With her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Innocence (1920), Wharton recreated the Old New York of her own childhood, in a moving tale of passion and desire. Edith Wharton is a writer who brings glory to the name of America, and this is her best book. It is one of the best novels of the twentieth century ... a permanent addition to literature (The New York Times).She was privately educated at home and in Europe by governesses and tutors. I used to say that I had been taught only two things in my childhood: the modern languages and good manners, she recalled in the compelling memoir A Backward Glance (1934). Now that I have lived to see both those branches of culture dispensed with, I perceive that there are worse systems of education. Her first publication was Verses (1878), a book of poems privately printed in Newport when she was sixteen. In later life she brought out two other volumes of poetry, Artemis to Actaeon and Other Verse (1909) and Twelve Poems (1926), but her verse never succeeded in conveying the emotion of her prose.
In 1885 Edith Jones married Bostonian Edward Robbins Wharton, whom Henry James dubbed cerebrally compromised Teddy, and over the next decade the couple explored Europe while maintaining residences in New York and Newport. Wharton eventually turned to writing for a measure of fulfillment as she grew dissatisfied with the roles of wife and society matron. In collaboration with architect Ogden Codman she published The Decoration of Houses (1897), an influential work onarchitecture and interior design. Several of her early stories appeared in Scribners Magazine. Three collections, The Greater Inclination (1899), Crucial Instances ( 1901), and The Descent of Man and Other Stories (1904), display an innate mastery of the short story, which she envisioned as a shaft driven straight into the heart of human experience. Two novellas, The Touchstone (1900) and Sanctuary (1903), reveal a talent for psychological realism. Whartons passion for Italy inspired a first novel, The Valley of Decision (1902 ), as well as Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904) and Italian Backgrounds (1905), a series of travel sketches. Her subsequent volumes of travel writing include A Motor-Flight Through France (1908) and In Morocco (1920).
The publication of The House of Mirth in 1905 marked Edith Whartons coming of age as a writer. An immediate bestseller, this brilliant chronicle of upper-class New York society helped secure her reputation as Americas foremost woman of letters. By then Wharton was living at The Mount, a grand home she had built in Lenox, Massachusetts. Over the next years she wrote Madame de Treymes (1907), a novella of Jamesian inspiration about young innocents abroad; The Fruit of the Tree (1907), a novel of social reform; The Hermit and the Wild Woman and Other Stories (1908); and Tales of Men and Ghosts (1910), a collection of supernatural thrillers. Then in rapid succession Wharton produced three of her greatest novels: Ethan Frome (1911), a tragedy of relinquished passion set against the austere New England countryside; The Reef (1912), a richly nuanced story of unrequited love hailed by Henry James as a triumph of method; and The Custom of the Country (1913), a fierce indictment of the materialism that ruled America in the so-called Gilded Age.
By the time Wharton divorced her husband in 1913 she had settled permanently in France. With the outbreak of World War I she became active in relief work and reported on life at the front in articles for Scribners Magazine, later collected in Fighting France, from Dunkerque to Belfort (1915). In 1916 she was decorated with the Cross of the Legion of Honor for her services. During the war years Wharton also wrote Xingu and Other Stories (1916); Summer (1917), a companion piece to Ethan Frome; and The Marne (1918), a poignant novel of World War I. French Ways and Their Meaning, a collection of essays in praise of her adopted countrymen, came out in 1919.Wharton was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence (1920), a masterful portrait of desire and betrayal set in the New York of her youth. Her other acclaimed books of this period include Old New York (1924), a quartet of linked novellas that endure as a social history of the city from the 1840s to the 1870s, and The Writing of Fiction (1925), a compilation of essays. But critics agree that novels such as The Glimpses of the Moon (1922), A Son at the Front (1923), The Mothers Recompense (1925), Twilight Sleep (1927), and The Children, (1928) signaled a decline in the quality of Whartons work.
Wharton was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1930 and remained highly productive during her final years. Continuing to pursue her lifelong passions for travel, gardening, and interior design, she completed Hudson River Bracketed (1929) and The Gods Arrive (1932), two interrelated novels that analyze the personality and life of a writer. In addition she turned out five more volumes of short stories: Here and Beyond (1926), Certain People (1930), Human Nature (1933), The World Over (1936), and Ghosts (1937). Edith Wharton died of a stroke at her villa near Paris on August 11, 1937, and was buried at the Cimetiere des Gonards in Versailles. The Buccaneers, a novel unfinished at the time of her death, appeared posthumously in 1938.At best, there are only three or four American novelists who can be thought of as major and Edith Wharton is one, judged Gore Vidal. Despite her reputation as being a stuffy grande dame, she had always been the most direct and masculine (old sense of the word, naturally) of writers; far more so than her somewhat fussy and hesitant friend Henry James. Spades got called spades in Edith Whartons novels. . . . Traditionally, Henry James has always been placed slightly higher up the slope of Parnassus than Edith Wharton. But now that the prejudice against the female writer is on the wane, they look to be exactly what they are: giants, equals, the tutelary and benign gods of our American literature.
Many other writers have attempted to delineate the New York society of old brownstone and new wealth, noted Wharton biographer Louis Auchincloss, but the reason that Edith Wharton succeeded where almost all of them failed is that, in addition to her great gifts as an artist, her lucidity, her wit, her style, she had a tight grasp of just what this society was made up of. She understood that it was arbitrary, capricious, and inconsistent; she was aware that it did not hesitate to abolish its standards while most loudly proclaiming them. She knew when money could open doors and when it couldnt, when lineage would serve and when it would be merely sneered at. She knew that compromises could be counted on, but that they were rarely made while still considered compromises. She knew her men and women of property, recently or anciently acquired, how they decorated their houses and where they spent their summers. She realized, in short, that the social game was played without rules, and this made her one of the few novelists before Proust who could describe it with profundity. . . . The society of which she wrote was an integral part of the American dream—the American myth—the American illusion.
Edith Newbold Jones was born January 24, 1862, into such wealth and privilege that her family inspired the phrase keeping up with the Joneses. The youngest of three children, Edith spent her early years touring Europe with her parents and, upon the familys return to the United States, enjoyed a privileged childhood in New York and Newport, Rhode Island. Ediths creativity and talent soon became obvious: By the age of eighteen she had written a novella, (as well as witty reviews of it) and published poetry in the Atlantic Monthly. After a failed engagement, Edith married a wealthy sportsman, Edward Wharton. Despite similar backgrounds and a shared taste for travel, the marriage was not a success. Many of Whartons novels chronicle unhappy marriages, in which the demands of love and vocation often conflict with the expectations of society. Whartons first major novel, The House of Mirth, published in 1905, enjoyed considerable Literary Success. Ethan Frome appeared six years later, solidifying Whartons reputation as an important novelist. Often in the company of her close friend, Henry James, Wharton mingled with some of the most famous writers and artists of the day, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, André Gide, Sinclair Lewis, Jean Cocteau, and Jack London. In 1913 Edith divorced Edward. She lived mostly in France for the remainder of her life. When World War I broke out, she organized hostels for refugees, worked as a fund-raiser, and wrote for American publications from battlefield frontlines. She was awarded the French Legion of Honor for her courage and distinguished work. The Age of Innocence, a novel about New York in the 1870s, earned Wharton the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921 — the first time the award had been bestowed upon a woman. Wharton traveled throughout Europe to encourage young authors. She also continued to write, lying in her bed every morning, as she had always done, dropping each newly penned page on the floor to be collected and arranged when she was finished. Wharton suffered a stroke and died on August 11, 1937. She is buried in the American Cemetery in Versailles, France. Author biography from the Barnes & Noble Classics edition of The Age of Innocence.
Good To Know
Upon the publication of The House of Mirth in 1905, Wharton became an instant celebrity, and the the book was an instant bestseller, with 80,000 copies ordered from Scribners six weeks after its release. Wharton had a great fondness for dogs, and owned several throughout her life.