Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth Century)
Article abstract: Edith Wharton was a novelist who was noted for her portrayal of the decline of New York aristocracy and for her characters’ trapped sensibilities.
Edith Newbold Jones, the daughter of George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelender Jones, was born into a society of aristocrats who led a leisured, proper life and disdained business and politics. Wharton’s family was a prime example of “old” New York: moneyed, cultivated, and rigidly conventional.
According to custom, young Edith was educated by tutors and governesses. She also spent much of her childhood abroad with her family. Edith was forbidden to read literary “rubbish,” so she fell back on the classics on her father’s bookshelves. Despite her culture and education, Edith was expected to excel primarily in society, which involved rigid adherence to proper manners, dress, and lifestyle.
In 1885, Edith was married to another American socialite, Edward Wharton, an easygoing and unintellectual man. The Whartons led an affluent, social life in America and in Europe, uninterrupted by children or financial concerns.
Although Edith Wharton performed her social tasks well, her duties were not enough for her hungry mind. She began writing poems, stories, books on interior decorating, and travel pieces. Her husband was embarrassed by his wife’s writing, and her friends also did not approve. Fortunately, Edith Wharton made the acquaintance of writer Henry James. James not only supported her writing but also served as her confidant throughout periods of emotional turmoil. Although Edith claimed that she wrote for distraction, her diary notes that only by creating another imaginary world through writing could she endure the “moral solitude” of her marriage. Despite obvious incompatibilities, Edith and Edward lived together for twenty-eight years. That they did not divorce until 1913 is probably because of conservative class traditions.
Wharton’s divorce plus other personal tensions spurred her to do some of her best work. She converted her anguish into writing about the corrosive effects of social class upon a woman’s identity. Young Edith Wharton found her society’s indifference to anything but forms stultifying. Much of her writing examines the superfluous details of a refined class frozen in convention. Wharton also portrayed struggling characters trapped by larger social forces and, sometimes, by morally inferior individuals. Nevertheless, when Wharton grew old, she concluded that the “Age of Innocence” in which she was reared was preferable to the modern world, which valued nothing.
The declining aristocracy became Edith Wharton’s principal subject matter. She most often depicted the society of “old” New York in conflict with nouveau riche capitalists of the Gilded Age, who respected only money.
Edith Wharton’s early literary output included poems, decorating books, short stories, and three novels. In 1899, a volume of short stories, The Greater Inclination, was published, followed by The Touchstone (1900). In 1901, Crucial Instances followed; these short books have a Jamesian influence. Wharton’s three poetry collections are overserious and overornamented. Her first novel, The Valley of Decision (1902), another form of George Eliot’s Romola, is notable because its descriptions capture the spirit of eighteenth century Italy. Wharton’s novel Sanctuary (1903) and her short stories in The Descent of Man (1904) are still experimental. Nevertheless, in these early works appear two of Wharton’s basic themes: the aristocratic, cold, egoistic male and the strong female, who eventually dominates the male.
The House of Mirth (1905) marked the beginning of Edith Wharton’s mature artistic period. Wharton had discovered her medium and subject: the novel of manners and the invasion of old New York society by the millionaire “nouveau riche.” Wharton indicated her realization that Knickerbocker society would eventually make peace with the “invaders.” Her story concerned those who were trampled in this social clash. The novel’s Lily Bart is similar to a Dreiser heroine in that she is doomed by heredity and a materialistic environment. Lily struggles to improve herself but is defeated by her embrace of a heartless social ideal and by scruples that prevent her from marrying only for money.
Despite the success of The House of Mirth, Wharton delayed for years before returning to the subject of society’s clash with the invaders. Madame de Treymes (1907) is an innocents-abroad story with a Jamesian influence. The Fruit of the Tree (1907), a reform novel, considers labor reform and the morality of euthanasia, but it fails because of lack of unity. The Hermit and the Wild Woman (1908) is made up of slender stories of artists, but Tales of Men and Ghosts (1910) contains chilling ghost stories.
The novella Ethan Frome (1911) made Edith Wharton famous. Although Ethan Frome involves a poor New England farm family, Wharton’s familiar themes predominate: a man under female domination and a human being crushed by...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
No other writer of her time knew the upper classes of the United States more intimately or detailed their lives more movingly or convincingly than did Wharton. Her attitude toward “old New York” was one of both anger and nostalgia—anger at its stifling hypocrisies and moral passivity and nostalgia for the stability and sense of tradition which were being assaulted by the rise of the new industrial classes at the beginning of the twentieth century. The tension between these two conflicting emotions provides the subject matter for most of Wharton’s work. Torn between scorn and admiration for the old ways and fear of the chaos she saw accompanying the new, her fiction stands at the threshold of the twentieth century, a harbinger of the changes to come in American life.
Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Edith Newbold Jones was born into the highest level of society. Like most girls of her generation and social class, she was educated at home. At the age of twenty-three she married a wealthy young man, Edward Wharton; they had no children. Wharton divided her time between writing and her duties as a society hostess. Her husband, emotionally unstable, suffered several nervous breakdowns, and in 1913, they were divorced. Wharton spent a great deal of time in Europe; after 1912 she returned to America only once, to accept the honorary degree of doctor of letters from Yale University in 1923. During World War I, Wharton was very active in war work in France for which she was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1916. Realizing...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones on January 24, 1862, in New York City. Her parents, George Frederic and Lucretia Rhinelander Jones, were descendants of early English and Dutch settlers and belonged to the pre-Civil War New York aristocracy, families whose wealth consisted largely of Manhattan real estate and who constituted in their common ancestry, landed wealth, and traditional manners a tightly knit, closed society. With the industrial expansion that occurred during and immediately after the Civil War, the old society was “invaded” by a new class of self-made rich men such as John Jacob Astor and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Whereas the old society had lived unostentatiously, observing, outwardly at least, a strict code...
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Edith Newbold Jones was born into a socially prominent old New York family. It is said that the cliché “keeping up with the Joneses” was coined in reference to her father’s family and its considerable wealth. The genteel society that shaped the young Edith Wharton valued, above all, respectability—or at least its appearance—and mandated strict conformity to social customs and conventions. Wharton’s Old New York was a patrician world of refinement, one that wore its wealth tastefully and quietly, but one that suffocated individual expression. Wharton’s writing probes her American society, and her assessments of that society are complex and ambivalent. Believing that a well-ordered, codified, and mannerly social unit...
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Edith Newbold Jones Wharton (HWAWRT-uhn) is one of the masters of American realistic fiction. She was born in New York City on January 24, 1862, into a family that held a high place in New York society. Throughout her life, Wharton valued the refined manners and charms of fashionable society, but she was also deeply conscious of its superficiality and pettiness. By the time she was a teenager, private tutoring and extensive travel in Europe had made her fluent in German, French, and Italian as well as English. Wharton’s writings frequently reveal her wide range of intellectual interests, which encompassed history, art, sociology, and science as well as literature. Her artistic and intellectual interests were not shared by Edward...
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Edith Newbold Jones was born to a wealthy family in New York City on January 24, 1862, and soon learned the manners and traditions of society life that would characterize her fiction. Because her family lived in Europe for much of her childhood, she was educated abroad and privately. She enjoyed travel and reading from a young age, and while her parents supported these interests, they disapproved of her ambitions to become an author. Her lifelong love of books, foreign places, and nature would figure into her successful career as a writer. Biographers depict her as a lively, congenial woman who made friends easily. This may account for her friendships with such notable men as author Henry James and Theodore Roosevelt.
In 1885, she married Edward (Teddy) Robbins Wharton, a banker who was thirteen years her senior. They lived in New York City; Newport, Rhode Island; and Lenox, Massachusetts; and traveled to Europe often. As she became more serious about her writing, Wharton designed and built a home in Lenox, called "The Mount," as a writer's retreat. From 1900 to 1911, she often went there to escape social pressures and immerse herself in undistracted writing. Her marriage was unhappy, however, and because Teddy had numerous affairs, embezzled her money, and struggled with mental illness, Wharton divorced him in 1913. Wharton was independent and never remarried, although rumors persist about two important men in her life who may have been her lovers.
Published in 1905, The House of Mirth was Wharton's first critically acclaimed novel. By this time, she had become a good friend of Henry James, and she followed in his footsteps and became an expatriate in Paris, enjoying extended stays beginning in 1907. When she sold The Mount in 1911, she made Paris her permanent residence. Her talent responded well to the new environment, and she published volumes of short stories and novels, which earned her a faithful following, critical acceptance, and a Pulitzer Prize in 1921 for The Age of Innocence. In addition to being the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, Wharton was the first woman to be awarded the Gold Medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. She also received an honorary degree from prestigious Yale University in 1923, one of the few occasions that brought her back to the United States.
Wharton died of cardiac arrest in France on August 11, 1937.
IntroductionFor her novel The Age of Innocence (1921), Edith Wharton became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for literature. Although wealthy and female, she was also one of the few American civilians who traveled to the front lines in France during World War I. She wrote a series of articles about that experience, and in 1916 was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. She remained in France until her death in 1937, but she did return to the United States on one occasion to get an honorary doctorate degree from Yale. Despite the time she spent away from the United States, Edith Wharton is celebrated for her novels that perfectly captured (and gently criticized) the upper class in America.
- “Keeping up with the Joneses” is a phrase coined about Edith Wharton’s family. She was born Edith Newbold Jones, and her privileged lifestyle led to many of her finest works.
- Wharton had many influential ancestors, including Ebenezer Stevens who participated in the Boston Tea Party.
- Wharton once said this about the critical response to her writing: “After all, one knows one’s weak points so well that it’s rather bewildering to have the critics overlook them and invent others.”
- Wharton was divorced from her husband in 1913, but rather than view a divorce as scandalous she saw it as a “diploma of virtue.”
- Wharton was working on a novel, The Buccaneers, at the time of her death. The unfinished novel was published in 1938, and a version completed by author Marion Mainwaring was published in 1993.
Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones on January 24, 1862, into the wealthy “aristocracy” of the old New York society which would become the focus of much of her fiction. Her mother and father, George F. and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander Jones, both traced their family lines back three hundred years; their ancestors were mentioned in Washington Irving’s history of the Hudson River.
Wharton spent most of her childhood in Europe, where her family fled to avoid post-Civil War inflation. Returning to the United States in 1872, the Whartons followed the pattern common among their social set, wintering in New York...
(The entire section is 962 words.)