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Edith Wharton (1862 - 1937)

Wharton, Edith

Edith Wharton was born in New York, N.Y., into a wealthy and socially prominent family. She was educated privately by European governesses. During her early years, Wharton spent time with books rather than participating in the activities of high society. In 1885 she married Edward Wharton with no great enthusiasm. He was a Boston banker and twelve years her senior. Wharton's role as a wife with social responsibilities and her writing ambitions resulted in a nervous collapse. She had started to compose poems in her teens and she was advised that writing might help her recover.

Her early stories did not deal with New York high society, but rather urban poverty. Mrs. Manstey's View was about an impoverished widow, and the severe Bunner Sisters realistically depicted the harsh fate of two sisters. This novella waited for its publication for a long time and finally appeared in Xingu and Other Stories (1916). Wharton's first book, The Decoration of Houses, appeared in 1897. Her husband started to spend money on young women and showed increasing signs of mental instability. In 1906-09 Wharton had an affair with the American journalist Morton Fullerton, the great love of her life. In her letters to Fullerton, published in The Letters of Edith Wharton (1988), she often expressed her hurt feelings when he toyed with her affections - ''didn't you see how my heart broke with the thought that, if I had been younger & prettier, everything might have been different.''

The Whartons spent a good deal of time in Europe starting in 1906. Although Edith maintained a residence in the U.S. after her divorce in 1913, she continued to live in France, where she spent the rest of her life. She became a literary hostess to young writers at her Paris apartment and her garden home in the south of France. Among her friends were Henry James, Walter Berry and Bernard Berenson, with whom she traveled in Germany in 1913. Berenson later told his wife, Mary, that when he had a dinner with Edith in a hotel, she "eyed a young man at a neighboring table and said: 'When I see such a type my first thought is how to put him into my next novel.'"

During World War I Wharton wrote reports for American newspapers. She assisted in organizing the American Hostel for Refugees and the Children of Flanders Rescue Committee, taking charge of 600 Belgian children who had to leave their orphanage at the time of the German advance. She was also active in fundraising activities, participating in the production of an illustrated anthology of war writings by prominent authors and artists of the period. Wharton's novella The Marne' (1918) criticized America's slowness to help France. Her last visits to the U.S. were in 1913 and 1923. However, many of her works still had American settings. Wharton's favorite place to write was her bedroom. "She used a writing board. Her breakfast was brought to her by Gross, the housekeeper, who almost alone was privy to this innocent secret of the bedchamber. (A secretary picked up the pages from the floor for typing.)" (from Edith Wharton by R.W.B. Lewis, 1975)

In the 1890’s Wharton started to contribute to Scribner's Magazine, but later, even at the height of her fame, she had problems with magazine censorship. The Day of the Funeral was considered "too strong" for the Ladies' Home Journal in 1931. Beatrice Palmato, a story of incest, was never finished, but it gave fuel to speculations that Wharton herself was a victim of abuse. She once wrote: "Brains & culture seem non-existent from one end of the social scale to the other, and half the morons yell for filth, & the other half continue to put pants on the piano-legs." Wharton's first collection of short stories appeared in the late 1890s.

Wharton gained first success with her book The House of Mirth (1905), a story of a beautiful but poor woman, Lily Bart, trying to survive in pitiless New York City. It was followed several other novels set in New York. The Custom of the Country (1913) was a story of a young ambitious woman. Through the spoilt and selfish heroine, Wharton draws a revealing and ironic picture of social behavior inside the doors of upper-class America. "She meant to watch and listen without letting herself go, and she sat very straight and pink, answering promptly but briefly, with the nervous laugh that punctuated all her phrases - saying 'I don't care if I do' when her host asker her to try some grapes, and 'I wouldn't wonder' when she thought any one was trying to astonish her."

Among Wharton's most famous novels is The Age of Innocence. The story described the frustrated love of a New York lawyer, Newland Archer, for unconventional, artistic Ellen Olenska, the separated wife of a dissolute Polish count. Wharton contrasts the manner of the New World with those of Old Europe. Finally Archer marries his calculating fiancée May, who represents the 19th-century domestic virtues. Archer's decision promotes his family's wealth underlined the novel's point that individual happiness is secondary to the continuation of the prevailing culture.

Wharton's other major works include the long tale Ethan Frome (1911) which was set in impoverished rural New England. The Reef (1912) showed influence of Henry James, whom Wharton knew during the last twelve years of his life. During a fit of depression in 1909, James burned most of his personal papers, including his correspondence with Wharton, but the two writers enjoyed each other's company, though they weren't lovers. Wharton campaigned to win James the Nobel Prize for Literature and secretly diverted some of her own royalties to James to help him with his financial worries.

The novel Hudson River Bracketed (1929) and its sequel The Gods Arrive (1932) compared the cultures of Europe and the sections of the U.S. she knew. Wharton also wrote poems, essays, travel books, and her autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934). In her short stories Wharton wrote about women in turn-of-the-century America, their loveless marriages, social responsibilities, expensive tastes, and longing for freedom. In Autres Temps one of her female characters admits: "We're shut up in a little tight round of habit and association, just as we're shut up in this room. Remember, I thought I'd got out of it once; but what really happened was that the other people went out, and left me in the same little room. The only difference was that I was there alone. Oh, I've made it habitable now, I'm used to it; but I've lost any illusions I may have had as to an angel's opening the door."

Wharton's last novel, The Buccaneers (1938), was left unfinished, but her literary executor had the novel published in 1938. Wharton died in St.-Brice-sous-Forêt, France, on August 11, 1937. The Buccaneers, a story about Wharton's own New York City generation, was later completed by Marion Mainwaring. Wharton's work was regarded from her death into the 1970’s as anti-modernist, but biographies and movies, such as Martin Scorsese's adaptation of her novel, The Age of Innocence (1993), arose new interest in her work.

Suggested sites for Edith Wharton:

Encyclopedia article about Edith Wharton
Texts by Wharton
The Age of Innocence
Tale of class and morals in New York society. Newland Archer is engaged to May Welland when he meets the free-spirited, unhappily married Ellen Olenska. He falls in love, as does she, but while she is willing to go through divorce to be with him, his societal worries prevent him from acting until it is too late for either of them.
Ethan Frome
Tale of Ethan Frome and his cousin, Mattie, as seen through the eyes of a wandering preacher. Ethan and Mattie fall in love, inviting the scorn of Ethan's wife, Zeena, and the town. Through a tragic event, the threesome are tied to each other forever.

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