Edith Wharton’s prolific career includes the publication of novels, novellas, short stories, poetry, travel books, criticism, works on landscaping and interior decoration, a translation, an autobiography, and wartime pamphlets and journalism. Her novel The Age of Innocence (1920) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1921. Several of her works have been adapted for the stage, including The Age of Innocence and the novels Ethan Frome (1911), The House of Mirth (1905), and The Old Maid (1924). The dramatization of The Old Maid was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1935. Films based on Edith Wharton’s works include The House of Mirth, The Glimpses of the Moon (1922), and The Old Maid.
Edith Wharton’s talent in affording her reader an elegant, well-constructed glance at upper-class New York and European society won for her high esteem from the earliest years of her career. The novel The House of Mirth was her first best-seller and, along with Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence, is considered to be one of her finest works. During World War I, Wharton served the Allied cause in Europe by organizing relief efforts and caring for Belgian orphans, work for which she was inducted into the French Legion of Honor in 1916 and the Order of Leopold (Belgium) in 1919. In the United States, the 1920’s would see Wharton’s literary career flower. In 1921, she became the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize, awarded to her for The Age of Innocence; in 1923, she also became the first female recipient of an honorary degree of doctor of letters from Yale University; in 1927, she was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature; in 1928, her novel The Children was the Book-of-the-Month Club selection for September. By 1930, Wharton was one of the most highly regarded American authors of the time and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. After Wharton’s death in 1937, her fiction was not as widely read by the general public as it was during her lifetime. Feminist literary scholars, however, have reexamined Wharton’s works for their unmistakable portrayal of women’s lives in the early 1900’s.
In addition to her novels, of which several had appeared serially in Scribners, The Delineator, and The Pictorial Review, Edith Wharton (HWAWRT-uhn) published eleven collections of short stories and three volumes of poetry as well as a variety of nonfiction works. She wrote an early and influential book on interior decorating and design, The Decoration of Houses (1897; in collaboration with architect Ogden Codman, Jr.); a short book on the art of narrative, The Writing of Fiction (1925), published originally in Scribner’s magazine; and a delightful if highly selective autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934), which includes, among other things, an amusing account of Henry James’s circumlocutory manner of speech.
Wharton, an indefatigable traveler, recorded accounts of her travels in Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904), Italian Backgrounds (1905), A Motor-Flight Through France (1908), and In Morocco (1920). During World War I, she wrote numerous pamphlets and letters to inform Americans about French and Belgian suffering and to enlist sympathy and support. Articles she wrote to explain the French people to American soldiers were later collected in the volume French Ways and Their Meaning (1919), and accounts of her five tours of the front lines were published under the title Fighting France, from Dunkerque to Belfort (1915). Wharton also published a great many short stories, articles, and reviews that have never been collected. A number of her stories and novels have been adapted for the stage, motion pictures, and television, and have also been translated into French, Italian, Spanish, German, Danish, Finnish, and Japanese.
Unlike Henry James, whose readership was small and intensely discriminating, Edith Wharton managed to attract a large audience of general readers and at the same time command the interest of critics and fellow writers as well. Among her admirers were Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald; Bernard Berenson, the art critic; and Percy Lubbock. Wharton’s popularity remained high almost to the end of her career in the 1930’s, but critical enthusiasm began to diminish after 1920, when the quality of her fiction declined.
Even in the early years, 1905 to 1920, when Wharton’s best fiction was being published, there were reservations expressed or implied by those who thought her a follower of and to some extent a lesser James, a charge easier to disprove than to eradicate. The truth is, though Wharton learned from James—and a few of her novels, particularly Madame de Treymes, reflect Jamesian themes as well as techniques—Wharton had her own manner as well as her own subject, and as she grew older, she continued to discover differences between her fiction and James’s. It should also be pointed out (whether in praise or blame will depend on the critic) that James was a more dedicated artist than Wharton; his fiction had a finish and a coherence to be found in only a half dozen of her novels; moreover, Wharton sometimes skated on the thin ice of superficiality, and in one novel, The Glimpses of the Moon, plunged through. Toward the end of her career, she also grew increasingly out of touch with life in the postwar world, much of which offended her. Her long residence in France, moreover, not only cut her off from the life of her fellow countryfolk but also—since she spoke French or Italian almost exclusively—loosened her grasp of English, so much so that a critic such as the young Edmund Wilson could complain that there were awkward phrases even in her masterpiece The Age of Innocence.
Wharton’s major talent was for social observation. Unlike James, whose interest was ultimately metaphysical and whose novels were often invented from the slightest hints and employed few details, Wharton filled her novels with precise accounts of the decoration of houses, of dress and of dinner parties, describing them often down to the cut...
Ammons, Elizabeth. Edith Wharton’s Argument with America. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980. Ammons proposes that Wharton’s “argument with America” concerns the freedom of women, an argument in which she had a key role during three decades of significant upheaval and change. This engaging book examines the evolution of Wharton’s point of view in her novels and discusses the effect of World War I on Wharton. Contains a notes section.
Auchincloss, Louis. Edith Wharton. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1961. This pamphlet covers Edith Wharton’s biography and critically examines Wharton’s plots,...