Edith Wharton: American Author

“A prolific and successful writer…”

Edith Wharton. Image: Famous Authors

Edith Wharton (1862–1937) appears fully formed on page 700 of The Norton Anthology of American Literature (Vol:2), which is a vast anthology of some of the best American writers since the 17th century to the present day, or in the case of my hefty paperback, 1979.

Of Edith Wharton the editors describe her thus:

“ Edith Wharton’s patrician background, troubled marriage, and international social life are all of interest; above all else, however, she was a prolific and successful writer. She began to write as a very young woman, published some fifty varied volumes in her lifetime, and left a number of unpublished manuscripts and voluminous correspondence at her death.”

Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence in 1920, and was the first female writer to be awarded the Gold Medal for the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1930.

As the editors suggest she came from a wealthy and powerful background, consequently her writing is very self-assured, dense and powerful, and very different from Henry James’ for instance — a writer she admired although he was often dismissive of her — and is full of great expressionistic pen work as the following extract from Bunner Sisters displays:

“ These three houses fairly exemplified the general character of the street, which, as it stretched eastward, rapidly fell from shabbiness to squalor, with an increasing frequency of projecting sign-boards, and of swinging doors that softly shut or opened at the touch of red-nosed men and pale little girls with broken jugs. The middle of the street was full of irregular depressions, well adapted to retain the long swirls of dust and straw and twisted paper that the wind drove up and down its sad untended length; and toward the end of the day, when traffic had been active, the fissured pavement formed a mosaic of coloured hand-bills, lids of tomato-cans, old shoes, cigar-stumps and banana skins, cemented together by a layer of mud, or veiled in a powdering of dust, as the state of the weather determined.”

The above could easily be from the script of a Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin film from the early ’20s that often used such streets, plus there can be little doubt that Scott Fitzgerald must have been familiar with Wharton’s work, as the above passage alone suggests, at least to me, certain elements from The Great Gatsby.

Edith Newbold Jones was born in New York City on January 24th, 1862, and brought up in a cultivated household that nevertheless feared the drastic changes that were taking place in the post-Civil War United States. She was educated at home and abroad (the Jones family frequently travelled to Europe where they would spend many months)by tutors and governesses. At the age of twenty-three Edith married Edward Wharton, a wealthy Bostonian thirteen years her senior. They were ill-suited from the start with both suffering from mental illness. Although Edward was an adulterer it took Edith twenty-eight years to seek a divorce.

The couple were childless.

Her first novel, The House of Mirth, was published in 1905, with the title perhaps a very sharp dig in the ribs critique of her own complicated homelife. The book reached a wide reading public and launched her writing career. This may also have given her the courage to go against the social norms of the times, and her class, and ditch her old man.

The novels (not least The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome) that followed confirmed her rightful place in the literary society of the time, where her fiction often centred around the conflict between old money and new, which of course is something she had often observed as a watchful and listening child and as an angry and frustrated wife.

I came to her work late, but found it totally engrossing, yet, at the same time, thoroughly exhausting in its detail. Like Proust you must give Wharton time.

Edith died in France, where she had lived for some time, in 1937.

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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