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Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton (1861-1937), American author, chronicled the life of affluent Americans between the Civil War and World War I.

Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones in New York City, probably on Jan. 24, 1861. Like many other biographical facts, she kept her birth date secret. Gossip held that the family's English tutor—not George Frederic Jones—was really Edith's father. The truth may never be known, but Edith evidently believed the story. After the Civil War, George Jones took his family to Europe, where they could live more cheaply.

Back in New York, by the age of 18 Edith had published poems in magazines and in a privately printed volume and had experimented with fiction. However, events deferred her writing career. The family's second long European trip ended in her father's death. In New York again, she evidently fell in love with Walter Berry; yet she became engaged to Edward Wharton, eleven years her senior, a wealthy Bostonian. They were married in 1885.

Marriage brought Edith Wharton two things she valued most, travel and leisure for writing. In the early 1890s her stories began appearing in magazines, but her first commercial success was a book written with an architect, The Decoration of Houses (1897). She sought help on it from Walter Berry, who remained in some uncertain way part of her life until his death (1927). Soon after this book, Mrs. Wharton suffered a nervous breakdown. For therapy her physician suggested she write fiction. In 1899 a collection of stories, The Greater Inclination, appeared—the first of her 32 volumes of fiction.

In 1905, after she began her friendship with Henry James, Wharton's first masterpiece, The House of Mirth, laid bare the cruelties of New York society. Her range was apparent in Tales of Men and Ghosts (1910), a collection of chillers, and in the celebrated novella Ethan Frome (1911). In 1910 the Whartons moved to France, where Edward Wharton suffered a nervous breakdown and was placed in a sanitorium. After their divorce in 1913, Edith Wharton stayed in France, writing lovingly about it in French Ways and Their Meanings (1919) and other books.

The Age of Innocence, a splendid novel of New York, won the Pulitzer Prize (1921), and a dramatization of Mrs. Wharton's novella The Old Maidwon the Pulitzer Prize for drama (1935). She died of a cardiac attack on Aug. 11, 1937, and was buried in Versailles next to Walter Berry.

Further Reading

The first edition of all of Wharton's short stories, edited with an introduction by R. W. B. Lewis, is The Collected Short Stories of Edith Wharton (1968). Wharton's autobiographical work, A Backward Glance (1934), and the book by her friend Percy Lubbock, Portrait of Edith Wharton (1947), convey a sense of the woman. A detailed, enthusiastic biography is Grace (Kellogg) Griffith, The Two Lives of Edith Wharton: The Woman and Her Work (1965), but it was written without access to the Wharton Papers in the Yale University Library. The more scholarly work by Millicent Bell, Edith Wharton and Henry James: The Story of Their Friendship (1965), although restricted to part of Mrs. Wharton's life, makes use of materials not available to Griffith. Useful critical studies include Blake Nevius, Edith Wharton: A Study of Her Fiction (1953); Irving Howe, Edith Wharton: A Collection of Critical Essays (1962); and Louis Auchincloss's short Edith Wharton: A Woman in Her Time (1971). □

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Wharton, Edith

Edith Wharton

Born: January 24, c. 1861
New York, New York
Died: August 11, 1937
Paris, France

American author

Edith Wharton, American author, chronicled the life of upper-class Americans between the late nineteenth to early twentieth century. She is best known for her novels The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence.

Childhood

Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones in New York City, on January 24, probably in 1861. Like many other biographical facts, she kept her birth year secret. Gossip held that the family's English tutornot George Frederic Joneswas really Edith's father. The truth may never be known, but Edith evidently believed the story. After the Civil War (186165), when Northern forces clashed with those of the South, George Jones took his family to Europe, where they could have a better quality of life. In Europe, young Edith began to develop her love of literature and writing.

Back in New York City, by the age of eighteen Edith had published poems in magazines and in a privately printed volume and had experimented with fiction. However, events put off her writing career. The family's second long European trip ended in her father's death. In New York City again, she evidently fell in love with Walter Berry; yet she became engaged to Edward Wharton, eleven years her senior and a wealthy Bostonian. They were married in 1885.

Time to write

Marriage brought Edith Wharton two things she valued most, travel and leisure for writing. In the early 1890s her stories began appearing in magazines, but her first commercial success was a book written with an architect, The Decoration of Houses (1897). She sought help on it from Walter Berry, who remained in some uncertain way part of her life until his death in 1927. Soon after this book, Wharton suffered a nervous breakdown. For therapy her physician suggested she write fiction. In 1899 a collection of stories, The Greater Inclination, appearedthe first of her thirty-two volumes of fiction.

In 1905, after Wharton began her friendship with writer Henry James (18431916), her first masterpiece, The House of Mirth, laid bare the cruelties of the New York City society. Her range was apparent in Tales of Men and Ghosts (1910), a collection of chillers, and in the celebrated novella Ethan Frome (1911). In 1910 the Whartons moved to France, where Edward Wharton suffered a nervous breakdown and was placed in a sanitorium, a hospital for the mentally unstable. After their divorce in 1913, Edith Wharton stayed in France, writing lovingly about it in French Ways and Their Meanings (1919) and other books.

The Age of Innocence, a splendid novel of New York, won the Pulitzer Prize (1921), and a dramatization of Wharton's novella The Old Maid won the Pulitzer Prize for drama (1935). Edith Wharton died of a heart attack on August 11, 1937, and was buried in Versailles, France, next to Walter Berry.

For More Information

Dwight, Eleanor. Edith Wharton: An Extraordinary Life. New York: Abrams, 1994.

Joslin, Katherine. Edith Wharton. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.

Kellogg, Grace. The Two Lives of Edith Wharton: The Woman and Her Work. New York: Appleton-Century, 1965.

Lewis, R. W. B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.

Wharton, Edith. Backward Glance. New York: Scribner, 1934. Reprint, New York: Scribner, 1964.

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Wharton, Edith Newbold Jones

Edith Newbold Jones Wharton, 1862–1937, American novelist, b. New York City, noted for her subtle, ironic, and superbly crafted fictional studies of New York society at the turn of the 20th cent. The daughter of a socially elect family, she was educated privately in New York and in Europe. In 1885 she married Edward Wharton, a Boston banker; after the first few years of marriage Edward Wharton became mentally ill, and the burden of caring for him fell upon his wife. Finally, in 1913, after she had settled permanently in France, Edith Wharton terminated the marriage by divorce.

Her early stories and tales were collected in The Greater Inclination (1899), Crucial Instances (1901), and The Descent of Man (1904); somewhat narrow in scope, they nevertheless show the unity of mood and the lucid, polished prose style of her more mature works. Much of her writing bears a resemblance to the fiction of Henry James, who was her close friend. However, the similarities are superficial, and in her best and most characteristic novels—The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920; Pulitzer Prize)—she asserts herself as a distinctive artist. Recreating the atmosphere of the unadventurous, ceremonious upper-class society of New York, she depicts in these and other works the cruelty of social convention, the changing fashions in morality, and the conflicts that arise between money values and moral values.

In the novella Ethan Frome (1911)—one of her best-known, most successful, and least characteristic works—Wharton evokes the tragic fate of three people against the stark background of rural New England. Among her many other novels are The Valley of Decision (1902), a historical novel of 18th-century Italy; The Custom of the Country (1913); Hudson River Bracketed (1929) and its sequel, The Gods Arrive (1932); and an unfinished work, The Buccaneers (1938). Collections of her short stories include Xingu and Other Stories (1916), Certain People (1930), and Ghosts (1937). Wharton also wrote travel books (e.g., Italian Backgrounds, 1905), books on interior design and architecture (e.g., The Decoration of Houses, 1897; Italian Villas and Their Gardens, 1904), literary criticism, and poetry. In 1915 she was awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor by the French government for her services during World War I.

Bibliography

See her collected stories (2 vol., 2001); her autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934, repr. 1998); her letters, ed. by R. W. B. Lewis (1988); biographies by L. Auchincloss (1971), R. W. B. Lewis (1975, repr. 1985), S. Benstock (1994), E. Dwight (1994), and H. Lee (2007); studies by M. B. McDowell (1976, repr. 1991), C. G. Wolff (1977, repr. 1995), E. Ammons (1980), G. Walton (rev. ed. 1982), G. S. Rahi (1983), D. Holbrook (1991), B. A. White (1991), K. A. Fedorko (1995), C. J. Singley (1995), J. Dyman (1996), J. Beer (1997), S. B. Wright (1997), A. R. Tintner (1999), and H. Hoeller (2000).

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"Wharton, Edith Newbold Jones." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 15 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Wharton, Edith Newbold Jones." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/wharton-edith-newbold-jones