| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the Heath Anthology
The Valley of Childish Things
The Other Two
The Life Apart
(1907 - 1908)
The House of Mirth
Madame de Treymes
The Custom of the Country
The Age of Innocence
Old New York
The Mother's Recompense
A Backward Glance (memoir)
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An Overview with Biocritical Sources
Chronology, biography, pictures, and list of critical sources.
Edith Warton Society
Information about the Society and the Wharton scholarly community in general.
Edith Wharton's World: Portraits of People and Places
An exhibition at the National Gallery.
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