Edith Wharton

Edith wharton

Edith Wharton (January 24, 1862 – August 11, 1937), was born Edith Newbold Jones in New York City. She typified the Grande Dame 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.

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 long years, and she admitted to suffering from terrible shyness.

She tiptoed into the publishing field by producing 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 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 publication of Wharton’s first collection of fictional stories, The Greater Inclination (1899) 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.”

When her first novel, The House of Mirth (1905), became a bestseller Edith 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.

After having designed and built The Mount, an imposing mansion with extensive grounds in Lenox, MA, she lived there with her husband, Teddy Wharton (theirs was a very unhappy marriage), from 1902 to 1911. 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.

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

Major Works

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.

Notable nonfiction

Autobiography and Biographies

More Information

Articles, News, Etc.

Read and listen online

Selected film adaptations of Edith Wharton’s works

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Edith Wharton Quotes

Edith Wharton“After all, one knows one’s weak points so well, that it’s rather bewildering to have the critics overlook them and invent others that (one is fairly sure) don’t exist — or exist in a less measure.” (From a letter to Robert Grant, November 19, 1907)

“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.” (A Backward Glance, 1934)

“There is one friend in the life of each of us who seems not a separate person, however dear and beloved, but an expansion, an interpretation, of one’s self, the very meaning of one’s soul.”

“I have never known a novel that was good enough to be good in spite of its being adapted to the author’s political views.” (From a letter to Upton Sinclair, August 19, 1927)

“Every dawning talent has to go through a phase of imitation and subjection to influences, and the great object of the young writer should be not to fear those influences, but to seek only the greatest, and to assimilate them so they become [her] stock-in-trade.” (From a letter, 1918)

“True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision.” (The Writing of Fiction, 1925)

“There are lots of ways of being miserable, but there’s only one way of being comfortable, and that is to stop running round after happiness. If you make up your mind not to be happy there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a fairly good time.” (The Last Asset, 1904)

Edith Wharton“The only way not to think about money is to have a great deal of it.” (The House of Mirth, 1905)

“No insect hangs its nest on threads as frail as those which will sustain the weight of human vanity.” (The House of Mirth, 1905)

“How much longer are we going to think it necessary to be ‘American’ before  … being cultivated, being enlightened, being humane, and having the same intellectual discipline as other civilized countries?”

“I don’t know if I should care for a man who made life easy; I should want someone who made it interesting.”

“In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.”

“Life is the only real counselor; wisdom unfiltered through personal experience does not become a part of the moral tissue. True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision.” (from The Writing of Fiction, 1925)

“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” (from Vesalius in Zante, 1902)

“Life is always a tightrope or a feather bed. Give me the tightrope.” (from a journal entry, 1926)

“Ah, good conversation – there’s nothing like it, is there? The air of ideas is the only air worth breathing.” (The Age of Innocence, 1920)

“We can’t behave like people in novels, though, can we?” (The Age of Innocence, 1920)

“I don’t know if I should care for a man who made life easy; I should want someone who made it interesting.”

Edith wharton and pekingese“My little dog—a heartbeat at my feet.”

“Habit is necessary; it is the habit of having habits, of turning a trail into a rut, that must be incessantly fought against if one is to remain alive.” (A Backward Glance, 1934)

At last I had groped my way through to my vocation, and thereafter I never questioned  that story-telling was my job…I felt like some homeless waif who, after trying for years to take out naturalization papers, and being rejected by every country, has finally acquired a nationality. The Land of Letters was henceforth to be my country and I gloried in my new citizenship. (A Backward Glance, 1934)


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