Considered by many critics to be one of the most important American fiction writers of the twentieth century, Edith Wharton in 1921 became the first woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. She was then just past the midpoint of a prolific forty-year writing career that included the publication of more than twenty novels and novellas, numerous short stories, travel books, works on interior decoration and gardening, and three volumes of poetry. In the first part of the twentieth century, critics often regarded Wharton as being solely a chronicler of the social mores of the upper classes of old New York. That reductive opinion was later corrected, as many other aspects of her career and works were fruitfully explored and analyzed from various critical angles.
The Old Maid, the second of a quartet of novellas published under the title Old New York in 1924, belongs to that phase of Wharton’s career after World War I when she focused on the city’s aristocracy in the decades prior to her birth. It was written shortly after the publication in 1920 of The Age of Innocence, the somewhat nostalgic novel of 1870’s New York high society for which Wharton was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. The Old Maid is definitely not a nostalgic fictional reminiscence but represents instead a backward glance marked by a keen sense of disappointment, anguish, and loss about the shortcomings of the past. In fact, the topic of illegitimacy, around which the novella revolves, made publishers initially reluctant to accept the work for publication. Despite such prudish fears, the novella turned out to be one of Wharton’s most popular and durable successes; it was adapted for the stage by Zoë Atkins and won the Pulitzer Prize in drama in 1935, and a melodramatic film version in 1939 starred Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins.
The four novellas of Old New York are carefully linked and unified through such narrative strategies as chronological sequencing from the 1840’s through the 1870’s, recurrent family names and characters, and the gradual revelation in each novella of some crucial factors. Such a linking of four novellas under a unified title was an innovation in American literature. In fact, Wharton may have been attempting no less than to emulate a writer she much admired, Honoré de Balzac, and write a short American version of his grand series of interrelated...
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