Wharton, Edith

Edith wharton

Edith Wharton (1862-1937) typifies 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. Her lack of confidence came from her upbringing; her mother and society friends thought that literary pursuits were beneath a person of her class. Wharton’s insecurity about  her talent and abilities was overcome at last by the accumulation of small successes, then larger ones.

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. In 1899, her first collection of stories, The Greater Inclination, was published. Her impressive and respected body of fiction and nonfiction, which included The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome, The Custom of the Country, and others, was crowned with a Pulitzer Prize and other honors.   

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Edith Wharton Quotes

Edith Wharton Stamp“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)

“Though I was always interested in what was said of my books, and sometimes (though rarely) helped by the comments of the professional critics, never did they influence me against my judgement, or deflect me by a hair’s-breadth from what I knew to be “the real right” way. In this I was much helped by Walter Berry. No critic was ever severer, but none had more respect for the artist’s liberty. He taught me never to be satisfied with my own work, but never to let my inward conviction as to the rightness of anything I had done be affected by outside opinion. He alone not only encouraged me to write, as others had already done, but had the patience and intelligence to teach me how…His invariable rule, though he prized above all things concision and austerity, was to encourage me to write as my own instinct impelled me; and it was only after the story or the book was done that we set out together on the “adjective hunts” from which we often brought back such heavy bags. Once I had found my footing and had material in hand, his criticisms became increasingly searching. With each book he exacted a higher standard in economy of expression, in purity of language, in the avoidance of the hackneyed and the precious.” (A Backward Glance, 1934)

“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)

“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

“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)

“My first attempt (at age of eleven) was a novel, which began: “‘Oh, how do you do, Mrs. Brown?’ said Mrs. Tomkins. ‘If only I had known you were going to call I should have tidied up the drawing-room’.” Timorously I submitted this to my mother, and never shall I forget the sudden drop of my creative frenzy when she returned it with the icy comment: “Drawing-rooms are always tidy.” This was so crushing to a would-be novelist of manners that it shook me rudely out of my dream of writing fiction, and I turned to poetry instead. It was not thought necessary to feed my literary ambitions with foolscap, and for lack of paper I was driven to begging for the wrappings of the parcels delivered at the house.” (A Backward Glance, 1934)

“I was contented enough with swimming and riding, with my dogs, and my reading and dreaming, but I longed to travel and see new places…and especially to being regarded as ‘grown up.’ I had not long to wait, for when I was seventeen my parents decided that I spent too much time in reading, and that I was to come out a year before the accepted age.”

“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 Letter was henceforth to be my country and I gloried in my new citizenship.” (A Backward Glance, 1934)

“I had written short stories that were thought worthy of preservation! Was it the same insignificant I that I had always known? Any one walking along the street might go into any bookshop, and say “Please give me Edith Wharton’s book,” and the clerk, without bursting into incredulous laughter, would produce it, and be paid for it, and the purchaser would walk home with it and read it, and talk of it, and pass it on to other people to read! The whole business seemed too unreal to be anything but a practical joke played on me by some occult humorist; and my friends could not have been more astonished and incredulous than I was. I opened the first notices of the book with trembling hands and a suffocated heart. What I had done was actually thought important enough to be not only printed but reviewed! With a sense of mingled guilt and self-satisfaction I glanced at one article after another. They were unbelievably kind, but for the most part their praise only humbled me; and often I found it bewildering.” (A Backward Glance, 1934)

“My long experimenting had resulted in two or three books which brought me more encouragement than I had ever dreamed of obtaining, and were the means of my making some of the happiest friendships of my life. The reception of my books gave me the self-confidence I had so long lacked, and in the company of people who shared my tastes, and treated me as their equal, I ceased to suffer from the agonizing shyness which used to rob such encounters of all pleasure.” (A Backward Glance, 1934)

“I have often wondered, in looking back at the slow stammering beginnings of my literary life, whether or not it is a good thing for the creative artist to grow up in an atmosphere where the arts are simply nonexistent. Violent opposition might be a stimulous – but was it helpful or the reverse to have every aspiration ignored, or looked at askance? I have thought over this many times, as I have over most problems of creative art, in the fascinating but probably idle attempt to discover how it is all done, and exactly what happens at the “fine point of the soul” where the creative act, like the mystic’s union with the Unknowable, really seems to take place.

And as I have grown older my point of view has necessarily changed, since I have seen more and more would-be creators, whether in painting, music, or letters, who’s way has been made smooth from the cradle, geniuses whose families were prostrate before them before they had written a line or composed a measure, and who, in middle age, still sat in ineffectual ecstasy before the blank page or the empty canvas; while on the other hand, more and more of the baffled, the derided, or the ignored have fought their way to achievement…as regards a case like my own, where a development no doubt naturally slow was certainly retarded by the indifference of every one about me, it is hard to say whether or not I was hindered. I am inclined to think the drawbacks were outweighed by the advantages; chief among these being the fact that I escaped all premature flattery, all local celebrity, that I had to fight my way to expression through a thick fog of indifference, if not tacit disapproval, and that when at last I met one of two kindred minds their criticisms were to me as sharp and searching as if they had been professionals in the exercise of their calling.” (A Backward Glance, 1934)

“My literary success puzzled and embarrassed my old friends far more than it impressed them, and in my own family it created a kind of constraint which increased with the years. None of my relations ever spoke to me of my books, either to praise or to blame – they simply ignored them; and among the immense tribe of my New York cousins, though it included many with whom I was on terms of affectionate intimacy, the subject was avoided as though it were a kind of family disgrace, which might be condoned but not be forgotten. Only one eccentric widowed cousin, living a life of lonely individualism, turned to my novels for occasional distraction, and had the courage to tell me so. At first I felt this indifference acutely; but now I no longer cared, for my recognition as a writer had transformed my life. I had made my own friends, and my books were beginning to serve as an introduction to my fellow-writers. But it was amusing to think that, whereas in London even my modest achievements would have opened many doors, in my native New York they were felt only as a drawback and embarrassment.” (A Backward Glance, 1934)

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