No Gifts from Chance Essay - Critical Essays

Shari Benstock

No Gifts from Chance

Shari Benstock has doggedly pursued the hard-to-obtain sources that make this first major biography of Edith Wharton since R. W. B. Lewis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning EDITH WHARTON (1975) an essential contribution to Wharton studies and to American literary history and interpretation. Benstock presents Wharton in all of her intriguing complexity. She is particularly successful in demonstrating, from a feminist perspective, the constraints upon women in American society during the half century after Wharton’s birth in 1862 and Wharton’s reactions to such constraints.

Early in her text, Benstock writes, “Transgression and confession were indissolubly linked in Edith’s mind.” Throughout the book, one is aware of how important this pattern was in the author’s social interactions, thinking, and writing. Benstock is perceptive in her demonstration of the paradoxes that drove Wharton and that were, life-long, fundamental parts of her intricate mental apparatus. She presents credibly the whole of Wharton’s multifaceted existence as social doyenne, author of forty-seven books, World War I relief worker and correspondent, and expatriate.

This book is an indispensable resource of well-documented factual information about Wharton, her friends, her literary associates, and her family. Despite her heavy emphasis upon such information, Benstock keeps her biography from buckling under the weight of its factual details by writing with extraordinary ease and clarity and by relating her factual information cogently to elements of Wharton’s life that would be impossible to present convincingly were they not supported by the considerable primary evidence Benstock has unearthed. More than eighty percent of the book is based upon new primary resources that Benstock has tracked down and assimilated.

Sources for Further Study

Belles Lettres. X, Fall, 1994, p. 8.

The Christian Science Monitor. August 18, 1994, p. 13.

Ms. V, July, 1994, p. 76.

New Statesman and Society. VII, November 4, 1994, p. 37.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, August 14, 1994, p. 29.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, May 9, 1994, p. 55.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 28, 1994, p. 7.

The Wall Street Journal. August 11, 1994, p. A10.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, July 31, 1994, p. 3.

The Women’s Review of Books. XII, October, 1994, p. 17.