Edith Wharton Biography

Edith Wharton became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for literature for her novel The Age of Innocence (1921). Although wealthy and female, she was also one of the few American civilians who traveled to the front lines in France during World War I. She wrote a series of articles about that experience, and in 1916 was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. She remained in France until her death in 1937, although she did return to the United States on one occasion to get an honorary doctorate degree from Yale. Despite the time she spent away from the United States, Edith Wharton is celebrated for her novels that perfectly captured (and gently criticized) the upper class in America.

Facts and Trivia

  • “Keeping up with the Joneses” is a phrase coined about Edith Wharton’s family. She was born Edith Newbold Jones, and her privileged lifestyle inspired many of her finest works.
  • Wharton had many influential ancestors, including Ebenezer Stevens, who participated in the Boston Tea Party.
  • Wharton once said this about the critical response to her writing: “After all, one knows one’s weak points so well that it’s rather bewildering to have the critics overlook them and invent others.”
  • Wharton was divorced from her husband in 1913, but rather than view a divorce as scandalous she saw it as a “diploma of virtue.”
  • Wharton was working on a novel, The Buccaneers, at the time of her death. The unfinished novel was published in 1938, and a version completed by author Marion Mainwaring was published in 1993.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2176

Article abstract: Edith Wharton was a novelist who was noted for her portrayal of the decline of New York aristocracy and for her characters’ trapped sensibilities.

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Early Life

Edith Newbold Jones, the daughter of George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelender Jones, was born into a society of aristocrats who led a leisured, proper life and disdained business and politics. Wharton’s family was a prime example of “old” New York: moneyed, cultivated, and rigidly conventional.

According to custom, young Edith was educated by tutors and governesses. She also spent much of her childhood abroad with her family. Edith was forbidden to read literary “rubbish,” so she fell back on the classics on her father’s bookshelves. Despite her culture and education, Edith was expected to excel primarily in society, which involved rigid adherence to proper manners, dress, and lifestyle.

In 1885, Edith was married to another American socialite, Edward Wharton, an easygoing and unintellectual man. The Whartons led an affluent, social life in America and in Europe, uninterrupted by children or financial concerns.

Although Edith Wharton performed her social tasks well, her duties were not enough for her hungry mind. She began writing poems, stories, books on interior decorating, and travel pieces. Her husband was embarrassed by his wife’s writing, and her friends also did not approve. Fortunately, Edith Wharton made the acquaintance of writer Henry James. James not only supported her writing but also served as her confidant throughout periods of emotional turmoil. Although Edith claimed that she wrote for distraction, her diary notes that only by creating another imaginary world through writing could she endure the “moral solitude” of her marriage. Despite obvious incompatibilities, Edith and Edward lived together for twenty-eight years. That they did not divorce until 1913 is probably because of conservative class traditions.

Wharton’s divorce plus other personal tensions spurred her to do some of her best work. She converted her anguish into writing about the corrosive effects of social class upon a woman’s identity. Young Edith Wharton found her society’s indifference to anything but forms stultifying. Much of her writing examines the superfluous details of a refined class frozen in convention. Wharton also portrayed struggling characters trapped by larger social forces and, sometimes, by morally inferior individuals. Nevertheless, when Wharton grew old, she concluded that the “Age of Innocence” in which she was reared was preferable to the modern world, which valued nothing.

The declining aristocracy became Edith Wharton’s principal subject matter. She most often depicted the society of “old” New York in conflict with nouveau riche capitalists of the Gilded Age, who respected only money.

Life’s Work

Edith Wharton’s early literary output included poems, decorating books, short stories, and three novels. In 1899, a volume of short stories, The Greater Inclination, was published, followed by The Touchstone (1900). In 1901, Crucial Instances followed; these short books have a Jamesian influence. Wharton’s three poetry collections are overserious and overornamented. Her first novel, The Valley of Decision (1902), another form of George Eliot’s Romola, is notable because its descriptions capture the spirit of eighteenth century Italy. Wharton’s novel Sanctuary (1903) and her short stories in The Descent of Man (1904) are still experimental. Nevertheless, in these early works appear two of Wharton’s basic themes: the aristocratic, cold, egoistic male and the strong female, who eventually dominates the male.

The House of Mirth (1905) marked the beginning of Edith Wharton’s mature artistic period. Wharton had discovered her medium and subject: the novel of manners and the invasion of old New York society by the millionaire “nouveau riche.” Wharton indicated her realization that Knickerbocker society would eventually make peace with the “invaders.” Her story concerned those who were trampled in this social clash. The novel’s Lily Bart is similar to a Dreiser heroine in that she is doomed by heredity and a materialistic environment. Lily struggles to improve herself but is defeated by her embrace of a heartless social ideal and by scruples that prevent her from marrying only for money.

Despite the success of The House of Mirth, Wharton delayed for years before returning to the subject of society’s clash with the invaders. Madame de Treymes (1907) is an innocents-abroad story with a Jamesian influence. The Fruit of the Tree (1907), a reform novel, considers labor reform and the morality of euthanasia, but it fails because of lack of unity. The Hermit and the Wild Woman (1908) is made up of slender stories of artists, but Tales of Men and Ghosts (1910) contains chilling ghost stories.

The novella Ethan Frome (1911) made Edith Wharton famous. Although Ethan Frome involves a poor New England farm family, Wharton’s familiar themes predominate: a man under female domination and a human being crushed by circumstances and his own scruples. Ethan Frome is noted for its spare style, masterly details, tragic ending, and symbolism. Although Wharton used details, she did not often use symbolism. Ethan Frome’s theme is enhanced by landscape symbols that reflect Ethan’s spiritual desolation. Suffocating snow symbolizes Ethan’s financial and social trap, and withered apple trees on a slate hillside symbolize Ethan’s emotional starvation.

The Reef (1912), although praised as a “Racinian” novel, puzzles readers because of its moral tone. The story involves a widow, who is at last to marry an old bachelor admirer, and her stepson, who is to marry the family governess. When she discovers that her fiancé and the governess have been lovers, the widow, Mrs. Leath, breaks her engagement. When she goes to the governess’ sister’s home to tell Sophy that she has given up her fiancé, she learns that Sophy has left for India in disreputable company. This departure leaves Leath free to return to her fiancé. The novel’s problem is its implicit sense that social class determines justice. The governess’ fate is semiprostitution precisely because she is a governess, but the bachelor’s betrayal is forgivable because he is a gentleman.

In The Custom of the Country (1913), Wharton returns to the theme of rich, old New York and the “invaders.” The heroine is not a delicate woman whom society crushes, but a predatory female invader who victimizes the society she crashes. Undine Spragg makes the same mistakes as Lily Bart, but unlike Lily, she uses street smarts and amorality to extricate herself. Some people consider The Custom of the Country to be Wharton’s masterpiece because of its taut depiction of the invaders takeover of New York society and the resulting social and moral emptiness.

In 1913, the year in which The Custom of the Country was published, the Whartons were divorced. Edith Wharton, who had been spending most of her time in France, now settled there. The new francophile wrote books meant for tourists, for whom she had also written A Motor-Flight Through France (1908). Wharton also wrote about France’s involvement in World War I in Fighting France (1915), The Book of the Homeless (1915), The Marne (1918), and A Son at the Front (1923), works more noted for their support of France than for their literary merit.

Ironically, the war made Edith Wharton long for the vanished, quiet world of her childhood. In “Autre Temps” (Xindu, 1916) and in Twilight Sleep (1927), Wharton expressed nostalgia for the once despised conventions, believing that these instilled fortitude and moral fiber.

In 1916 and 1917, Wharton published The Bunner Sisters and Summer. As in Ethan Frome, the characters are poor and working class. The Bunner Sisters contains a sensitive person trapped within an inferior human being, while Summer depicts squalid lives and characters struggling in a battle destined for defeat. Again, as in Ethan Frome, symbols signify the characters’ fates, which are predetermined by forces beyond their comprehension.

Wharton’s nostalgia culminated in The Age of Innocence (1920), a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel portraying the genteel New York of the 1870’s and featuring characters trapped by their environment. No matter how much Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska are in love, society decrees that Archer shall marry May Welland, and so he does. Later, Archer even approves his dull marriage as part of good, traditional ways.

Edith Wharton’s best literary period ended with The Age of Innocence, for her work declined after 1920. Wharton began publishing serial novels in American women’s magazines to earn money to sustain her expensive lifestyle. Glimpses of the Moon (1922) shows a severe lapse in style and character. The short stories in Old New York (1924) successfully evoke that period, but Wharton also wanted to depict her contemporary age. This ambition, coupled with her need for money, resulted in inferior works. The Mother’s Recompense (1925), Twilight Sleep (1927), and The Children (1928) unconvincingly lay the causes of the era’s ills at America’s door. Hudson River Bracketed (1929) and The Gods Arrive (1932), novels set in the Midwest, a region she had never visited, make similar implausible criticisms.

Edith Wharton’s posthumously published books are Ghosts (1937) and The Buccaneers (1938). Ghosts contains two superbly frightening stories, whereas The Buccaneers turns back again to “old New York.” This unfinished work revives Wharton’s forceful style but lacks the bitterness of her earlier works. Some critics believe that this book would have been her best had she completed it.

Summary

Edith Wharton’s place in literary history is secured by Ethan Frome. She will also be remembered for her depiction of the high society of old Knickerbocker New York. These works are almost historical novels because of their accurate rendering of an age. Through her exquisite use of detail, Wharton delineated not only the conventions of an unadventurous society but also its moral ambiguity. The stifling conventions of upper-class New York trap its members and often annihilate those who aspire to its society. This demanding social code also, however, produces people who have a strong moral fiber. Ironically, these strong characters whose values have been shaped by “high society” sometimes make unnoticed, and often needless, sacrifices. Although some readers find Wharton’s characters lifeless, she is considered a superb novelist of manners.

Edith Wharton, though acclaimed in her lifetime, suffered from gender as well as class expectations. She began writing to escape her narrow social sphere as well as marital tensions. Edith Wharton endured artistic isolation partially because of her class. That class distrusted literature, particularly that written by women, because of the new and disquieting ideas that literature often advocated. That Edith Wharton’s health improved and her publications increased after her divorce suggests that divorce separated her not only from a man but also from limiting gender roles. Edith Wharton triumphed over formidable obstacles of social position, wealth, and gender expectations. In this respect, she serves as role model for aspiring women with traditional familial and social obligations.

Bibliography

Auchincloss, Louis. Edith Wharton. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1961. This pamphlet covers Edith Wharton’s biography and critically examines Wharton’s plots, characters, themes, and style.

Bell, Millicent. Edith Wharton and Henry James. New York: George Braziller, 1965. This scholarly account of the friendship between Edith Wharton and Henry James includes many of their letters.

Benstock, Shari. No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1994. As the first substantial biography of Wharton to appear in nearly two decades, Benstock’s study is informed by her investigation of a variety of primary sources that have become available in recent years.

Howe, Irving, ed. Edith Wharton: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. This anthology contains articles dealing with Wharton’s overall achievement and others centering on specific works or aspects of her writing.

Jessup, Josephine Lurie. The Faith of Our Feminists. New York: Richard R. Smith, 1950. A section on Wharton demonstrates how feminism is illustrated in Wharton’s subtle portrayal of women’s domination of men.

Lewis, R. W. B. Edith Wharton. 2 vols. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. This Pulitzer Prize-winning work is essential reading for those interested in Wharton’s life and how it informed her work.

Lubbock, Percy. Portrait of Edith Wharton. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1947. This is an informal biography written by Edith Wharton’s friend at the request of her literary executor. The biography portrays Edith Wharton through the perspectives of her friends as well as through the eyes of Percy Lubbock, with a nostalgic, sometimes gossipy tone.

Nevius, Blake. Edith Wharton. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953. An excellent critical analysis of Wharton’s works, plots, style, and themes— particularly the chapter “The Trapped Sensibility.” The book follows Wharton’s career chronologically, noting her artistic decline in the 1920’s and her subsequent “tired writing.”

Overton, Grant M. The Women Who Make Our Novels. New York: Moffat, 1922. Written while Edith Wharton was still alive, Overton’s book pronounces Wharton’s overall literary achievement brilliant but lifeless, but he exempts Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth, and Summer from this verdict.

Shapiro, Charles, ed. Twelve Original Essays on Great American Novels. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1958. This book is useful for Walter B. Rideout’s essays on The House of Mirth. Rideout maintains that Edith Wharton has not received her just due because the major phase of her writing began just before World War I.

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Critical Essays