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.
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 that after her death her friends would suppress much of her real personality in their accounts of her life, and wanting the truth to be told, Wharton willed her private papers to Yale University, with instructions that they were not to be published until 1968. These papers revealed a totally unexpected side of Wharton’s character: passionate, impulsive, and vulnerable. This new view of the author has had a marked effect on subsequent interpretations of her work.
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 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 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 City and summering in Newport, Rhode Island. As was the practice for a girl of her social status, she...
(The entire section is 960 words.)