These classics of Western literature contain a hidden dark side

Rafia Zakaria was excited when she found a lesser-known work of Edith Wharton about a visit to Morocco in the early 20th century. But what she read made her reconsider her view of the celebrated American novelist

The American writer Edith Wharton photographed at home in France with her two pet dogs, sometime in the 1920s. Wharton was a devoted Francophile who surrounded herself with sometimes garish or sentimental French designs. Granger / REX / Shutterstock
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‘Morocco still lacks a guidebook,” wrote the American author Edith Wharton in her book On Morocco. It is not one of her better-known books and I found the sentence quite by accident after a tour of Wharton’s estate in Lenox, Massachusetts.

That excursion, through the author’s bedroom and bathroom and library, concluded as nearly all tours in America do: at the gift shop. And there, on a back shelf reserved for less saleable of the author’s books, was this slim volume with this sentence.

On Morocco was written by Wharton one hundred years ago this year and in its pages is the sort of literary condescension that makes a brown reader cringe. Morocco, for the otherwise sensitive and literarily gifted Wharton, is a “stagnant” civilisation, its natives steeped in moral lassitude and fanaticism. Moroccan mothers are helpless (they can only wail and hang amulets when a child is ill) and dirty (the great lady of the palace is as ignorant of hygiene as the peasant woman) and are cumulatively sentenced to “colourless” and “eventless” lives.

I wish I had never picked up the book. I have long been an admirer of Wharton’s work. The best known of it, The Age of Innocence, is a sly mockery of the conventions of the elite New York society into which she was born. There is bravery in that book and in so many others Wharton wrote.

In On Morocco, however, there is only mockery and that too of the oblivious kind. Wharton, a devoted Francophile (her house is kitted out with trompe l’oeil), praises the French general in charge of the country and seems impressed with his efforts to preserve the aesthetic exoticism of the place. Beyond this, she does not bother to look.

It is unfair, of course, to blame only Wharton for being a travelling literary apologist for colonialism. Indeed many writers of the era (and the one before and the one after) were steeped in the dominant politics of the time. Long before Wharton ever made it to Morocco, Mark Twain went looking for “something thoroughly uncompromisingly foreign and lo! in Tangier we have found it”.

Nor is it a particularly new project to count up the broken pieces of the brown reader’s heart when he or she encounters a particularly obtuse and racist description of the hyper-exotic but always inferior Orient. Edward Said did just that in Culture and Imperialism, dissecting novel by novel how the ugliness of colonialism and slavery was masked and sidestepped by the English novel.

Among the literary propagandists, whose clever re-packaging of history Said exposes, is the much-adored Jane Austen, whose book Mansfield Park is still widely read in the “rest of the world”. I was one of them, devouring its pages in the seventh grade. As with Wharton and her society novels, the literary sleight of hand is difficult to discover without the aid of analyses like Said’s. When Fanny, the heroine of Mansfield Park, chooses to return there, everyone, brown readers included, happily applaud.

No one considers that the household bills of Mansfield Park, so to speak, are paid via the labour of black slaves toiling on a sugar plantation in Antigua. Brown readers, like all readers, want literature to be universal and so they make it so, reading like white readers, ignoring that the happily ever afters of the protagonists rest in reality on the subjugation of the brown and black and other.

Not all great western writers past are guilty of racist and colonial sympathies. Virginia Woolf, an approximate contemporary of Edith Wharton, took aim at the connected ills of militarism, racism, and Empire in her books. Richard Dalloway, one of the main characters of her novel The Voyage Out is a sexual predator opposed to woman’s suffrage and interested only in guns and empire. He is dazzled by the colonial conquests of British generals abroad and his wife Clarissa dutifully exclaims over the glories of English expansionism. In them Woolf creates caricatures of the many of her time, the many who believed in the benevolence of the colonial project and were uninterested in exposing its brutalities.

The mention of Woolf is crucial here because too often brown objections to the racism and colonialist xenophobia are met with remonstrations that suggest something is rather wrong with imposing the post-colonial corrections of now on the writings of old.

Those who make them insist simply and persistently that brown hearts should not break at these aspersions. These, the members of the “lets not indict dead white writers” club, are also instrumental in handing out a pass to the iterations of similar condescension in the writing of our present age.

Per this perspective, contemporary accounts of adventurous escapades written by journalists embedded amid the tanks of neo-imperial armies are simply heroic accounts worthy of much acclaim. Contemporary examples include Rod Nordland’s The Lovers and Lynsey Addario’s best-selling This is What I Do, memoirs that celebrate an access to local (exotic and hidden) populations (and particularly women) without making any mention of the military intervention and conquest that has made it possible.

Wharton and Austen and all their forebears would have been proud. Viewed thus, the prejudices of the past have not died; they have simply been reborn. Imperialism past, of the sort that enabled Wharton to travel to Morocco (even without the guidebook) and then revel in being permitted to “see” religious sites that were previously never opened to non-Muslims, have their progeny in neo-imperialism of our present moment.

This tacit and entitled neo-imperialism undergirds much of contemporary western travel writing. In one forum on the subject, held at a literary festival, three white men laboriously lamented how the wars in the Middle East have obstructed their wanderlust, their eager ability to consume other lands and also write about them.

Their words reminded me instantly of Wharton and her trip to Morocco, her then and them now all so confident in their right to see everything and write about everyone while the rest of the world is caged by travel bans, visa requirements, long lines and blunt refusals.

The books of those three authors, along with memoirs of so many other western travellers, divorced women looking for love, alcoholic men looking for adventure, students travelling on their parents credit cards, hippies searching for their souls, can be found in bookstores everywhere and anywhere. It is their words, sometimes evocative, more often reductive, that constructs the “rest”, not simply for the West but also increasingly for the rest itself.

Brown hearts may break, but they forgive and ultimately forget and keep reading all the same. It is this last bit that is cancerous, for in accepting and absorbing these marginalised, caricatured versions of themselves, some part of the brown reader resigns to being an artefact or an after-thought, encountered in a bazaar in Fez or at a ruin in Basra, a character but not really human, an anything and not an anyone, always marginal but never central to the story.

Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan