Edith Wharton (January 24, 1862 – August 11, 1937), was born Edith Newbold Jones in New York City. One of the Grande Dames of American letters, everything about her, from her wealthy background to her stately demeanor suggests a woman in possession of herself. However, beneath the surface was a deep insecurity about her talent and abilities, one she gradually overcame — in a very substantial way.
Most of us have heard the expression “Keeping up with the Joneses,” but it might come as a surprise that this doesn’t refer to a hypothetical family, but Edith Wharton’s parents. Born into the rarified late nineteenth-century world of wealth and privilege, her formative years consisted of riding, balls, coming-out parties, teas, and extended stays in Europe.
Despite having homes in New York City and Newport, and the kind of money that gained them access to the finer things in life, culture and learning weren’t particularly valued by her family. And though she lacked for nothing, it was a less-than-ideal upbringing for a bookish, dreamy girl.
Writing wasn’t a proper pursuit for a society girl
As a fledgling writer, she received out-and-out disapproval from those closest to her, including her mother and society friends, who thought that literary pursuits were beneath a person of her class. From society gadfly Edward “Teddy” Wharton, husband from her failed marriage, she received nothing but indifference.
Insecurity about her talent and abilities plagued her for years, and she admitted to suffering from terrible shyness.
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Tiptoeing into publishing with small successes
Edith Wharton tiptoed into the publishing field with The Decoration of Houses and Italian Villas and Their Gardens before gathering enough courage to try her hand at poetry and short stories. She got her foot in the door quickly and was quite surprised at how well her work was received.
Her early literary reputation was built on small successes, as well as the welcome friendship and constructive critique of one who did believe in her talent, Walter Berry, a lifelong confident for whom she carried a torch (and whose grave in Paris is next to hers).
The Greater Inclination and gaining self-confidence
Wharton’s first collection of short stories was titled The Greater Inclination (1899). Its publication helped her to finally accept herself as a professional writer and not a dilettante, vowing to turn away from the “distractions of a busy and sociable life, full of friends and travel and gardening for the discipline of the daily task.” As she wrote in her memoir, this is when she went from being “a drifting amateur in to a professional,” and most importantly, “gained what I lacked most—self confidence.”
The House of Mirth
Her first novel, The House of Mirth (1905) was an instant bestseller. Wharton exulted to her publisher Charles Scribner, “It is a very beautiful thought that 80,000 people should want to read The House of Mirth, and if the number should ascend to 100,000 I fear my pleasure would exceed the bounds of decency.”
How delighted she would be if the word reached her in the Great Beyond, that The House of Mirth is still in print, as is Ethan Frome, The Age of Innocence, The Custom of the Country, as well many of her other titles.
Edith Wharton designed and built The Mount, an imposing mansion with extensive grounds in Lenox, MA. She lived there with her husband, Teddy Wharton from 1902 to 1911. Due to his drinking and struggles with mental illness, theirs was an unhappy marriage.
Wharton fans will love visiting The Mount
Divorce and move to France
Upon the couple’s divorce in 1913, Wharton moved to France. She became involved in refuge relief work during World War I, for which she received one of France’s highest honors, the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
After the war, she continued her prodigious literary output and became part of a vaunted literary circle that included her close friend, Henry James.
Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence
The Pulitzer Prize for the Novel for fiction was awarded to Wharton for The Age of Innocence (1921), making her the first woman to achieve this distinction. Two years later she also became the first woman ever to receive an honorary doctorate (conferred upon her by Yale University). It was the last time she returned to the U.S.
Her remaining years were spent in France where she died from a stroke in 1937 at the age of seventy five.
More about Edith Wharton on this site
- Edith Wharton Needed Approval, Just Like the Rest of Us
- Edith Wharton’s Struggles with Self-Doubt
- Edith Wharton’s Reflections on Her Writing Life
- Visiting The Mount — Edith Wharton’s Home in Lenox, MA
- Dear Literary Ladies: How should I deal with reviews of my work?
- Edith Wharton’s Introduction to Ethan Frome
- Edith Wharton’s obituary
Edith Wharton wrote some forty works of fiction, including and numerous novellas and short stories in addition to longer novels. These are her best known.
- The Greater Inclination (1899)
- The House of Mirth (1905)
- Ethan Frome (1911)
- The Reef (1912)
- The Custom of the Country (1913)
- The Age of Innocence (1920)
- The Buccaneers (1938; posthumous)
Autobiography and Biographies
- The Edith Wharton Society
- Reader discussions of Wharton’s books on Goodreads
- Wharton page on Amazon
Articles, News, Etc.
- What Would Edith Wharton Think of Our Modern Home Decor Tastes
- A Visit to the Cemetery Where Edith Wharton Buried Her Beloved Dogs
- 12 Must-Read Collections of Famous Authors’ Letters
- Handwritten Manuscript Pages From Classic Novels:
Edith Wharton’s manuscript from The House of Mirth
- Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, and a Case of Anxiety of Influence
Read and listen online
- Wharton’s public domain works on Project Gutenberg
- Audio recordings of Wharton’s public domain works on Librivox
Selected film adaptations of Edith Wharton’s works
Visit and study
- The Mount – Lenox, MA, USA
- Edith Wharton Collection – Beineke Library at Yale University, New Haven, CT
- Edith Wharton gravesite in Versailles, France
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