ew Of Literary AchievementsEdith Wharton: A brief personal history and overview of literary achievements
The cultural advancement of the 1920’s has many important literary figures associated with it. Names such as T.S. Elliot, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald are some of the better-known names. Edith Wharton is one of the less known of the period, but is still a formidable writer. This paper will explore Ms. Wharton’s life and history and give a brief background surrounding some of her more popular novels.
Ms. Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones on January 24, 1862, in her parents’ mansion and West Twenty-Third Street in New York City. Her mother, Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander, connected with wealthy Dutch landowners and merchants of the early nineteenth century, was the granddaughter of an outstanding American Revolutionary War patriot, General Ebenezer Stevens. After the war, General Stevens became a very successful East-India merchant. Edith Wharton’s father, a man of considerable, private, inherited wealth, did not follow a career in business. Rather, he lived a life of leisure, punctuated by his hobbies of sea fishing, boat racing, and wildfowl shooting (activities typical of wealthy men of the day). During her first few years, Edith Wharton’s family alternated between New York City in the winter and Newport, Rhode Island, in the summer. At the time, Newport was a very fashionable place where New York City families of wealth might enjoy ocean breezes and participate in a ro!
und of tea and inner parties, the leaving of calling cards, and constant preparations for entertaining or being entertained.
When she was four years old, her parents took her on a tour of Europe, concentrating on Italy and France. She became as familiar with Rome and Paris as most children are with their hometowns. It was here that the small, red-headed child played her favorite game. Not yet able to read, she carried around with her a large volume of Washington Irving’s stories of old Spain, The Alhambra. Holding the Book carefully, often upside down, she proceeded to turn the pages and to read aloud “make up” stories as she went along. Whereas most children of her age would be told the familiar old folk and fairy tales of Anderson, Perrault, and the Brothers Grimm, she listened with great delight to tales of the “domestic dramas” of the great Greek and Roman gods of mythology. The young child rapidly learned to read, speak, and write German, French, and Italian, as a result of the efforts of governess and the extended family tours of France and Italy.
Returning to America after an absence of sex years in picturesque Europe, the ten-year-old Edith viewed New York City with mixed feelings. She missed the glamour of Europe; she was distressed with the busy commercial air of much of her home city; she was delighted to join her relatives and friends on a rambling family estate at Newport. Here she continued her study of modern languages and proper manners. However, she had to return to her father’s in New York, where she spent her time perusing his library and immersing herself in the likes of Roman Plutarch and the English Macaulay, the English Pepys and Evelyn and the French Madame de Sevigne; the poets, Milton, Burns and Byron, as well as Scott, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Elizabeth Barrat Browning. With these writers as her models and inspiration, young Edith Wharton began to cover huge sheets of wrapping paper with her own prose and verse.
Edith’s family and the families of most of her friends were not “in business”: they lived on their incomes and investments, living leisurely lives of dining out or dinner going with much emphasis on good cooking, and sparkling conversation. Once in a while, they attended the theatre; the opera, seldom. When she was seventeen, Edith’s parents decided the time had arrived for her “coming out.” The series of social activities that indicated to the world that she was adult enough to be invited to social entertainment without her parents as chaperones. Soon, she joined her father and mother to another trip to Europe – this time for her father’s health. He died in France, when Edith was nineteen years old, and the grief-stricken mother and daughter returned to New York City. There they moved into a newly purchased house on West Twenty-Fifth Street. For several years, Edith enjoyed the social life of an average young woman of her wealth and social background; then her girlhood came !
to an end in 1885 with her marriage to Edward Wharton o…..f Boston. Thirteen years her senior, her husband was a banker from Boston. Although Mr. Wharton did not share his wife’s literary tastes, he did, however, enjoy some of her interests, such as animals, outdoor life and travel. They often times went on European holidays. On holiday was spent on an excursion through the hills of northern Italy, which was later to form the background of Ms. Wharton’s first novel, The Valley of Decision (1902), a historical romance of eighteenth-century Italy. The Whartons bought a house at Newport called “Land’s End.” There, Mrs. Whartons carried out some of her own original ideas about interior decoration – a project which later blossomed out into a book written in collaboration with the decorator-architect, Ogden Codman. This book, The Decoration of Houses (1897) was based upon Wharton’s own experimental ideas concerning the decoration of houses, and featured the then new ideas of emphasis o!
n simplicity of detail, right proportion, balance of door and window spacing, and unconfused lines.
For the next twenty years, Ms. Wharton traveled often to Europe and also began publishing many of her poems and novels. Soon she began to be regarded as actually having a personality of her own, no longer was she just her husband’s possession, nor was she merely one of the idle, cultured rich, she was an acknowledged individual., all on her own, and in print. From 1907, Ms. Wharton spent most of her time near Paris, where she entertained fashionable and literary society and a few visiting Americans (such as T. Roosevelt during his 1909-1910 world tour). She began the composition of Ethan Frome in Paris in French to have practice in keeping up to date with French idioms. She also engaged in many leisure time activities such as attending the ballet, visiting the Paris Opera and spent many hours reading.
Back in France, during the early days of World War I, Ms. Wharton saw the suffering of the sick and the homeless. Almost immediately, she began to do Red Cross work; she even provided a place for women who could sew clothing for the needy. To excite American interest in the plight of the French, she made six trips to the battle lines and then wrote an account of the hospital needs of the wounded. A woman with a tender heart for the sufferings of others, Mrs. Wharton and her many helpers cared for thousands of war refugees and several large groups of the young and the aged, as well as maintaining four sanatoriums for women and children were victims of tuberculosis. Her heroic was efforts were recognized by France in 1915 when she was awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor. Belgium, in 1916, made her Chevalier (knight)of the Order of Leopold. To help obtain money for war relief work, Mrs. Wharton put together The Book of the Homeless, made up of original poems, articles, and !
drawings donated by some of the leading members of the literary and artistic world in Europe and America. In addition to all of her other demanding duties at the time, Ms. Wharton translated into English the great majority of the Italian and French contributions to the book. Her great understanding and sympathy for France and the French people are seen in the works written during the years centering around World War I: Fighting France (1915), The Marne (1918), and French Ways and Their Meaning (1919).
When World War I was over, Edith Wharton busied herself with the writing of what turned out to be one of her greatest novels, The Age of Innocence. She alternated between her two homes in France. After a 1926 yacht trip in the Mediterranean Sea, she lived quietly in France for the remainder of her days. She wrote constantly, but her later work never achieved the sharp and sensitive flavor of her earlier, popular novels. She died in St. Brice, France, August 11, 1937, and was buried at Versailles in the Protestant cemetery.
Edith Wharton’s works have ranged over considerable literary ground. She has published literary works in ten categories: a study of interior decoration; short stories; poetry; a historical romance; novels; novelettes; travel books; a book of war impressions; literary criticism; and autobiography. Although she has been highly commended for all of her published works, her greatest achievement is undoubtedly in the area of the novel, featuring such literary masterworks as The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome, and the Age of Innocence. Edith Wharton made a great impression on the literary scene of the 1900’s and her presence is still felt today.