The Cosmopolitans by Sarah Schulman
I ordered The Cosmopolitans after hearing Sarah Schulman at an AWP panel with the gloriously strong and trenchant Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. I was proud of myself for finally getting around to the work that launched Schulman’s career as a novelist and public intellectual in 1990. But about 100 pages into The Cosmopolitans, the sort of insight and anxiety around race, marketing, and gentrification seemed very recent. I try to avoid googling and author’s bio before I finish the work, but I caved. Those well-versed in Schulman are probably enjoying a flush of dramatic irony. Schulman’s first novel was People in Trouble (1990), not The Cosmopolitans (2016), which is dedicated to Claudia Rankine. In truth, dear reader, I had to put the novel down for a few days, so ashamed at my failed pretension to be literary I was.
But The Cosmopolitans is far too good to leave untouched for long. It’s the rarer book flooded with empathy. The characters are alive. There’s Bette, a white woman of 50 moved to the east village half a lifetime ago from Ohio in 1928, and Earl, a black man of the same age from the South who struggles against the incessant racism in finding work as an actor in 1958 that doesn’t require a caricature. There’s the young Hortense, an estranged cousin from Ohio who flees to New York to be an actress and seemingly mirrors Bette’s own journey, then there’s Crevelle, the cruel woman whose cowardice and blindness to truth connived to expel and disgrace Bette from her birthplace.
Fortunately, it’s 1958, and Bette has made her home in the city. When she’s not working the same secretary job she has held for decades, she’s observing the neighborhood with tenderness. She feels gratitude for what’s been created and who she’s found. Bette thinks about Earl, who she met when they both were 20, she a hostess and he a line cook. My heart dropped when she described why she came to NYC; I imagine many others had similar motivations: “In a way, she realized that this was why she had come to New York after all, to find someone to talk to” (15). Along with the language — “his boots the sound of gunshots” (42); “Early’s Key scratched hello in the lock” (131) — I loved how Schulman captured the city’s vitality. “There was a stunning beauty to the night, sweet with the earliest promise of spring to come, as Lynette led him out onto Fifty-Seventh Street. The sidewalks were full, everyone living life in front of each other, creating each other’s worlds” (65).
Bette and Earl live together, and she’s content with their evening discussions then reading through the night. But Earl wants more. His White lover Anthony, left him for the military, which he hoped would make him straight. “The day after Pearl Harbor, Anthony signed up, and like so many with nothing to live for and so many with every hope in their breast pocket, he was killed in the Pacific. His wife became his widow, with all the titles and benefits” (19). Earl moves onto other boyfriends, mostly ashamed nightly trysts in back alleys and later at the slaughter-house where he works. A Shakespearean actor, Earl struggles against the omnipotent images of dehumanization harnassed to Black Americans. One of the most satisfying moments in the novel was when Early finally eviscerates one theater producer who wants him to play a wise but mopey Black janitor for a White kid who’s new and confused in the city. Images of Whiteness and Blackness are thoroughly explored in this novel, always with an empathetic but stalwart eye; it’s easy to see the connection to Claudia Rankine, whose Citizen was wildly eye-opening for me. Schulman’s dedication to Rankine thrills me; I’m happy to see the two in cahoots.
Perhaps I sensed that The Cosmopolitans couldn’t be made in 1990 because the book is occasionally too on the nose. Bette meets a glamazon named Valerie, a marketing guru who says television advertising is the next big thing. She’s straight out of Mad Men, and I have to say I loved her bodacious comments. Her complicity toward racial stereotypes, though, reflect the dominant conversation around race in the past 5-7 years; from a technical standpoint, I didn’t buy that Valerie would talk about race like that. The third-person narration makes it seem too “Look how they thought back then” and Forgive them Father they don’t know what they do.
Nonetheless, Bette is similarly lured into a world that values externalities more than the vivacity of personhood. “The complexity lay outside her now,” Bette thinks, “instead of within.” Bette stops to observe the neighborhood she’s always cared for, as by and large the individual going-ons of its puny members who don’t impact the larger economy. Bette’s eventual negligence to her family, her veering from her personal values, leads to tragic consequences.
Along with being socially “on the nose,” The Cosmopolitans rubs shoulders with the meta. Bette, who’s modeled on Balzac’s Cousin Bette, recites some of the preface to that novel: “Everything has two faces, even virtue.” Hector, the quintessential mediocre White man who inherited the company that Bette is the secretary to, takes careful notes on a book called The Cosmopolitans, which happened to be written by a doorman Bette frequently saw. Hector contemplates what his own version of The Cosmpolitans would be — maybe about a youngish businessman like him who falls for an advertising sourceress and leaves Connecticut for the freakish hinterlands of the Lower East Side.
This “on the nose” quality, a self-referential penchant of post-modernism, inserts itself into the 19th tolerance for “sentimentality.” I quote sentimentality because it’s an easy word to screen over with mythologies. Freedom, dignity, love, the soul — those are matters that aren’t frequently or seriously discussed by mass media of any kind and may only be contemplated when a student is “forced.”
How Bette eventually understands the political system of marketing, coercion, and image making — how she uses her wits to manipulate the unjust systems and turn them around to forward truth and equality — could be considered “unreal” or “sentimental.” But then I have the leering sense that the unfeasibility posed by “unreal” and “sentimental” validates what Gramsci articulated: it benefits a cultural hegemony to make certain thoughts and ideas masked, downgraded, or foolish so that people don’t think too deeply about any virtue with a capital, the pursuance of which would destabilize the hegemony.
Freedom, dignity, love, the soul — what are those states, and what keeps certain people from touching them — that’s what The Cosmopolitans questions. It’s the rare novel that has a solution of sorts: love the magnitude of existence in the individuals around your community; learn The System and re-engineer it toward more benign purposes. These can be described as sentimental or idealistic, but it’s necessary to note those descriptions keep certain people in power and perpetuate injustice.
So perhaps we need to embrace sentimentality and incorrigible optimism. Perhaps we need more tales like Dickens or Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart.” Stories that risk sentimentality and idealism to ascertain what is true and right about the world, stories that are willing to suspend their witty irony and cruel flares of description at the service of a clearer empathy.
Perhaps we need clear definitions of those 19th century abstract qualities that seemed to so obsess everyone. Here is Bette defining love to conniving Hortense: “Love is when you truly know them. You have been the recipient of their greatest kindness and their greatest cruelty. You have no illusions. You have seen every lie, every evil, and you still love them. And still, with all the knowledge of their humanity their complexity, their vanity, contradictions, lies and weaknesses, you accept them into your heart forever. That is true love” (358).