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|Edith Wharton (1862-1937) - original surname Jones|
American author, best-known for her stories and ironic novels about upper class people. Wharton's central themes were the conflict between social and individual fulfillment, repressed sexuality, and the manners of old families and the 'nouveau riche', who had made their fortunes in more recent years. Wharton was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the novel The Age of Innocence (1920). The jury had voted for Sinclair Lewis's highly popular book Main Street, but the Columbia University trustees overturned the decision. Lewis dedicated his next work, Arrowsmith, to Wharton.
"I was never allowed to read the popular American children's books of my day because, as my mother said, the children spoke bad English without the author's knowing it." (from A Backward Glance, 1934)
Edith Newbold Jones Wharton was born in New York, N.Y., into a wealthy and socially prominent family. A few years after her birth, in 1866 the family went abroad due to financial troubles. Wharton was educated privately at home by European governesses, learning French, Italian, and German.
Wharton was an unusual child. She learned to read by herself and her early years she spent rather with books than participating in the activities of high society. At the age of 14, Wharton wrote a novella under the pseudonym David Olivieri. She had started to compose poems in her teens and one of her poems was published in the Atlantic Monthly. The father of her tutor, Emelyn Washburn, introcuded Wharton to Emerson, Thoreau and other Transcendentalist writers; later she published a short story, 'Angel at the Grave' (1901), on their tradition.
In 1885, after a broken engagement to Harry Stevens, Wharton married with no great enthusiasm Edward Wharton, who was twelve years her senior. Edward was a Boston banker and her brother's friend, but they had little in common. Wharton's role as a wife with social responsibilities and her writing ambitions resulted in nervous collapse, and she was advised that literary work might help her recover. Her early writings did not deal with New York high society, but urban poverty. 'Mrs. Manstey's View' was about an impoverished widow and 'Bunner Sisters' depicted realistically the harsh fate of two sisters. This novella waited for its publication for a long time and it finally appeared in Xingu and Other Stories (1916). Also ghost stories attracted her. 'Afterward' (1910) was set in a haunted country house. 'Pomegranate Seed' (1931) told of a widower who has remarried and who receives letters from his dead wife.
Wharton's first collection of short stories, The Great Inclination (1899), included some of her most anthologized pieces, 'The Muse's Tragedy,' 'Souls Belated' and The Pelican'. Wharton's first book, The Decoration of Houses (1897), was coauthored by Ogden Codman Jr., an architect. In the 1890s 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, & half the morons yell for filth, & the other half continue to put pants on the piano-legs."
Wharton's husband started to spend money on young women, and show increasing signs of mental instability. Between1907 and 1911 Wharton had an affair with the American journalist Morton Fullerton, the great love of her life. In her letters to the bisexual 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 much time in Europe from 1906. Although she maintained after divorce in 1913 a residence in the U.S., she continued to live in France, where she spent the rest of her life. It was not an easy decision to divorce husband. For several years, Wharton subjected herself to an intense self- scrutiny. At her Paris apartment and her garden home in the south of France she became a literary hostess to young writers. 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.'"
Wharton had a lifelong passion for travel, but her travel books are largely ignored. She made more than 60 transatlantic crossings, mountaineered on a rope team in the Alps, and she has been often credited with being the first American novelist to have written about Mount Athos, where females are not allowed to enter the monasteries. In 1917 she went to Morocco, where she visited a harem.
During World War I Wharton wrote reports for American newspapers, but she refused to publish with Hearst's magazines because she thought William Randolph Hearst had taken a pro-German stance. 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 fund-raising activities, participating in the production of an illustrated anthology of war writings by prominent authors and artists of the period. In 1916 she was made Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor. 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) Her villa, Pavilion Colombes, was situated near Saint Brice, Seine-et-Oise. At its garden she was helped by the reclusive expatriare American Major Lawrence Johnston. With the popular novelist Louis Bromfield, who lived at Senlis, not far from St-Brice, she talked frequently of their dahlias and petunias, and green peans and lettuces. Bromfield learned much of his gardening from Wharton.
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 the pitiless New York City. At the end, Lily overdoses herself with chloral hydrate. This work was followed several other novels set in New York. The Custom of the Country (1913), first published in serial form in Scribner's, told about a spoilt and selfish young woman, through whose character 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 describes 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 manners of New York's social world with those of Old Europe. "You gave me my first glimpse of a real life, and at the same moment you asked me to go on with a sham one," Archer accuses Ellen. Finally Archer marries his calculating fiancée May Welland, representing 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) shows the influence of Henry James, whom Wharton knew during the last 12 years of his life. Following 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 her famous senior colleague in his financial worries. During the 1920s, Wharton was paid between $1,500 and $1,800 per short story.
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, was left unfinished, but her literary executor had the novel published in 1938. The story about Wharton's own New York City generation, was later completed by Marion Mainwaring. Whartion died in France, St.-Brice-sous-Forêt, on August 11, 1937. For decades her work was regarded as anti-modernist, and did not gain the popularity of Henry James, but biographies and movies, especially Martin Scorsese's adaptation of her novel The Age of Innocence (1993), created new interest in her books. Literary critics have tried to find evidence of incest in Wharton's life from such stories as 'The Confessional' (1901), about the secrets of a dying priest, and 'Confession' (1936), which alludes to the case of Lizzie Borden.
For further reading: Portrait of Edith Wharton by P. Lubbock (1947); Edith Wharton: A Study of Her Fiction by B. Nevius (1953); Edith Wharton by O. Coolidge (1964); Edith Wharton and Henry James by Millicent Bell (1965); The Two Lives of Edith Wharton by G. Kellogg (1965); Edith Walton: A Critical Interpretation by G. Walton (1970); Edith Wharton by R.W.B. Lewis (1975); Edith Wharton by G.H. Lindberg (1976); Edith Wharton by R.H. Lawson (1977); A Feast of Words by C.G. Wolff (1977); The Female Intruder in the Novels of Edith Wharton by C. Wershoven (1982); Edith Wharton: A Study of the Short Fiction by Barbara White (1991); No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton by Shari Benstock (1994); The Cambridge Companion to Edith Wharton, ed. by Millicent Bell (1995)