Biography of Edith Wharton, American Novelist

Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton (1862-1937), american writer, late 1890's.

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Edith Wharton (January 24, 1862 – August 11, 1937) was an American writer. A daughter of the Gilded Age, she criticized the rigid societal constraints and thinly veiled immoralities of her society. A notable philanthropist and war correspondent, Wharton’s work depicted how characters carry on and go through the motions in the face of luxury, excess, and lethargy.

Fast Facts: Edith Wharton

  • Known For: Author of Age of Innocence and several novels about the Gilded Age
  • Also Known As: Edith Newbold Jones (maiden name)
  • Born: January 24, 1862 in New York City, New York
  • Parents: Lucretia Rhinelander and George Frederic Jones
  • Died: August 11, 1937 in Saint Brice, France
  • Selected Works: The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome, Age of Innocence, The Glimpses of the Moon
  • Awards and Honors: French Legion of Honor, Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, American Academy of Arts and Letters
  • Spouse: Edward (Teddy) Wharton
  • Children: none
  • Notable Quote: “In the eyes of our provincial society, authorship was still regarded as something between a black art and a form of manual labor.”

Early Life and Family

Edith Newbold Jones was born on January 24, 1862 in her family’s Manhattan brownstone. The baby girl of the family, she had two older brothers, Frederic and Harry. Her parents, Lucretia Rhinelander and George Frederic Jones, both descended from American revolutionary families, and their surnames had been leading New York society for generations. But the Civil War diminished their dynastic wealth, so in 1866, the Jones family left for Europe to escape the economic ramifications of the war, and travelled between Germany, Rome, Paris, and Madrid. Despite a brief stint with typhoid in 1870, Edith enjoyed a luxurious and cultured childhood. She was not permitted to go to school, as that was improper, but received instruction from a series of governesses who taught her German, Italian, and French. 

Portrait of Edith Wharton, 1870
Portrait of Edith Wharton, 1870, by artist Edward Harrison May. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

The Joneses returned to New York in 1872 and Edith began writing, in addition to her classical studies. She completed a book of poems, Verses, in 1878, and her mother paid for a private print run. In 1879, Edith “came out” into society as an eligible bachelorette, but she did not give up her literary aspirations. The Atlantic editor, William Dean Howells, a family acquaintance, was given some of the Verses poems to read. In the spring of 1880, he published five of Wharton’s poems, one per month. This began her long relationship with the publication, which ran two of her short stories in 1904 and 1912. She wrote to the subsequent editor, Bliss Perry, "I cannot tell you how much praise I think you deserve for maintaining the tradition of what a good magazine should be in the face of our howling mob of critics and readers."

In 1881, the Jones family went to France, but by 1882, George passed away and Edith’s marriage prospects diminished as she approached her mid-20s and old-maid status. In August 1882, she was engaged to Henry Leyden Stevens, but the engagement was broken off by his mother’s opposition, allegedly because Edith was too intellectual. In 1883, she returned to the United States and spent her summer in Maine, where she met Edward (Teddy) Wharton, a banker from Boston. In April 1885, Edith and Teddy married in New York. The couple did not have much in common, but summered in Newport and traveled in Greece and Italy during the rest of the year.

In 1889, the Whartons moved back to New York City. Edith’s first publication as a fiction writer was the short story “Mrs. Manstey’s View” which Scribner’s published in 1890. During that decade, Wharton traveled repeatedly to Italy and studied Renaissance art, in addition to decorating a new home in Newport with the help of designer Ogden Codman. Edith claimed that “decidedly, I’m a better landscape gardener than novelist.” 

Early Work and The House of Mirth (1897-1921)

  • The Decoration of Houses (1897)
  • The House of Mirth (1905)
  • The Fruit in the Trees (1907)
  • Ethan Frome (1911)
  • Age of Innocence (1920)

After her Newport design collaboration, she worked on an aesthetic book co-written with Ogden Codman. In 1897, the non-fiction design book, The Decoration of Houses, was published and sold well. Her old friendship with Walter Berry was renewed and he helped her edit the final draft; later she would call Berry “the love of all my life.” Wharton’s interest in design informed her fiction, as her characters’ houses always reflected their personalities. In 1900, Wharton finally made the acquaintance of novelist Henry James, which began their life-long friendship.

Before truly beginning her fiction career, Wharton worked as a playwright. The Shadow of A Doubt, a three-act play about a social climbing nurse, was to premiere in New York in 1901, but for some reason the production was canceled and the play lost until rediscovered by archivists in 2017. In 1902, she translated the Sudermann play, The Joy of Living. That year, she also moved into their new Berkshire Estate, The Mount. Edith had her hand in designing every aspect of the home, from blueprints to gardens to upholstery. At The Mount, Wharton wrote The House of Mirth, which Scribner’s serialized over the course of 1905. The printed book was a best seller for months. However, the 1906 New York theatrical adaptation of House of Mirth, co-written by Wharton and Clyde Fitch, proved too controversial and disturbed audiences.

Edith Wharton, American Novelist
American novelist Edith Wharton (1862-1937) during her early European trip, ca. 1885. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Edith’s relationship with her husband was never particularly affectionate, but in 1909, she had an affair with the journalist Morton Fullerton, and Edward embezzled an outrageous sum from her trust (which he later paid back). Edward also sold The Mount without consulting Edith in 1912.

While they were not formally divorced until 1913, the pair lived in separate quarters for the early 1910s. Divorce was uncommon at the time in their social circles, which were slow to adapt. Society address registers continued to list Edith as “Mrs. Edward Wharton” for six years after the divorce.

In 1911, Scribner’s published Ethan Frome, a novel based on a sledding accident near The Mount. Edith then relocated to Europe, traveling in England, Italy, Spain, Tunisia, and France. In 1914, at the start of World War I, Edith settled in Paris and opened the American Hostel for Refugees. She was one of the few journalists permitted to visit the front, and published her accounts in Scribner’s and other American magazines. Henry James’ death in 1916 hit Wharton hard, but she continued supporting the war effort. France granted her the Legion of Honor, their highest civilian award in recognition of this service.

After suffering a series of small heart attacks, Wharton purchased a villa in Southern France, Sainte Claire du Vieux Chateau, in 1919, and began writing The Age of Innocence there. The cutting novel about American decadence in the Gilded Age was firmly rooted in her upbringing and relationships with genteel society. She published the novel in 1920 to great acclaim, although it did not sell as well as The House of Mirth.

Page from original manuscript of The House of Mirth
Page from the original manuscript of "The House of Mirth," written by the American author Edith Wharton. Book II, Chapter 9, pp. 35-56. Public Domain / Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University

In 1921, Age of Innocence won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, making Wharton the first woman to win the award. The New York Times said that her novel accurately embodied Joseph Pulitzer’s charge to award the work that best presented “the wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standards of American manners and manhood.” The Prize was only in its fourth year and did not attract much media attention at the time, but the controversy surrounding Wharton’s win brought challenges. 

The Pulitzer jury had recommended Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street win the fiction prize, but was overturned by Columbia University’s president, Nicholas Murray Butler. Contention over offending Midwestern audiences, and the Prize language replacing “wholesome” with “whole,” supposedly led to Wharton’s win. She wrote to Lewis, stating that, “When I discovered that I was being rewarded—by one of our leading Universities—for uplifting American morals, I confess I did despair. Subsequently, when I found the prize should really have been yours, but was withdrawn because your book (I quote from memory) had ‘offended a number of prominent persons in the Middle West,’ disgust was added to despair.”

Later Work and The Glimpses of the Moon (1922-36)

  • The Glimpses of the Moon (1922)
  • The Old Maid (1924)
  • The Children (1928)
  • Hudson River Bracketed (1929)
  • A Backward Glance (1934)

Immediately after writing The Age of Innocence, and before the Pulitzer win, Wharton worked on The Glimpses of the Moon. While she had begun the text before the war, it wasn’t finished and published until July 1922. Despite a meager critical reception today, the book sold over 100,000 copies. Wharton rejected publishers’ entreaties that she write a sequel. In 1924, another early Gilded Age novel, The Old Maid, was serialized. In 1923, she returned to America one last time to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale University, the first woman to obtain that honor. In 1926, Wharton was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters. 

Walter Barry’s death in 1927 left Wharton bereft, but she soldiered on and began writing The Children, which was published in 1928. At this point, friends in England and America began campaigning for Wharton to win the Nobel Prize. Previously, she had campaigned for Henry James to win the Nobel, but neither campaign was successful. As her royalties diminished, Wharton refocused on her writing and engaging relationships, including a friendship with the writer Aldous Huxley. In 1929 she published Hudson River Bracketed, about an ambitious New York genius, but it was dubbed a failure by The Nation.

Edith Wharton, American Novelist
Edith Wharton (1862-1937), American novelist. Photograph taken in the 1920s. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Wharton’s 1934 memoir, A Backward Glance, chronicled her life selectively, leaving out much of her early drama work, to craft a portrait of Wharton exclusively as an astute chronicler. But theater was still important to her. A 1935 dramatical adaptation of The Old Maid by Zoe Akin was performed in New York and was a huge success; the play received the Pulitzer Prize in Drama that year. In 1936 there was also a successful adaptation of Ethan Frome performed in Philadelphia.

Literary Style and Themes

Wharton was notable for the energy and accuracy with which she portrayed her community and society. She spared no one in her pursuit of an accurate retelling. Wharton’s protagonist in Age of Innocence, Newland Archer, was easily identified as Wharton’s foil. While the other characters were invariably drawn from New York society, warts and all. She was famous (and infamous) for remembering conversations and dialogue that she deployed later. She remembered verbatim all the advice of her mentors: critic Paul Bourget, Scribner’s editor Edward Burlingame, and Henry James. Her friendship with the Curtises was ruined after they discovered themselves parodied in one of her short stories.

A contemporary New Yorker article described Wharton’s work and explorations as portents: “She spent her life formally proving that the wages of social sin were social death and lived to see the grandchildren of her characters comfortably and popularly relaxing into open scandals.”

She was influenced by William Thackeray, Paul Bourget, and her friend Henry James. She also read work by Darwin, Huxley, Spencer, and Haeckel.

Death

Wharton began suffering strokes in 1935 and entered formal medical care following a heart attack in June 1937. Following an unsuccessful bout of bloodletting, she died at her home in St-Brice on August 11, 1937.

Legacy

Wharton wrote a staggering 38 books, and her most important ones have stood the test of time. Her work is still widely read, and writers including Elif Batuman and Colm Toibin have been influenced by her work.

A 1993 film adaptation of The Age of Innocence starred Winona Ryder, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Daniel Day-Lewis. In 1997, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery displayed an exhibit, “Edith Wharton’s World,” of paintings of Wharton and her circle. 

Sources

  • Benstock, Shari. No Gifts from Chance: a Biography of Edith Wharton. University of Texas Press, 2004.
  • “Edith Wharton.” The Mount: Edith Wharton's Home, www.edithwharton.org/discover/edith-wharton/.
  • “Edith Wharton Chronology.” The Edith Wharton Society, public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/wharton/wchron.htm.
  • “EDITH WHARTON, 75, IS DEAD IN FRANCE.” The New York Times, 13 Aug. 1937, https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1937/08/13/94411456.html?pageNumber=17.
  • Flanner, Janet. “Dearest Edith.” The New Yorker, 23 Feb. 1929, www.newyorker.com/magazine/1929/03/02/dearest-edith.
  • Lee, Hermione. Edith Wharton. Pimlico, 2013.
  • Pride, Mike. “Edith Wharton's 'The Age of Innocence' Celebrates Its 100th Anniversary.” The Pulitzer Prize, www.pulitzer.org/article/questionable-morals-edith-whartons-age-innocence.
  • Schuessler, Jennifer. “Unknown Edith Wharton Play Surfaces.” The New York Times, 2 June 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/06/02/theater/edith-wharton-play-surfaces-the-shadow-of-a-doubt.html.
  • “SIMS'S BOOK WINS COLUMBIA PRIZE.” The New York Times, 30 May 1921, https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1921/05/30/98698147.html?pageNumber=14.
  • “The House of Wharton.” The Atlantic, 25 July 2001, www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/flashbks/wharton.htm.