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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Edith Wharton
(1862-1937)


Edith Newbold Jones was the third child and only daughter in an elite, conservative, old New York family. Tracing their lineage to pre-Revolutionary settlers, her parents, George Frederic and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander Jones, belonged to a class that prided itself on its avoidance of ostentation, intellectualism, publicity, and, according to the author as a grown woman, emotion. That Wharton was to become a famous, brilliantly accomplished author in no way fulfilled her family’s program for her.

During her childhood, the Joneses divided their time among New York, Europe, and summers in Newport, Rhode Island. Because her two brothers were already in their teens when she was born, she grew up as if she were an only child; and, as with other girls of her time and class, her life was sheltered. She was tutored at home and, making her debut at the age of seventeen, she was expected thereafter simply to marry. When she did, accepting in 1885 Edward (“Teddy”) Wharton, a good-natured man thirteen years her senior, she made a match that was conventional and, ultimately, unhappy. As a leisure-class wife, she traveled and visited, entertained, supervised servants, and built and decorated homes. Some of these activities appealed to Wharton. Increasingly, however, she found this existence suffocating and, on the advice of doctors treating her for depression, turned to writing as an outlet.

Publishing short stories in the 1890s and then long fiction at the turn of the century, Wharton grew in strength as her husband’s mental health deteriorated. The couple had no children, and their lives steadily diverged. In the early 1900s Wharton had a secret love affair with a younger man, Morton Fullerton, and in 1913 pursued a divorce. The divorce pained and shocked family members.

The publication of The House of Mirth in 1905 launched Wharton as America’s most acclaimed twentieth-century fiction writer in the decades preceding the 1920s. During her major period, the years from 1905 to 1920, she published novels prolifically: The House of Mirth, Madame de Treymes, Ethan Frome, The Reef, The Custom of the Country, Summer, and The Age of Innocence. Her work is distinguished by her brilliance as a stylist, her urbane intelligence, and her acuity as a social observer and critic, particularly of the leisure class.

Wharton wrote about the rapaciousness and vulgarity of the nouveaux riches, the timidity and repression of the upper class, the contrast between European and American customs and values, and the inequality and repression of women, which often showed up in patriarchal culture—by design, of course—in hostility and rivalry among women. As both “The Valley of Childish Things” and “Roman Fever” show, issues of female sexual freedom, frustrated artistic ambition, and severely limited status in the public realm interested her. Poverty also arrested her imagination and stimulated some of her best work, such as Ethan Frome and Summer. Not surprisingly, given her personal experience, she also focused on marriage, which she usually portrayed as incarcerating, especially for women. At the same time, as “Souls Belated” illustrates, she was keenly aware of how psychologically important the conventional relationship of marriage and its attendant responsibility could be. The private love diary she wrote during her affair with Morton Fullerton, “The Life Apart,” which was never published during her lifetime, shows yet another side of Wharton—anxious, at times insecure, bold, sensual.

The contribution of Edith Wharton to American literature is major. Often compared with Henry James, a close friend, she is recognized along with other women writers at the turn into the twentieth century—Kate Chopin, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Ellen Glasgow, Willa Cather—for moving nineteenth-century women’s literary tradition into a new phase of artistic ambitiousness and excellence. In her lifetime she published nineteen novels and novellas, eleven volumes of short stories, a number of book-length discursive works, some poetry, and many essays, reviews, and articles. Perceived in her own time as an extraordinary writer, she received the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 and in 1923 was the first woman to be honored by Yale University with the degree of doctor of letters. Wharton died of a stroke at the age of seventy-five and is buried in France, where she made her home for the last twenty-five years of her life. Her grave is in the Cimetière des Gonards at Versailles.

Elizabeth Ammons
Tufts University


Texts
In the Heath Anthology
The Valley of Childish Things (1896)
Souls Belated (1899)
The Other Two (1904)
The Life Apart (1907 - 1908)
The Eyes (1910)
Roman Fever (1936)

Other Works
The House of Mirth (1905)
Madame de Treymes (1907)
Ethan Frome (1911)
The Reef (1912)
The Custom of the Country (1913)
Summer (1917)
The Age of Innocence (1920)
Old New York (1924)
The Mother's Recompense (1925)
A Backward Glance (memoir) (1934)



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Links

An Overview with Biocritical Sources
(http://www.geocities.com/EnchantedForest/6741/)
Chronology, biography, pictures, and list of critical sources.

Edith Warton Society
(http://www.gonzaga.edu/faculty/campbell/wharton/index.html)
Information about the Society and the Wharton scholarly community in general.

Edith Wharton's World: Portraits of People and Places
(http://www.npg.si.edu/exh/wharton/index.htm)
An exhibition at the National Gallery.


Secondary Sources

Elizabeth Ammons, Edith Wharton's Argument with America, 1980

Dale Bauer, Edith Wharton's Brave New Politics, 1994

Millicent Bell, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Edith Wharton, 1995

W.B. Lewis, Edith Wharton: A Biography, 1975

Kenneth M. Price and Phyllis McBride, " 'The Life Apart': Text and Contexts of Edith Wharton's Love Diary," American Literature 66 (December 1994): 663-88

Carol Singley, Edith Wharton: Matters of Mind and Spirit, 1995

Cynthia Griffin Wolff, A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton, 1977





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