward Robinson; his employment ended in disgrace after Branwell was dismissed with the threat of scandalous exposure if he tried to get in touch with any of the family. Branwell later retailed this scandal as an adulterous affair he was having with his pupil’s mother.

Up until the last clause it sounds like she's recounting pure "theory" - but then she makes a true statement - Branwell was dismissed due to scandal - and follows that up with a statement that sounds as though she gives the theory credence: "Branwell later retailed this scandal as an adulterous affair..."

Every well-researched, document-supported (including the Brontes' own correspondence) source makes it clear that in fact Branwell was in love with Mrs. Robinson, and had hopes that she would marry him - and support him while he attempted to make a career as an artist - once her ailing husband died. But when the husband died she did NOT marry him and instead cut off all communications with him, and he became extremely depressed.

But why shouldn't my blog post be better-researched than a paid-for and published introduction to Wuthering Heights? After all we don't live in a meritocracy and as anyone can tell you, it isn't what you know, it's who you know. Daphne Merkin certainly hasn't made her career based on what she knows - she must be very well-connected indeed.