Edith Wharton’s Struggles with Self-Doubt

Edith wharton and pekingese

Edith Wharton and self-doubt aren’t two concepts you’d expect to read in the same phrase. Yet this storied American author (1862 – 1937) struggled to feel worthy of her right to write, let alone to achieve any sort of success at this calling.

Despite her wealthy background and privileged upbringing, Wharton (born Edith Newbold Jones, as in “keeping up with the Joneses, quite literally) was no haughty heiress. On the contrary, she felt inferior to those she aspired to regard as peers.

From much anecdotal evidence, it appears that women suffer from the “impostor syndrome” more frequently than do men. Even among high achievers, there’s a fairly common belief that personal success has more to do with luck, timing, or external circumstances other than talent.

If it’s any comfort, the book If I’m So Successful Why Do I Feel Like a Fake?  by Joan Harvey presents research demonstrating that accomplished people often feel like frauds. This was certainly true for Edith Wharton as she tremulously tiptoed toward her literary aspirations.

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Classical Principles for Modern Design by Thomas Jayne

See also: Classical Principles for Modern Design:
Lessons from Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman’s
The Decoration of Houses
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Tiptoeing into publishing

Wharton 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.

Her successful efforts at nonfiction led her to just the right contacts for this pursuit and she was pleasantly surprised at how quickly she got her foot in the door she actually wanted to enter—and at how well her work was received.

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Edith wharton
See also: Edith Wharton’s Reflection on her Writing Life
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The bright side of disapproval

Later, in looking back at her incredible career, Wharton found a silver lining in the disapproval she experienced early on from her family and friends:

“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 stimulus — but was it helpful or the reverse to have every aspiration ignored, or looked at askance? … 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 …”  (from A Backward Glance, 1934)

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Edith Wharton books

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Emerging from the shadows of self-doubt

Upon reflection, she deemed her early lack of support as somehow a good thing, something that forced her to fight her way out of the “thick fog of indifference.”

A less hardy soul may have succumbed and stayed mired in the self-limiting beliefs imposed on her by her family and society cohorts. Perhaps some measured appreciation for success is preferable to allowing your ego to morph into the female counterpart of Norman Mailer’s.

Still, there’s no clear benefit to being overly humble or taking no credit at all for one’s own accomplishments. Wharton, at least, felt that she’d arrived at her deserved literary place once she emerged from the shadows of self-doubt.

“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.”  (from A Backward Glance , 1934)

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Edith Wharton at her desk

You might also enjoy:
Edith Wharton Needed Approval, Just Like the Rest of Us

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