Edith Newbold Jones Wharton
Nationality: American. Born: Edith Jones in New York City, 24 January 1862. Education: Traveled in Italy, Spain, and France as a child; educated privately. Family: Married Edward Wharton in 1885 (divorced 1913). Career: Lived in Newport, Rhode Island, after her marriage, and in Europe from 1907; close friend of Henry James, q.v.; helped organize the American Hostel for Refugees and the Children of Flanders Rescue Committee, during World War I. Awards: Pulitzer prize, 1921; American Academy gold medal, 1924. Litt.D.: Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1923. Chevalier, Legion of Honor (France), 1916, and Order of Leopold (Belgium), 1919. Member: American Academy, 1930. Died: 11 August 1937.
A Wharton Reader, edited by Louis Auchincloss. 1965.
Collected Short Stories, edited by R.W.B. Lewis. 1968.
Novels (Library of America; includes The House of Mirth, The Reef, The Custom of the Country, and The Age of Innocence), edited by R.W.B. Lewis. 1986.
The Stories, edited by Anita Brookner. 2 vols., 1988-89.
The Muse's Tragedy and Other Stories (Library of America), edited by Candace Waid. 1990.
Novellas and Other Writings (Library of America), edited by Cynthia Griffin Wolff. 1990.
Edith Wharton: Three Complete Works of Love, Morals, and Manners. 1996.
New York Novels (Modern Library; includes The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, and The Age of Innocence). 1998.
The Greater Inclination. 1899.
Crucial Instances. 1901.
The Descent of Man and Other Stories. 1904.
Madame de Treymes (novella). 1907.
The Hermit and the Wild Woman, and Other Stories. 1908.
Tales of Men and Ghosts. 1910.
Ethan Frome (novella). 1911; edited by Blake Nevius, 1968; asEthan Frome and Other Stories, with an introduction by Harold Bloom, 1996.
Xingu and Other Stories. 1916.
Summer (novella). 1917.
Old New York: False Dawn (The 'forties). The Old Maid (The 'fifties). The Spark (The 'sixties). New Year's Day (The 'seven-ties). 1924.
Here and Beyond. 1926.
Certain People. 1930.
Human Nature. 1933.
The World Over. 1936.
Fast and Loose: A Novelette, edited by Viola Hopkins Winner. 1977.
Roman Fever and Other Stories. 1997.
The Touchstone. 1900; as A Gift from the Grave, 1900.
The Valley of Decision. 1902.
The House of Mirth. 1905; edited by Elizabeth Anomons, 1990.
The Fruit of the Tree. 1907.
The Reef. 1912.
The Custom of the Country. 1913.
The Marne. 1918.
The Age of Innocence. 1920.
The Glimpses of the Moon. 1922.
A Son at the Front. 1923.
The Mother's Recompense. 1925.
Twilight Sleep. 1927.
The Children. 1928; as The Marriage Playground, 1930.
Hudson River Bracketed. 1929.
The Gods Arrive. 1932.
The Buccaneers. 1938.
The Joy of Living, from a play by Hermann Sudermann (produced1902). 1902.
The House of Mirth, with Clyde Fitch, from the novel by Wharton (produced 1906). Edited by Glenn Loney, 1981.
Artemis to Actaeon and Other Verse. 1909.
Twelve Poems. 1926.
The Decoration of Houses, with Ogden Codman, Jr. 1897.
Italian Villas and Their Gardens. 1904.
Italian Backgrounds. 1905.
A Motor-Flight Through France. 1908.
Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort. 1915.
Wharton's War Charities in France. 1918.
L'Amérique en Guerre. 1918.
French Ways and Their Meaning. 1919.
In Morocco. 1920.
The Writing of Fiction. 1925.
A Backward Glance (autobiography). 1934.
Letters, edited by R.W.B. and Nancy Lewis. 1988.
Letters 1900-1915, with Henry James, edited by Lyall H. Powers. 1989.
Edith Wharton Abroad: Selected Travel Writings, 1888-1920. 1995.
Editor, Le Livre des sans-foyer. 1915; as The Book of the Homeless: Original Articles in Verse and Prose, 1916.
Editor, with Robert Norton, Eternal Passion in English Poetry. 1939.*
Wharton: A Bibliography by Vito J. Brenni, 1966; Wharton and Kate Chopin: A Reference Guide by Marlene Springer, 1976; Wharton: A Descriptive Bibliography by Stephen Garrison, 1990; Wharton: An Annotated Secondary Bibliography by Kristin O. Lauer and Margaret P. Murray, 1990.
Wharton: A Study of Her Fiction by Blake Nevius, 1953; Wharton: Convention and Morality in the Work of a Novelist by Marilyn Jones Lyde, 1959; Wharton, 1961, and Wharton: A Woman in Her Time, 1971, both by Louis Auchincloss; Wharton: A Collection of Critical Essays edited by Irving Howe, 1962; Wharton and Henry James: The Story of Their Friendship by Millicent Bell, 1965; Wharton: A Critical Interpretation by Geoffrey Walton, 1971, revised edition, 1982; Wharton: A Biography by R. W. B. Lewis, 1975; Wharton and the Novel of Manners by Gary Lindberg, 1975; Wharton by Margaret B. McDowell, 1976, revised edition, 1991; Wharton by Richard H. Lawson, 1977; A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Wharton, 1977, and Wharton's Prisoners of Shame: A New Perspective on Her Neglected Fiction, 1991, both by Cynthia Griffin Wolff; The Frustrations of Independence: Wharton's Lesser Fiction by Brigitta Lüthi, 1978; Wharton's Argument with America by Elizabeth Ammons, 1980; The Female Intruder in the Novels of Wharton by Carol Wershoven, 1982; Wharton: Orphancy and Survival by Wendy Gimbel, 1984; Wharton: Traveller in the Land of Letters by Janet Goodwyn, 1989; Wharton and the Art of Fiction by Penelope Vita-Finzi, 1990; Verging on the Abyss: The Social Fiction of Kate Chopin and Wharton by Mary E. Papke, 1990; The House of Mirth: A Novel of Admonition by Linda Wagner-Martin, 1990; Wharton and the Unsatisfactory Man by David Holbrook, 1991; Wharton's Letters from the Underworld: Fictions of Women and Writing by Candace Waid, 1991; Discussion Notes on Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence by M.J. Roennfeldt, 1994; Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth by Dawn Keeler, 1995; Edith Wharton: Matters of Mind and Spirit by Carol J. Singley, 1995; Edith Wharton: A House Full of Rooms, Architecture, Interiors, and Gardens by Theresa Craig, 1996; The End of the Age of Innocence: Edith Wharton and the First World War by Alan Price, 1996; Edith Wharton's Italian Gardens by Vivian Russell, 1997; Edith Wharton's Travel Writing: The Making of a Connoisseur by Sarah Bird Wright, 1997; Edith Wharton A to Z: The Essential Guide to the Life and Work by Sarah Bird Wright, 1998; Displaying Women: Spectacles of Leisure in Edith Wharton's New York by Maureen E. Montgomery, 1998.* * *
In addition to 14 novels, Edith Wharton wrote distinctive short fiction: 13 novellas and 86 short stories. Even before her 15th birthday in 1877 she wrote Fast and Loose, a lively satirical novella, and by 1891 completed "Bunner Sisters," a novella that reflects interest in the poor, weighs the difficulties of marriage against those of spinsterhood, and develops for the first time her recurring theme that unselfishness ironically brings suffering to a good individual. In her stories as in her novels she focuses on the complexities in a judgmental society of sex, marriage, divorce, unmarried cohabitation, and on the status of women; and she calls attention to the uneven ramifications for men and for women if they break genteel conventions. A third of her short stories and the majority of her novellas focus on these topics.
The best of Wharton's early novellas is her polished Madame de Treymes, a deliberate imitation of Henry James, with whom she took a motor trip in France the year the novella appeared. In exquisite detail she presents two women: Fanny Malrive, a divorced American living in France who faces the loss of her son's custody to his father's wealthy family if she marries her American fiancé; and Madame de Treymes, who disingenuously offers to help her. Wharton insists on a realistic rather than romantic resolution of the problem, and Fanny Malrive escapes the sordid situation only by relinquishing her plans to marry.
Two other fine novellas, Ethan Frome and Summer, set in rural New York near Wharton's home, present simple people in the most restrictive surroundings who become emblematic of the human struggle to survive with dignity and courage. Their significance goes beyond the literal to the universal. Four novellas, each representing a decade in New York society in the nineteenth century, appeared together in Old New York. The most praised of the quartet, "The Old Maid," balances the admirable and the destructive elements over two decades in the life of an unmarried mother who is determined both to protect and to possess her child in ways that contrast with—but also parallel—the struggles and compromises of Charity Royall in Summer. This comparison between the two women suggests how gracefully Wharton shaped similar situations and themes into remarkably different works of art.
As her novellas, Wharton's short stories often possess such careful ordering of detail that they attain the psychological complexity in characterization and the moral insight that one expects to find only in novels. Her earliest stories, including "A Journey," "Souls Belated," "The Mission of Jane," "The Other Two," "The Quicksand," and "The Lady's Maid's Bell," are often epigrammatic and slowed by authorial comment. "Xingu," published years after it was written, is a highly amusing satire on the intellectual pretensions of a group of women. Far more bitter is the satire in "The Eyes," which coldly explores the aesthetic temperament of a cultured literary critic who subtly woos the admiration of young writers and then destroys them. Wharton's masterful ghost stories increasingly have received critical interest. The symbolic power, the subtlety of autobiographical disclosure, the oblique sexual elements, and the deep moral implications in her tales of the supernatural link them with the philosophical fiction of Hawthorne. These fine stories include "The Lady's Maid's Bell," "Miss Mary Pask," "Bewitched," "After Holbein," "Pomegranate Seed," "All Souls," "Kerfol," and "Mr. Jones."
In "Kerfol" ghostly dogs return on a certain date each year to stand sad witness to a murder and to a woman's powerlessness over a man's cruelty. "Bewitched" focuses not only on the fearsomeness of the incubus that sucks away a man's vitality but also on the bitter intensity of his wife, who keenly perceives that his mysterious malady may derive from guilt as well as fear. She suspects that he was tempted sexually by a young neighbor. In fury she demands that a group of men hammer a stake through the breast of a girl, who was recently buried, to prevent her rising from a snow-covered grave to seek out the man and to draw him back with her to the graveyard.
In "After Holbein" no acknowledged supernatural events occur, but the confusion that imprisons the minds of old Anson Warley and Evalina Jaspar, their moldering memories of a lost aristocracy, and the skeletons on the collection of Holbein wood-carvings all suggest decay and death. The atmosphere itself is smothering and ghostly, and as Anson and Evalina perform their dance of death, they are caricatures of a dead New York society. Although Wharton's single criterion for a good ghost story was that it send a shiver down the spine, her own penetrating stories leave the reader reflecting upon deeper meanings and unseen truth.
—Margaret B. McDowell
See the essay on "The Other Two."
Also wrote under: Edith Jones
Daughter of George and Lucretia Rhinelander Jones; married Edward Wharton, 1885 (divorced)
The literary and social world of Edith Wharton's childhood was exclusive, old-fashioned, and wealthy: her parents were socially prominent and well-established in New York, with income derived from landholdings and tracing their family history back 300 years. Her childhood was spent wandering around Europe's most luxurious spas and cities with indolent and indulgent parents. When she was ten—already making up stories to amuse her parents and their friends—the family returned to New York City, where her adolescent years were spent in a brownstone on West 23rd Street and in a summer cottage at Newport.
Wharton was well educated in modern languages and good manners, but recognized an injustice immediately when she saw it. An early ambition to be the best-dressed woman in New York gave way to a stronger humanitarian instinct. When she organized an extensive refugee relief program during World War I the French government awarded her their Legion of Honor.
Her emotional life was vastly complicated: engaged to two other promising young men, she finally married the socially prominent Bostonian Edward Wharton. The early broken engage-ments—and the youthful death of one of her suitors—clearly influenced the plots and themes of her fiction. Her marriage seems to have provided additional material since it was not only unhappy but sent both of the partners into profound depressions. Wharton coped with her own recurring bouts of illness by steadily writing, and trusting in close relationships with important literary and intellectual figures of her time including Henry James and Bernhard Berenson. Her husband turned to infidelity and embezzlement, which led to recriminations and finally to their divorce. Wharton was well aware of the intensity these dramas produced in her early writing, chiefly verse and short stories, and remarked in later years: "I regard them as the excesses of youth. They were all written at the top of my voice, and 'The Fullness of Life' is one long shriek. I may not write any better, but at least I hope that I write in a lower key."
Indeed Wharton's works of fiction with their keen social observation, rich detail, and penetrating satire have come to be regarded as masterful and important contributions to the literary tradition of the 20th century. In the course of her life and her writing Wharton rebelled against the rigid, traditional, stifling attitude toward women and toward the middle classes who had to work for a living. She began quietly with poems privately printed (by her mother) in 1878 and a quartet of short stories in Scribner's Magazine. Between those and her first full-length novel The Valley of Decision (1902) she produced many stories and three novellas: Fast and Loose (1867), Bunner Sisters (1892) and The Touchstone (1900). But this period of her life is most notable for The Decoration of Houses (1897), a study of interior arrangements and furniture in upper-class homes written with architect Ogden Codmen.
Her wildly successful novel, The House of Mirth (1905), with its contemporary theme and tragic heroine redeemed by an unexpected strength of character, brought instant fame to Wharton. It sold faster than any book ever published by Scribner's—and sold well over 140,000 copies in the first year. The novel's main character, Lily Bart, is a pathetic young woman trapped in the treacherous world of New York society and the murky depths of investment politics in turn-of-the-century America. Lily's determination to settle in a marriage of wealth and privilege leads her to compromise moral values, even to sacrifice love, in order to achieve her goal of a luxurious and idle life. This particular heroine and the times Wharton describes might have remained mysterious and unintelligible to modern readers without the happy coincidence that her stories are readily adaptable into screenplays. So her work has enjoyed a sort of revival in recent years. Several of Wharton's most famous novels including The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome (1911), and The Age of Innocence (1920) have appeared in respectable Hollywood versions, bringing her milieu—with its stiff tradition of innocent women, forced by circumstances or lack of moral judgement into social-climbing; and of ruggedly determined American men, grasping through necessity or design at wealth and its seductive power—to the sympathetic attention of the educated middle-class film buff.
Still it is a pleasure to pick up the Library of America two volume edition of her novels and stories. Here one finds her great novels of manners, The Custom of the Country (1913) and TheAge of Innocence. These two long studies of love affairs, entanglements, and marriages in the time between the "old New York" and the new era focus on the differences in depth and quality of feeling that protected the boundaries of established society from the errors of youthful exuberance. The indefatigable and magnificently lovely Undine Spragg dashes through The Custom of the Country at furious pace. She has several husbands from both the American and European aristocracy and trashes them with equal fervor and disregard.
Undine cares supremely for herself—the consequences to anyone else, of course, are unimportant—and demonstrates the tenacity and single-mindedness which made America a nation of great achievements: "If I were only sure of knowing what you expect!" her future father-in-law jokes with her at dinner; and she replies "Why, everything! " The perfect foil for Undine's vulgar scenes is the deep serenity of Countess Olenska (formerly Ellen Mingott) in The Age of Innocence. The Countess must tolerate the upstarts in New York society as she struggles to assert an identity against the pressures of her tyrant of a European husband and her unyieldingly stiff and unsympathetic American relatives. Ellen Olenska's gentleness and self-deprecating humor linger even as she slips away to Paris and obscurity while those less able but stronger dominate the rest of the novel: "When I turn back into myself now," she explains, " I am like a child going at night into a room where there's always a light."
Wharton died and was buried in her beloved French countryside, where she had lived contented for two decades; though she remained essentially American, the comforts of a European pace were irresistible to a writer.
Verses (1878). The Greater Inclination (1897). Crucial Instances (1901). The Joy of Living, by H. Suderman (translated by Wharton 1902). Sanctuary (1903). The Descent of Man, and Other Stories (1904). Italian Villas, and Their Gardens (1904). Italian Backgrounds (1905). Fruit of the Tree (1907). Madame de Treyms (1907). The Hermit and the Wild Woman, and Other Stories (1908). A Motor Flight through France (1908). Artemis to Actaeon, and other Verses (1909). Tales of Men and Ghosts (1910). The Reef (1912). Fighting France, from Dunkerque to Belfort (1915). The Book of the Homeless (1916). Xingu, and Other Stories (1916). Summer (1917). The Marne (1918). French Ways and Their Meaning (1919). In Morocco (1920). The Glimpses of the Moon (1922). A Son at the Front (1923). Old New York (1924). The Mother's Recompense (1925). The Writing of Fiction (1925). Here and Beyond (1926). Twelve Poems (1926). Twilight Sleep (1927). The Children (1928). Hudson River Bracketed (1929). Certain People (1930). The Gods Arrive (1932). Human Nature (1933). A Backward Glance (1934). The World Over (1936). Ghosts (1937). The Buccaneers (1938). Eternal Passion in English Poetry (1939). The Collected Short Stories of Edith Wharton (2 vols., edited by R. W. B. Lewis, 1968).
Ammons, E., Edith Wharton's Argument with America (1980). Ammons, E., Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century (1991). Auchincloss, L., Edith Wharton (1961). Bell, M., Edith Wharton and Henry James: The Story of Their Friendship (1965). Donovan, J., After the Fall: The Demeter-Persphone Myth in Wharton, Cather, and Glasgow (1989). Erlich, G., The Sexual Education of Edith Wharton (1992). Goodman, S., Edith Wharton's Women: Friends and Rivals (1990). Howe, I., ed., Edith Wharton: A Collection of Critical Essays (1962). Lawson, R. H., Edith Wharton (1977). Lewis, R. W. B., Edith Wharton: A Biography (1975). Lewis, R. W. B., and N. Lewis, eds., The Letters of Edith Wharton (1988). Lubbock, P., Portrait of Edith Wharton (1947). Lyde, M., Edith Wharton: Convention and Morality in the Work of a Novelist (1959). Maxwell, D. E. S., American Fiction: The Intellectual Background (1963). McDowell, M., Edith Wharton (1976). Nevius, B., Edith Wharton: A Study of Her Fiction (1953). Patterson, M. H., "Survival of the Best Fitted: The Trope of the New Woman in Margaret Murray Washington, Pauline Hopkins, Sui Sin Far, Edith Wharton and Mary Johnston, 1895-1913" (thesis, 1996). Springer, M., Edith Wharton and Kate Chopin: A Reference Guide (1976). Tuttleton, J., The Novel of Manners in America (1972). Waid, C., Edith Wharton's Letters from the Underworld: Fictions of Women and Writing (1991). Walton, G., Edith Wharton: A Critical Interpretation (1970). Wolff, C. G., A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton (1977).
Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
Critical Inquiry (Mar. 1985). Representations (Winter 1985).
—KATHLEEN BONANN MARSHALL
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.
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 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 (1861–65), 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, appeared—the first of her thirty-two volumes of fiction.
In 1905, after Wharton began her friendship with writer Henry James (1843–1916), 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.
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.
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). □
Edith Wharton was a leading novelist of the early twentieth century. Her novels portrayed the lifestyles of New York City's high society from the 1840s throughout the 1930s.
Born into wealth on January 24, 1862 (some sources cite 1861 as her birth year), Edith Jones lacked for nothing. She was privately tutored and traveled extensively throughout Europe while young. By the time she was eighteen, Edith had published her poetry in magazines and had a printed volume privately produced.
In 1885 Wharton married wealthy Boston banker Edward Wharton, a man eleven years older than she. Wharton continued to write and cowrote a book with an architect titled The Decoration of Houses, which was published in 1897.
As the wife of a wealthy banker, Wharton was an unhappy hostess at the couple's Massachusetts estate, the Mount, and did not like the social expectations foisted upon her as a wealthy matron of high society. A few years into her marriage, she suffered a nervous breakdown and was told by her doctor to focus more seriously on her writing as a way of calming her nerves.
Following her doctor's orders, Wharton published her first of thirty-two volumes of fiction in 1899. In 1905 she developed a friendship with popular writer Henry James (1843–1916). His influence helped her in her writing, and she published a scathing account of New York society in The House of Mirth that same year. The novel brought her critical acclaim and became a best seller. She continued to publish throughout the decade, and by 1910, the Whartons had moved to France. Shortly thereafter, Edward suffered his own nervous breakdown and was committed to a sanitorium. The couple divorced in 1913, and Edith traveled throughout Europe until the outbreak of World War I (1914–18). Since moving to Europe, Wharton had written prolifically. She published two volumes of short stories as well as four more novels, including the popular Ethan Frome (1911). After discovering the freedom of automobile touring, she began publishing travel pieces.
Wharton supported the war effort by returning to France and volunteering for charities. She recounted her wartime experiences in several nonfiction and fiction books. Her most famous novel, however, was not published until 1920. The Age of Innocence was set in the New York City of her youth. At a time when the world of civilized manners and etiquette were surrendering to the wild parties of the Roaring Twenties , the novel's portrayal of the urban elite and its rituals—formal dinner parties, opera, summering in Newport—unknowingly chronicled an era that would never be revived. Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for her book in 1921.
Wharton continued her writing pursuits even as she aged. Her work rarely received negative reviews, though some critics complained that she had nothing new to say in her work. In the last twelve years of her life, she wrote a book of essays, five novels, five collections of short stories, a book of poetry, and her memoirs.
Wharton died of a heart attack on August 11, 1937. In 2005 her twenty-six-hundred-volume personal library was sold for $2.6 million to the trustees of her Massachusetts estate. The collection had been owned by a rare books dealer in England and was made available to the public at the Mount for the first time beginning in May 2006.
(1862 - 1937)EDITH WHARTON: INTRODUCTION
EDITH WHARTON: PRINCIPAL WORKS
EDITH WHARTON: PRIMARY SOURCES
EDITH WHARTON: GENERAL COMMENTARY
EDITH WHARTON: TITLE COMMENTARY
EDITH WHARTON: FURTHER READING