Last reviewed: June 2018
January 24, 1862
New York, New York
August 11, 1937
Edith Newbold Jones Wharton (HWAWRT-uhn) is one of the masters of American realistic fiction. She was born in New York City on January 24, 1862, into a family that held a high place in New York society. Throughout her life, Wharton valued the refined manners and charms of fashionable society, but she was also deeply conscious of its superficiality and pettiness. By the time she was a teenager, private tutoring and extensive travel in Europe had made her fluent in German, French, and Italian as well as English. Wharton’s writings frequently reveal her wide range of intellectual interests, which encompassed history, art, sociology, and science as well as literature. Her artistic and intellectual interests were not shared by Edward Wharton, the man she married on April 29, 1885. The couple spent much of each year in Europe, but they also lived in New York City and Newport, Rhode Island, and eventually in Lenox, Massachusetts. The unsatisfying nature of her married life, both physically and intellectually, may explain why issues of marriage and divorce dominate many of her best novels and short stories. Edith Wharton
After a nervous breakdown, Wharton turned to the writing of fiction in the mid-1890s, partly as a form of therapy. In 1878, a collection of her verse had been privately printed. Although Wharton tried her hand at poetry at other times, she was rarely more than a competent crafter of conventional verse. Her collaboration with the architect Ogden Codman, Jr., in the writing of The Decoration of Houses reflected her interest in architectural form and interior design, an interest that also shapes her fiction, which frequently uses the description of rooms and houses as an index to a character’s moral and social standing. Wharton published nonfiction at various points throughout her career, producing a number of impressive essays and reviews as well as several vivid books of travel. Her literary reputation, however, rests almost entirely on her fiction.
Wharton’s early short stories and first novella, The Touchstone, won the admiration of many critics, although some thought that she was imitating Henry James too closely, and others complained of a lack of human warmth in her treatment of issues and characters. Her first long novel, The Valley of Decision, was an unsuccessful attempt to explore the social turmoil of Italian civilization at the dawn of the Napoleonic era. In 1905, Wharton won both popular and critical acclaim for The House of Mirth, which charts the moral development and social decline of Lily Bart. In 1907, Wharton moved to France, where, except for tours abroad and brief visits to the United States, she spent the rest of her life. The sharp contrast between French and American values is the subject of her novella Madame de Treymes. Less successful was her attempt to deal with social issues, most notably labor unrest and euthanasia, in The Fruit of the Tree. A passionate affair with Morton Fullerton hastened the collapse of Wharton’s marriage, which finally ended in divorce in 1913. Wharton’s literary reputation was enhanced by her continued triumphs in the short-story form, where her achievements ranged from powerful ghost stories to ironic masterpieces of social comedy.
The publication of Ethan Frome in 1911 showed decisively that Wharton’s subjects were not limited to fashionable New York. In this novella, which some rank as her best work, Wharton provided a powerfully tragic vision of a wasted life set within a New England rural landscape that is both emotionally stark and symbolically fascinating. Wharton engaged in other experiments with the novel form. The Reef is a densely textured psychological novel that is similar in some ways to the later novels of James. Her next novel, The Custom of the Country, is a satire that focuses on the pretensions of a pretty but vulgar young woman who destroys others in her rise to social prominence and wealth. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 led Wharton to charity work on behalf of the refugees who were crowding into her beloved Paris and to literary work, both fiction and nonfiction, in support of the Allied cause. Her two World War I novels, The Marne and A Son at the Front, are not highly regarded, but this period also saw the publication of Summer, a powerful novel about the seduction and betrayal of a New England girl, which can be seen as a passionate counterpart to the coldly delineated tragedy of Ethan Frome.
After the war, Wharton returned to the subject of New York society, attempting to capture its social history during the last three decades of the nineteenth century in The Age of Innocence, which won for her the Pulitzer Prize. The novel tells of Newland Archer, a dilettante whose infatuation with the vibrant Ellen Olenska threatens his engagement to the bland but virtuous May Welland. The four novellas that make up Old New York all deal with individuals in conflict with social values; the two that focus on women, The Old Maid and New Year’s Day, are quite effective.
Wharton spent her final years at her two homes in France. A few critics have been interested in her portrayal of the literary artist Vance Weston in Hudson River Bracketed and The Gods Arrive, but the other novels written in the 1920s and 1930s have been generally dismissed. This period, however, also saw the composition of some of Wharton’s finest short stories, her memoir A Backward Glance, and an attempt to define her literary principles in The Writing of Fiction. At the time of her death in 1937, there was some sentiment that Wharton may have been overrated, but the literary artistry of The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome, and The Age of Innocence continued to attract critics and readers. The publication of R. W. B. Lewis’s biography in 1975 and the advent of feminist criticism aroused new interest in Wharton’s life and works. She is now widely recognized as one of the two or three most important women writers of fiction in the literary history of the United States and praised as an artist who endowed the novel of manners with a remarkable blend of social analysis and psychological depth.