Special Commissioned Essay on Edith Wharton, Maureen E. Montgomery


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Special Commissioned Essay on Edith Wharton, Maureen E. Montgomery

The following chronology offers an overview of Wharton's life and career. The topics presented here are discussed in greater detail in the critical essay that follows.

1862: 24 January, birth of Edith Newbold Jones, the youngest child and only daughter of Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander and George Frederic Jones, at their home, 14 West Twenty-Third Street, New York. On 20 April, Edith is baptized at Grace Church on Broadway.

1866-1872: George Jones leases both the family home in Manhattan and their summer house, Pencraig, in Newport (a fashionable summer resort) and, in November 1866, takes the family to live in Europe. They spend time in Italy, Spain, France and Germany. Edith is privately tutored during these years and becomes conversant in French, Italian and German.

1872-80: The Jones family returns to the United States in June 1872. Edith continues her education with a governess. She is particularly attracted to poetry, translates German poetry, and writes verse of her own, a selection of which her mother has privately printed in Newport. In 1880 five of her poems are chosen for publication by the Atlantic Monthly.

1877: At the age of 15, Edith completes her first work of fiction, a novella called Fast and Loose, which she keeps largely secret.

1879: Edith Jones makes her social debut in Mrs. Levi P. Morton's private ballroom. She meets Harry Stevens, son of a hotel proprietor and an ambitious society matron.

1880-1882: Her father's health deteriorates and the family sails to Europe in the hope of his recovery in a warmer climate. However, George Jones dies in Cannes in 1882, and Stevens, who has been staying with the family on the Riviera, accompanies Edith and her mother home to Newport.

1883: Edith inherits $20,000 from her father and a share of his estate which is held in trust for her. In July, at Bar Harbor, she meets Walter Berry, a young lawyer, and has a brief courtship with him before being courted by Boston socialite, Edward (Teddy) Wharton, during the summer season at Newport. He is twelve years her senior.

1885: In January the engagement of Edith to Teddy is announced. On 29 April, they are married by the Reverend Morgan Dix in Trinity Chapel, New York.

1885-1891: Edith and Teddy spend most of the year in Newport living in Pencraig Cottage on Lucretia Jones' estate, and, from February to June, travel around Europe, mostly in Italy.

1888: Edith inherits $120,000 from Joshua Jones, a cousin of her paternal grandfather, thereby securing the Whartons' financial position. Two of her poems appear in Scribner's Magazine, and one each in Harper's Monthly and Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine.

1890: In July, Edith publishes her first story, “Mrs. Manstey's View” in Scribner's.

1891-1893: Scribner's publishes several more of her stories including “The Fullness of Life,” “That Good May Come” and “The Lamp of Psyche,” and Edith begins writing a novella, The Bunner Sisters, which is rejected by Scribner's and not published until 1916.

1894-96: At the end of 1895, Edith and the architect Ogden Codman decide to collaborate on a book on interior decoration. Wharton spends much of an 1896 trip to Italy doing research for the project. In July Scribner's publishes “The Valley of Childish Things.”

1897: In February Macmillan agrees to publish Wharton and Codman's The Decoration of Houses, but then cancels the contract following a financial crisis on Wall Street. Wharton persuades Scribner to take it on and redrafts the book with Walter Berry's assistance. Despite pessimistic predictions on the part of Brownell and Scribner, the book sells very well.

1899: In March, Wharton publishes her first volume of short stories, The Greater Inclination, which sells well and receives favorable attention from critics on both sides of the Atlantic. She views this as significant acknowledgement of her as a serious writer of fiction. In September, Wharton starts work on a novel, The Valley of Decision, a historical novel set in eighteenth-century Italy, as well as a novella, The Touchstone.

1900: The Touchstone is serialized in Scribner's during March and April, and then published in book form, selling 5,000 copies by the end of the year. Edith prepares another volume of short stories.

1901: In April, Wharton's second volume of short stories is published under the title Crucial Instances.

1902: In February, Wharton publishes The Valley of Decision. Although her first novel is well received and is a financial success, Edith is beset with health problems. She begins work on another novel with the working title, Disintegration, which later becomes The House of Mirth.

1903: Wharton is commissioned by Century magazine to write articles on Italian villas, which are later collected and published in book form as Italian Villas and their Gardens. Wharton has a productive summer preparing her third collection of short stories. A novella, Sanctuary, is serialized in Scribner's in July and is published in book form in October. In the autumn she resumes work on The House of Mirth.

1904: In April, Wharton's third volume of short stories, The Descent of Man, is published.

1905: Scribner's begin to serialize The House of Mirth before she has completed the manuscript. Wharton also is beginning on her fourth volume of short stories, The Hermit and The Wild Woman. In March, Scribner publishes Italian Backgrounds, containing sketches of Italy that she has been accumulating over the previous ten years. On 14 October The House of Mirth is published in two volumes. Forty thousand copies are initially printed, and a further 100,000 by the end of the year. It is the best-selling American novel in 1905.

1906: In August, Scribner's runs Wharton's novella, Madame de Treymes. Wharton pushes herself to finish a novel, The Fruit of the Tree, in time for its serialization in Scribner's.

1907: Wharton spends the summer beginning work on a new novel, The Custom of the Country. The Fruit of the Tree is published in book form in October to critical acclaim. The House of Mirth is serialized by the Revue de Paris.

1908: In September her fourth volume of short stories, The Hermit and the Wild Woman, is published.

1909: Wharton's work on the novel, The Custom of the Country, is sporadic at best while tending to her husband, but she manages to publish a book of poetry, Artemis to Actaeon in April and to write a new collection of short stories.

1910: Wharton starts work on a new novel, Ethan Frome. Tales of Men and Ghosts, her fifth volume of short stories, appears in October.

1911: Wharton resumes work on Ethan Frome, which appears in Scribner's between August and October. It is published in book form at the end of September and is claimed by some critics to be her best work.

1912: Disappointed by the poor sales of Ethan Frome, Wharton decides to publish her next novel, The Reef, with Messrs. Appleton, but its sales are also poor and the reviews fairly negative. Edith almost completes The Custom of the Country, which she has been working on sporadically since 1908.

1913: Scribner's begins serializing The Custom of the Country in January. Edith finally decides to divorce Teddy and the decree is granted on 16 April.

1915: In February Wharton makes her first of several visits to World War I battle areas and writes articles for American newspapers and Scribner's, later collected into one volume: Fighting France.

1916: In October Scribners publishes Xingu and Other Stories (her sixth volume of short stories), but Wharton accepts a handsome offer from Appleton for Summer; a companion volume to Ethan Frome, and begins work on a new novel, The Glimpses of the Moon.

1917: McClure's begins serializing Summer in February. It is published to mixed reviews in May: panned by American critics and praised by English ones.

1919: Wharton publishes a miscellany of articles in a collection titled French Ways and their Meanings, and starts work on The Age of Innocence, a novel about New York society set in the 1870s.

1920: In July serialization of The Age of Innocence begins in the Pictorial Review. It is published in October to glowing reviews and sells very well.

1921: In May, The Age of Innocence wins the Pulitzer Prize (Wharton is the first woman recipient). Wharton resumes work on The Glimpses of the Moon and completes it ahead of schedule

1922: Appleton publishes The Glimpses of the Moon, another best-seller, in July.

1923: In September Scribners publishes A Son at the Front (the last of hers to appear on their list) and Edith moves on to her next novel, The Mother's Recompense.

1924: In May, Appleton publishes Old New York, a collection of four novellas, three of which, “Old Maid,” “New Year's Day,” and “False Dawn,” have been published separately in 1922. The Mother's Recompense appears in serial form in the Pictorial Review.

1925: In April, The Mother's Recompense comes out in book form. The Writing of Fiction, Wharton's views on literary technique, is published in October by Scribners.

1926: The Pictorial Review serializes Twilight Sleep, which becomes a best-seller after publication in May. Appleton also bring out a volume of short stories, Here and Beyond, her first in ten years.

1928: Wharton finishes The Children, a best-seller, which is chosen as the September Book-of-the-Month. She immediately commences work on Hudson River Bracketed.

1930: Wharton's eighth volume of short stories, Certain People, appears in November.

1933: Wharton publishes her ninth volume of short stories, Human Nature, in March.

1934: A Backward Glance is published in April.

1936: Wharton's final volume of short stories, The World Over, appears and is both a critical and financial success.

1937: In June, Wahrton has a second stroke in Paris, and dies 11 August 1937. In October Appleton-Century collects her ghost stories and publishes them under the title Ghosts.


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Maureen E. Montgomery

SOURCE: Montgomery, Maureen E. “An Overview of the Life and Career of Edith Wharton.” In Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 129, edited by Scott Darga and Linda Pavlovski. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group, 2003.

[In the following original essay, Montgomery discusses Wharton's life, career, awards and recognition, and overall body of work, while also examining the era in which Wharton wrote and the critical reception of her works.]

Wharton was born during the early part of the American Civil War and died on the eve of the Second World War, having actively participated in war relief work during the...

(The entire section is 8607 words.)

Wharton At Work

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Wharton had no formal education but she was extremely well read and took advantage of her father's extensive library to immerse herself in European literature, art history and philosophy. Her first literary endeavors were with poetry but, in 1876, she produced her first novella, titled Fast and Loose, and using the pseudonym David Olivieri. She played out in her youthful imagination what it would be like to be a published author and made up reviews of the novella. The reviews themselves were a send-up of the condescending tone adopted by reviewers at this time, but they also reveal the aspiring writer's fear of failure. One of her mock reviews declares:


(The entire section is 2582 words.)

Wharton's Era

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Wharton's life spanned three-quarters of a century of momentous change, an era of modernization when a Victorian America governed by strict moral codes gave way to the modern era with its increasingly liberal attitudes towards divorce, birth control, and women's paid employment. The period was one of massive change in technology and culture that transformed the way people thought and experienced time and space, particularly with the invention of the telephone, instantaneous photography and the Kodak camera, the motion picture, the automobile and the airplane.

During Wharton's lifetime, the number of states in the union expanded from 36 to 48 and the population grew from approximately 32 million to...

(The entire section is 4773 words.)

Wharton's Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

An annotated bibliography of Wharton's works:

Verses. Newport, RI: C. E. Hammett, Jr., 1878. Poems which Wharton's mother arranged to have privately and anonymously printed.

“Mrs. Manstey's View.” Scribner's July 1891.

“The Fullness of Life.” Scribner's December 1893.

“That Good May Come.” Scribner's May 1894.

“The Lamp of Psyche.” Scribner's October 1895.

“The Valley of Childish Things.” Scribner's July 1896.

The Decoration of Houses. With Ogden Codman. New York: Scribners, 1897. Macmillan had originally contracted the work...

(The entire section is 5775 words.)

Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Additional coverage of Wharton's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers; American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 25; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1865-1917; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 132, 104; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 4, 9, 12, 78, 189; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 13; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering...

(The entire section is 151 words.)