The Letters of Edith Wharton

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

ph_0111201291-Wharton.jpg Edith Wharton Published by Salem Press, Inc.

In spite of the unfair yet abiding assessment of Edith Wharton as a second-rate Henry James, she occupies a unique position in the history of American literature. She is what James himself might have called “the real thing,” a bluestocking artist whose novel The House of Mirth (1905) alone would place her in the first ranks of the best American writers.

Wharton was an indefatigable correspondent, writing as many as six letters a day for long periods of her life. It is no surprise to find that more than four thousand of her letters are extant and available for study. R. W. B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis have made a judicious selection of nearly four hundred for this collection. In addition to her daily letters, she wrote some forty books—fiction, poetry, travel articles, a book on gardening, one on house decoration, her autobiography—plus translations, forewords, introductions and short stories. After she began her professional life—and she attacked her chosen métier with great professionalism—she published, with only one or two exceptions, a book every year between 1897 and her death in 1937. She accomplished this despite great personal upheavals, the self-imposed rigors of wartime charity work, a hectic social life, and a breathtaking whirl of travel and study.

Edith Newbold Jones was born during the Civil War in 1862. Her family, the Rhinelander Joneses, were part of old New York, part of the mercantile aristocracy which based its wealth on extensive real-estate holdings. She married Teddy Wharton, a charming ne’er-do-well, in 1885. In 1901, they began construction of The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts, a house and garden into which she poured her unflagging zeal for and her considerable knowledge of architecture, decoration, and landscaping. Eventually, The Mount was sold during a marital contretemps. After years of coping with Teddy Wharton’s increasingly severe bouts of mania and depression, she was divorced from him and spent the rest of her life in Europe, an émigré from a life she loathed, a society she rejected, and a country for which she had a curiously ambiguous contempt. She describes herself in one of her letters to Sara Norton as “out of sympathy” with everything in America: “One’s friends are delightful; but we are none of us Americans, we don’t think or feel as the Americans do, we are the wretched exotics produced in a European glass-house, the most déplacé and useless class on earth!”

Throughout her life Wharton wrote letters—to friends, to acquaintances, to her publishers and agents, and to her family. To those left behind in the United States, she is chatty, sometimes fulsome, always inquisitive about other friends and acquaintances. Her sister-in-law, Mary Cadwalader Jones, became a sort of long-distance amanuensis who handled her American affairs and even corrected proofs of her writings. She had, however, another sort of family to whom she wrote some of the most spirited and interesting letters in this collection. These were the cherished and never neglected Unsereiners, as Bernard Berenson dubbed them: those on whom she could count to share her enthusiasms, both personal and literary, and those who would understand implicitly these epistolary conversations which spoke not only to the intellect but to the heart and soul as well.

An autodidact, Wharton had the lifelong habit of reading voraciously, a custom which endeared her mightily to those of her friends who shared her love of knowledge and which at first mystified and then alienated entirely her sporty husband. Berenson and she sent each other books regularly, and in their heady communications, one may discern a sort of literary one-upmanship. From the legends of the Edda to the correspondence of Friedrich von Schiller, they explored a variety of fields, and their comments on books and writers, on philosophy, science, and ideas read like notes from an erudite competition. Their exchange of ideas seems effortless and casual, yet at the same time serious and challenging. These are people for whom the expansion of the mind is such a vital commitment that life is unthinkable without the stimulation of books.

Wharton’s letters to the I Tatti family—B. B., as he was known by his intimates; the often-ill, estimable Mary, his wife; his secretary-cum-paramour Nicky Mariano—are at once affectionate and solicitous, provocative in their descriptions of her daily life and travels, and gently but firmly critical when necessary. In one amusing passage concerning a trip they made to Germany together, she recounts to Mary B. B.’s consternation when she faked an inability to distinguish Claude Lorrain from Nicolas Poussin, and, again, when she tried to teach her worldly yet naïve companion the fine art of successful motoring in Eastern Europe. In another letter, she suggests tactfully how Mary can improve the manuscript of her life of Bernard.

Others of these letters reveal that she could be ruthlessly frank in her criticism. Whether friend, foe, or acquaintance, she pulled no punches when it was a question of bad writing. To Sinclair Lewis, who dedicated Babbitt (1922) to her, she writes of her objections to his style:I’ve only begun to say what I wanted, but the rest must be talked—except for one suggestion, which I venture to make now, & that is, that in your next book, you...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

As a healthy adult, Edith Wharton mailed approximately six letters per day. Still in existence are an estimated four thousand letters of a personal nature and approximately four thousand business letters. In The Letters of Edith Wharton, editors R. W. B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis include not quite four hundred. These were chosen as characteristic examples of the author’s letters, exemplifying her different styles, her personality, and her differing emotional states, and reflecting the stages of her important relationships.

The well-edited book includes a comprehensive introduction as well as introductions to each section, detailed footnotes (although foreign-language passages are rarely translated into English), photographs, chronologies of Wharton’s life and her writings, and a thorough index. A biographical framework is used, and the letters are organized into seven periods of Wharton’s life.

The vital, emotional character who emerges through the letters contradicts Wharton’s public image as a reserved, austere woman. The letters reveal a woman who was spontaneous and adventurous, who lived in the moment, and who could be relied on to celebrate with or to give support to others in good and bad times.

The oldest known letter and the first in the collection, dated September 23, 1874, is addressed to Pauline Foster Du Pont. Written when Wharton (then Edith Newbold Jones) was only twelve years old, the letter reveals an extremely bright and confident girl, whose interest in and aptitude for satirical commentary on social events is already developing.

The next letter, dated almost twenty years later, on November 25, 1893, is written to Edward L. Burlingame, who that month had suggested the publication of a volume of Wharton’s stories. In 1894, Wharton plunged into an identity crisis, which manifested physically in exhaustion, nausea, and depression. She stopped writing for sixteen months. This period resulted from the combination of a disappointing and unfulfilling marriage (both emotionally and sexually) and professional discouragement (her response of March 26, 1894, to Burlingame’s criticism of one of her stories shows her disappointment and self-doubt). In 1896, she began the collaboration for The Decoration of Houses, which was published in December of 1897.

In 1898, she wrote a series of short stories and began to get treatment in a “rest-cure” program. A volume of her stories was published in 1899. In her response to praise for this work from Barrett Wendell of May 15, 1899, she refers to her illness. At this time, she also begins the criticism of the handling of her work by her publishers.

Sara Norton is introduced in Wharton’s letter of February 28, 1901, at the point in their relationship Wharton first began addressing her in a colloquial manner, signing the letter, “Edith or Pussy as you please.” In their letters, peppering this collection from 1901 through June 14, 1916, the two women avidly discuss literature and the events of their lives.

With the publication of The Valley of Decision, Wharton became acknowledged as a successful American author. One result was the commission to write articles on Italian villas for Century magazine. Wharton and her husband, Teddy, left for Italy in 1903. In the second section of letters, Wharton discusses her feelings about moving from one continent to another and about the inhabitants of both areas. She expresses awe on arriving in Europe, and disappointment on the return to America, exclaiming: “the tastes I am cursed with are all of a kind that cannot be gratified here.”

Henry James encouraged her to write again about America, and she published The House of Mirth in October of 1905. The novel was an enormous and immediate success. In 1906, Wharton worked with American playwright Clyde Fitch to adapt the novel to the stage. Unfortunately, the production was a failure and closed shortly after its appearance in New York City.

During her 1906 stay in France and England, Wharton was introduced to the Parisian literary world. When the Whartons returned to Paris in 1907, they...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

History is an imperfect science, often changing and being reinterpreted depending on the sources from which it is gathered. Much of female history has been neglected, since it has not been recorded in history books. Wharton’s contribution to literature is extensive. Her work is important not only for literature but also for women, because she wrote about society—which included the position of women in the cultures she knew. Her letters also give insight into the changing times through which she lived and give the reader the personal view of an aware woman of the day.

Wharton lived during a time when letters were written, and she continued to write them after their heyday had passed. In addition to being prolific, she is among those epistolary writers who are admired for the elegance of their letters. She distinguishes herself from this group by the intense personal content and high literary quality of the letters.

Until recently, Wharton was not considered a feminist by many, since she did not fight politically for social advances for women and avoided well-known feminists of the time. To characterize her as a misogynist, however, is far from the truth. Wharton’s writing clearly shows her strong feelings about the predicament of women in society. Furthermore, her writing reflects social history and therefore the social entrapment of women during her lifetime. For example, her letters show her sympathy for women stuck in unhappy marriages because of social mores—a situation that she knew personally.

Wharton was a role model and a trailblazer. Often, she was the first woman in an arena in terms of both activity and recognition by award. In addition to being a fine writer, she was a savvy businesswoman. Throughout her life, she expressed her feelings about how her publishers were handling her affairs. She headed committees. Her letters describe her self-reliance in both professional and domestic situations.

The Letters of Edith Wharton is both a chronicle of the great author’s life and a literary test. These letters not only reveal historical events from a highly intelligent and thoughtful personal perspective but also draw the reader into a community of artists, a world of literature, and a creative mind.


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Auchincloss, Louis. Edith Wharton. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1961. An integrated review of Wharton’s life and work.

Coolidge, Olivia. Edith Wharton: 1862-1937. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964. In this straightforward biography, Coolidge divides Wharton’s life into various periods of time, from “The World of Little Miss Jones” to “Fight with a New World.”

Joslin, Katherine. Edith Wharton. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Joslin discusses Wharton’s life and work from a feminist perspective in a series of essays.

Lewis, R. W. B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. A remarkably thorough and well-written biography revealing the complexity of Wharton’s character.

Lindberg, Gary H. Edith Wharton and the Novel of Manners. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1975. Wharton is often called a “novelist of manners.” Lindberg analyzes her work in terms of this view, dividing his book into categories of social manners.

McDowell, Margaret B. Edith Wharton. Boston: Twayne, 1976. McDowell takes a new look at Wharton’s work, emphasizing Wharton’s important position in American literature.