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Edith Wharton was the most celebrated American female author of her time. Best known for her novels The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome, and The Age of Innocence, she also published poetry, criticism, nonfiction about the First World War, travel writing, and several collections of short stories. Her books suffered a period of critical neglect after her death. A revived interest in what they reveal about women’s roles in society has brought them back into discussion.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Born Aristocrat
Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones on January 24, 1862, the third child and first daughter of George Frederic and Lucretia Rhinelander Jones, members of the social hierarchy of aristocratic old New York. Although the family did not live ostentatiously, they enjoyed considerable affluence, with servants, a governess for Edith, carriages, a summer home in Newport, a townhouse in New York, and frequent dinner parties. However, the Civil War caused a decline in New York real estate values and a corresponding decrease in their income. In 1866, taking along their younger son Harry, then sixteen, and Edith, four, the Jones family went to Europe, where they might live more economically, for six years.
Even before she learned to read, Wharton became ardently devoted to what she called ”making up.” Learning to read only intensified her delight, even though it was not an activity her parents encouraged. Their sensibility, in part determined by their Dutch Reformed and Episcopalian beliefs, did not include a high regard for the world of art. Thus, when the teenaged Edith began to write verse and short stories, her family did not encourage it and later seldom mentioned her literary success.
Understandably shy in this environment, Edith happily traveled Europe with her parents. There she met Henry James, who became her mentor and admiring critic. When not traveling, she spent most of her time in her father’s library, only entering the social scene when her parents insisted. In those hours alone, Edith read voraciously and made her first attempts at writing. Walter Berry, a friend of the family, was one of the first to see her early attempts at writing fiction. Berry became a lifelong confidant, sharing with her the intellectual pursuits that few others cared to share.
An Unhappy Marriage
In 1885, Edith married Boston banker Edward Robbins Wharton, known to the family because of his membership in her mother’s social circle. He was more than ten years older than Edith and suffered ill health, which, combined with Edith’s dissatisfactions with their social life, encouraged her to devote more of her time to writing. They owned a house in Newport, Rhode Island, which she redecorated with the help of the architect Ogden Codman. The book they wrote about the project, The Decoration of Houses (1897), explained that a house’s decor ought to express the owners’ personalities, instead of merely aping aristocratic tastes. The book sold well, to the dismay of her family, and confirmed her in her pursuit of a writing career.
By 1902 the Whartons had sold their house at Newport and built The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts, where they spent part of each year and entertained such friends as Henry James. It was in Lenox that Edith wrote The House of Mirth (1905). The characters in The House of Mirth were based on the actual families of aristocratic New York during this era. The Van Osburgh family, for instance, is based on the Astors.
In 1904 the Whartons gave up the annual pilgrimage to Italy they had been making in favor of explorations in France, a significant shift in preference, and one that heralded Wharton’s later expatriation. Her residence in France began in 1907, when she and her husband, who had spent the summer and autumn at The Mount, went to Paris and sublet an apartment in the elite quarter of the Faubourg St. Germain. Teddy, however, became increasingly unstable and volatile. In 1911 Wharton left The Mount for the last time, having decided to separate from Teddy and sell the property. She had hesitated about seeking a separation because of Teddy’s unstable state of mind, his attachment to their home, and his pride in overseeing it. After The Mount was sold, she proceeded with her divorce, which was granted in Paris on April 16, 1913. By this time, Europe had become home. During this period, another of Wharton’s best-known works appeared, Ethan Erome (1911). The book had its genesis on both sides of the Atlantic: begun in French as part of Wharton’s effort to learn the language, it had as its inspiration a fatal sledding accident that happened in Lenox in 1904.
In August of 1914, most of the nations of Europe became involved in World War I. Wharton’s adopted nation of France was locked in a fight for its life against Germany. The onset of World War I brought great disruption to Wharton’s life. She used her position as a well-respected public figure to become an impassioned humanitarian, launching major war-relief efforts and seeking material assistance from her countrymen.
In early 1915 Wharton was asked by the French Red Cross to visit military hospitals at the front and report on their needs, a journey that led to several other visits. These expeditions resulted in six magazine articles for Scribner’s, calculated to alert her ”rich and generous compatriots” to the desperate needs of hospitals and to bring home to her American readers ”some of the dreadful realities of war.” She collected her articles in a book, Fighting France, from Dunkerque to Belfort (1915).
In addition to writing about the cause, Wharton was an energetic fund-raiser and was further aided by ”Edith Wharton” committees in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, and Providence. With her financial support, an ambulance unit, a workroom for female garment workers, and a sanatorium for women and children with tuberculosis were established in France. France recognized her philanthropy by awarding her the Cross of the Legion of Honor.
Return of Peace
In 1919, Wharton acquired the Pavillon Colombe just outside Paris. The same year she leased a second home on the French Riviera. For the rest of her life she divided her time between the two homes. She had all but suspended her fiction writing during the war, but when it ended, was able to return to writing projects that were recognizably similar to her prewar novels. Her greatest success during this era was The Age of Innocence (1920), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921. Although she had lived in France a long time by this date, she still returned to aristocratic New York for the setting of the book, which she regarded as an ”apology” for the earlier, more satirical novel The House of Mirth.
Ten years before her death in 1937, Wharton was nominated to receive the Nobel Prize in recognition that she had become the most distinguished American writer of her generation. That she did not receive the award does not diminish either her achievement in letters or the high esteem granted to her by her contemporaries in both America and Europe.
Works in Literary Context
Wharton is best known as a novelist of manners whose fiction exposes the cruel excesses of aristocratic society in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. Her carefully crafted, psychologically complex novels, novellas, and short stories reflect concern for the status of women in society as well as for the moral decay she observed underlying the propriety of the upper classes. While her subject matter, tone, and style have often been compared with those of her friend and mentor Henry James, Wharton has achieved critical recognition as an original chronicler of the conflict between the inner self and social convention.
Wharton is often regarded as a pioneering literary feminist; this is evident in the novel The House of Mirth. Its heroine, Lily Bart, is the quintessence of ”the American Girl”—exquisitely beautiful and trained to think of herself not as a woman capable of defining her own goals and making emotional commitments that would give shape and sustenance to her life, but rather as the lovely, passive lady whose future must necessarily be defined by the man who would marry her. She has come to regard herself primarily as a decorative object.
One source of the tragedy lies in Lily’s family: her father has died, leaving an almost impoverished wife accustomed to comfort. The widowed Mrs. Bart resolves to recover her lost fortunes through her daughter, whose entire mission in life subsequently becomes defined in terms of bartering her loveliness for a wealthy husband: ”She was like some rare flower grown for exhibition, a flower from which every bud had been nipped except the crowning blossom of her beauty.” Nor is Lily liberated from this fate by her mother’s early death; she must go on, seeking to maintain a luxurious life by living parasitically on the leavings of the newly wealthy, seeking to legitimize her position by achieving the right alliance, not because she wants to, but because she has never learned anything else. She feels that she is ”somebody” only when she perceives herself reflected in the admiring mirror of someone else’s eyes.
Wharton and Literary Naturalism
Among American writers, naturalism is associated with Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, and others. For the naturalist author, human actions are largely determined by social and hereditary forces that are beyond their control. Wharton had deep knowledge of the forces of heredity and environment, gained from writers like Charles Darwin. While according Lily Bart a measure of freedom and responsibility for her behavior, Wharton could also write of her in such a way as to suggest that Lily is the poignant victim of hereditary and environmental forces that she cannot understand and over which she has little control: ”Inherited tendencies had combined with early training to make her the highly specialized product she was: an organism as helpless out of its narrow range as the sea-anemone torn from the rock.”
William James, the prominent psychologist of Wharton’s era, distinguished between a tender-minded and a tough-minded response to the question of free will and determinism. This distinction is relevant to Whar-ton’s fiction. In her insistence that heredity and environment do strongly influence moral decisions, Wharton must be called a ”tender-minded determinist” who realized, like Lily Bart’s friend Lawrence Selden, that Lily ”was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.” She learns too late about any alternative order of values based on freedom.
Works in Critical Context
The breadth of Edith Wharton’s achievement makes definition of her place in literary history difficult. For fifty years she wrote prolifically, and her audience ranged from scholars to readers of popular magazines. She produced short stories, ghost tales, novellas, novels, autobiography, literary criticism, and books on travel, landscape gardening, Italian architectural history, and interior decorating. This breadth in her career made critical assessment difficult, but by the time Wharton produced her last important novel, The Age of Innocence, critics knew what to expect and were able to fit the novel into the context of a long public career.
The Age of Innocence
Another novel about Old New York society, The Age of Innocence showcases passionate characters hemmed in by their desire to keep their membership in a dispassionate social group. Central among them is the protagonist, Newland Archer, who must give up the woman he loves in order to satisfy the moral demands of his society. ”Archer, with his insecurity, his sensitivity, and his passion has obeyed the moral imperatives of his class and time and has given up Ellen and love for the furtherance of the shallow-seeming aims, all amorphous as they are, of his [New York] world,” observed Louis O. Coxe. Wharton allows Archer to confess that a life of duty has its rewards, Coxe added—and yet it is a lonely life, since the next generation, represented by Archer’s son, enjoys freedom from social pressure and is unable to understand this kind of sacrifice. Other critics stressed the structural qualities of the book. Joseph Warren Beach noted that ”The book is remarkable for unity and simplicity of action.” Wharton achieves this unity through her development of characters, especially her protagonist: ”What more than anything else contributes to the unity and compactness of the drama is that Newland Archer is present in every scene, and that everything is shown from his point of view.” This technique ”keeps our curiosity and concern at the same white heat as Newland’s.” The novel was acclaimed as one of Wharton’s best, and, according to The New York Times writer William Lyon Phelps, was ”one of the best novels of the twentieth century” and ”a permanent addition to literature.”
- Beach, Joseph Warren. The Twentieth Century Novel: Studies in Technique. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1932.
- Farwell, Tricia M. Love and Death in Edith Wharton’s Fiction. New York: Peter Lang, 2006.
- Lee, Hermione. Edith Wharton. New York: Knopf, 2007.
- Sloboda, Noel. The Making of Americans in Paris: The Autobiographies of Edith Wharton and Gertrude Stein. New York: Peter Lang, 2008.
- Turk, Ruth. Edith Wharton: Beyond the Age of Innocence. Greensboro, N.C.: Tudor, 1997.
- Wagner-Martin, Linda. The Age of Innocence: A Novel of Ironic Nostaglia. New York: Twayne, 1996.
- Wright, Sarah Bird. Edith Wharton’s Travel Writing: The Making of a Connoisseur. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
- Coxe, Lewis O. ”What Edith Wharton Saw in Innocence.” The New Republic 132 (June 17,1955): 16-18.
- Kim, Sharon. ”Edith Wharton and Epiphany.” Journal of Modern Literature 29 (Spring 2006): 150-175.
- McLoughlin, Kate. ”Edith Wharton, War Correspondent.” Edith Wharton Review 21 (Fall 2005): 1-10.
- Phelps, William Lyon. ”As Mrs. Wharton Sees Us.” The New York Times Book Review (October 11,1920): 1,11.
- Rattray, Laura. ”The Unpublished Writings of Edith Wharton.” Edith Wharton Review 22 (Fall 2006): 1-6.
- The Edith Wharton Society. The Edith Wharton Society Homepage. Retrieved December 8, 2008, from http://www.wsu.edu/ ~campbelld/wharton/ index.html. Last updated on December 8, 2008.
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