Edith Wharton Biography

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Edith Newbold Jones Wharton was born on January 24, 1862, in high-society New York to upper-class parents, George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander Jones. As a child and adolescent, Edith was educated at home by governesses. Having eagerly perused her family's library, she enjoyed literature and had always been interested in writing. She also accompanied her parents to various trips across the European continent: England, France, Italy and Germany. As a member of the old New York upper-class, Edith led a luxurious life, entering society at the age of seventeen.

Edith married wealthy Bostonian Edward (Teddy) Wharton, twenty years her senior, in 1885. Their marriage had been rocky from the beginning; they did not share many interests and Edward himself did little to encourage his wife's gifts of intellect and creativity. Not only did Edward embezzle Edith's trust funds to pay off his debts, he abused her trust by committing adultery (although Edith herself had an affair with Morgan Fullerton, who was a friend of hers and of her dear friend Henry James, lasting about three years). Her marriage to Edward drove Edith to depression and even led her straight to an asylum. She would later divorce Edward Wharton in 1912.

Wharton found comfort and friendship in writing and in Henry James, who advised her on her writing. Her first book, The Decoration of Houses (1897), focused on the architecture and design of European homes. Then her publishing company, Scribners, published her first fiction, a collection of short stories called The Greater Inclination (1899). After the publication of her first book, Wharton focused on her literary career. Edith published a number of novels throughout her literary career: The House of Mirth (1905), Ethan Frome (1911), The Reef (1912), The Custom of the Country (1913), The Age of Innocence (1920), The Glimpses of the Moon (1922), Old New York (1924), and The Mother's Recompense (1925). She published her own autobiography, A Backward Glance in 1934.

Wharton, living in France by this time, remained in Paris during World War I to do relief work. She was awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honour for her work in WWI. Then she earned an honorary D. Litt. from Yale and later the Gold Medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. The Age of Innocence won her the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1921.

Edith Wharton continued writing up until the time of her death. Her last work, The Buccaneers (1938), was left unfinished until her friend finished the end. She died in her villa in France on August 11, 1937.

Today, Wharton remains one of the most prolific authors of the 20th-century. She feared that the attitude of 1920's America would fall prey to the 1870's and 1880's - superficial, crude, and lost - and was able to write about New York society with a satirical eye. Best known for her depiction of Old New York in all of its social hypocrisy, Wharton portrayed New York's acceptance or defiance of traditional standards. Wharton's novels show the moral disintegration and unguided convention prevalent of the late 19th-century. "Given her love of literature, her strength of character, and her creative power, she was able to make the most of her opportunities for self-cultivation and later to contemplate, understand, and describe ironically an isolated civilization in decline and transformation: As wife and hostess, she belonged to Society." (Walton 22).

Bibliography

Lewis, R.W.B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1975.

Seymour-Smith, Martin, and Andrew C. Kimmens, ed. World Authors, 1900 - 1950. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1996. Volume 4. Pgs. 2850 - 2851.

Walton, Geoffrey. Edith Wharton: A Critical Interpretation. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1982.

Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1939. Copyright 1911, 1912, 1938.

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