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...

(The entire section is 2200 words.)