Authors: Edith Wharton

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American novelist

January 24, 1862

New York, New York

August 11, 1937

St.-Brice-sous-Forêt, France


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. {$I[AN]9810000797} {$I[A]Wharton, Edith} {$I[geo]WOMEN;Wharton, Edith} {$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Wharton, Edith} {$I[tim]1862;Wharton, Edith}

Edith Wharton

(Library of Congress)

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.

Author Works Long Fiction: The Touchstone, 1900 The Valley of Decision, 1902 Sanctuary, 1903 The House of Mirth, 1905 Madame de Treymes, 1907 The Fruit of the Tree, 1907 Ethan Frome, 1911 The Reef, 1912 The Custom of the Country, 1913 Summer, 1917 The Marne, 1918 The Age of Innocence, 1920 The Glimpses of the Moon, 1922 A Son at the Front, 1923 Old New York, 1924 (4 volumes; includes False Dawn, The Old Maid, The Spark, and New Year’s Day) The Mother’s Recompense, 1925 Twilight Sleep, 1927 The Children, 1928 Hudson River Bracketed, 1929 The Gods Arrive, 1932 The Buccaneers, 1938 Short Fiction: The Greater Inclination, 1899 Crucial Instances, 1901 The Descent of Man, 1904 The Hermit and the Wild Woman, 1908 Tales of Men and Ghosts, 1910 Xingu, and Other Stories, 1916 Here and Beyond, 1926 Certain People, 1930 Human Nature, 1933 The World Over, 1936 Ghosts, 1937 The Collected Short Stories of Edith Wharton, 1968 Collected Stories, 1891–1910, 2001 (Maureen Howard, editor) Collected Stories, 1911–1937, 2001 (Howard, editor) Poetry: Verses, 1878 Artemis to Actæon, 1909 Twelve Poems, 1926 Selected Poems, 2005 (Louis Auchincloss, editor) Nonfiction: The Decoration of Houses, 1897 (with Ogden Codman, Jr.) Italian Villas and Their Gardens, 1904 Italian Backgrounds, 1905 A Motor-Flight Through France, 1908 Fighting France from Dunkerque to Belfort, 1915 French Ways and Their Meaning, 1919 In Morocco, 1920 The Writing of Fiction, 1925 A Backward Glance, 1934 The Letters of Edith Wharton, 1988 The Uncollected Critical Writings, 1997 (Frederick Wegener, editor) Yrs. Ever Affly: The Correspondence of Edith Wharton and Louis Bromfield, 2000 (Daniel Bratton, editor) The Corresondence of Edith Wharton and Macmillan, 1901–1930, 2007 (Shafquat Towheed, editor) Miscellaneous: The Unpublished Writings of Edith Wharton, 2009 (Laura Rattray, editor) Bibliography Ammons, Elizabeth. Edith Wharton’s Argument with America. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980. Ammons proposes that Wharton’s “argument with America” concerns the freedom of women, an argument in which she had a key role during three decades of significant upheaval and change. This engaging book examines the evolution of Wharton’s point of view in her novels and discusses the effect of World War I on Wharton. Contains a notes section. Auchincloss, Louis. Edith Wharton. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1961. This pamphlet covers Edith Wharton’s biography and critically examines Wharton’s plots, characters, themes, and style. Banta, Martha. “The Ghostly Gothic of Wharton’s Everyday World.” American Literary Realism: 1870–1910 27 (Fall, 1994): 1–10. An analysis of Wharton’s ghost story “Afterward” and her novella Ethan Frome as illustrative of the nineteenth century craving for a circumscribed experience of the bizarre. Beer, Janet. Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Studies in Short Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1997. Beer devotes two chapters of Wharton’s short fiction, focusing primarily on the novellas in one chapter and the regional stories about New England in the other. Bell, Millicent, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Edith Wharton. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Essays on The Age of Innocence, Summer, The House of Mirth, The Fruit of the Tree, and The Valley of Decision, as well as on Wharton’s handling of manners and race. Bell gives a critical history of Wharton’s fiction in her introduction. Includes a chronology of Wharton’s life and publications and a bibliography. Bendixen, Alfred, and Annette Zilversmit, eds. Edith Wharton: New Critical Essays. New York: Garland, 1992. Studies of The House of Mirth, The Fruit of the Tree, Summer, The Age of Innocence, Hudson River Bracketed, and The Gods Arrive, as well as on Wharton’s treatment of female sexuality, modernism, language, and gothic borrowings. There is an introduction and concluding essay on future directions for criticism. No bibliography. Benstock, Shari. No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1994. As the first substantial biography of Wharton to appear in nearly two decades, Benstock’s study is informed by her investigation of a variety of primary sources that have become available. Dwight, Eleanor. Edith Wharton: An Extraordinary Life. New York: Abrams, 1994. A lively and succinct biography, copiously illustrated. Includes detailed notes, chronology, and bibliography. Farwell, Tricia M. Love and Death in Edith Wharton’s Fiction. New York: Peter Lang, 2006. An insightful look at Wharton’s beliefs about the nature of love and the way they reflect her philosophical views, namely those of Plato and Darwin. Wharton’s own shifting feelings on the role of love in human life are revealed in conjunction with the shifting role that love played for her fictional characters throughout her writing career. This is an enlightening read for those interested in Wharton’s writing, or just in the philosophy of love. Fracasso, Evelyn E. Edith Wharton’s Prisoner of Consciousness: A Study of Theme and Technique in the Tales. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Analyzes stories from three periods of Wharton’s career. Focuses on her technique in treating the theme of imprisonment. Deals with people trapped by love and marriage, imprisoned by the dictates of society, victimized by the demands of art and morality, and paralyzed by fear of the supernatural. Gimbel, Wendy. Edith Wharton: Orphancy and Survival. New York: Praeger, 1984. Drawing upon psychoanalytic theories and feminist perspectives, Gimbel analyzes the four works that she sees as key to understanding Wharton: The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome, Summer, and The Age of Innocence. The analyses of these works, with their deeply psychological overtones, are well worth reading. Howe, Irving, ed. Edith Wharton: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. This anthology contains articles dealing with Wharton’s overall achievement and others centering on specific works or aspects of her writing. Jessup, Josephine Lurie. The Faith of Our Feminists. New York: Richard R. Smith, 1950. A section on Wharton demonstrates how feminism is illustrated in Wharton’s subtle portrayal of women’s domination of men. Lee, Hermione. Edith Wharton. New York: Knopf, 2007. An exhaustive study of Wharton’s life from childhood through adulthood. Lee offers valuable insights and makes interesting analogies between Wharton’s life and her fiction. Lewis, R. W. B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. 2 vols. New York: Harper and Row, 1975. An extensive study on Wharton, who Lewis calls “the most renowned writer of fiction in America.” Notes that Wharton thoughtfully left extensive records, made available through the Beinecke Library at Yale, on which this biography is based. Essential reading for serious scholars of Wharton or for those interested in her life and how it shaped her writing. Lindberg, Gary H. Edith Wharton and the Novel of Manners. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1975. Presents Wharton’s style with a keen understanding of the ritualism of the social scenes in her work. Strong analytical criticism with a good grasp of Wharton’s use of irony. Lubbock, Percy. Portrait of Edith Wharton. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1947. This is an informal biography written by Edith Wharton’s friend at the request of her literary executor. The biography portrays Edith Wharton through the perspectives of her friends as well as through the eyes of Percy Lubbock, with a nostalgic, sometimes gossipy tone. McDowell, Margaret B. Edith Wharton. Boston: Twayne, 1975. A perceptive biography and analysis of Wharton’s body of writings. Chapter 6 discusses her most important short fiction. Nettels, Elsa. Language and Gender in American Fiction: Howells, James, Wharton, and Cather. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997. Nettels examines American writers struggling with the problems of patriarchy. Nevius, Blake. Edith Wharton. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953. An excellent critical analysis of Wharton’s works, plots, style, and themes— particularly the chapter “The Trapped Sensibility.” The book follows Wharton’s career chronologically, noting her artistic decline in the 1920s and her subsequent “tired writing.” Overton, Grant M. The Women Who Make Our Novels. New York: Moffat, 1922. Written while Edith Wharton was still alive, Overton’s book pronounces Wharton’s overall literary achievement brilliant but lifeless, but he exempts Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth, and Summer from this verdict. Shapiro, Charles, ed. Twelve Original Essays on Great American Novels. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1958. This book is useful for Walter B. Rideout’s essays on The House of Mirth. Rideout maintains that Edith Wharton has not received her just due because the major phase of her writing began just before World War I. Young, Judy Hale. “The Repudiation of Sisterhood in Edith Wharton’s ‘Pomegranate Seed.’” Studies in Short Fiction 33 (Winter, 1996): 1–11. Argues that the story is an indictment of the woman writer who perpetuates the state of noncommunication among women; claims the story is Wharton’s anti-manifesto of female writing. In it, she presents her notion of just what the woman who writes must not do.

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