In This Article Edith Wharton

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Biographies
  • Personal Reminiscences
  • Journals
  • Correspondence
  • Reception
  • Film
  • Wharton and the Literary Marketplace
  • Wharton and Other Writers
  • Wharton and Religion
  • Wharton and Sexuality
  • Theater
  • War

American Literature Edith Wharton
by
Gary Totten
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0188

Introduction

Edith Wharton (b. 1862– d. 1937) was born Edith Newbold Jones to George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander in New York City. Her upper-class family background and the wealthy New York world in which she was raised would influence the themes of her fiction, in which she both celebrated and critiqued the cultural norms of her society. As a child, Wharton traveled through Europe with her parents. This experience instilled in her a lifelong interest in travel and her great interest and expertise in art. She eventually moved to France and lived the latter half of her life abroad. She married Edward (Teddy) Robbins Wharton in 1885, but the marriage was unhappy, and she had an affair with the journalist Morton Fullerton. Wharton and Teddy Wharton divorced in 1913. Wharton’s first book on interior design, The Decoration of Houses (1897), was coauthored with Ogden Codman Jr., and in 1902, she designed and built a home in Lenox, Massachusetts, known as the Mount. Her first major novel, The House of Mirth (1905), was a best seller exploring the exacting social codes of the upper classes and their effects on the young unmarried protagonist, Lily Bart. However, Wharton would also explore rural life in New England tales such as Ethan Frome (1911) and Summer (1917). She organized relief efforts for child refugees in France during World War I, and her experience of the war influenced her nonfiction and fiction. Many of her serialized novels and short stories appeared in major literary and popular magazines. Indeed, she became a skilled advocate for her work as she interacted with book and magazine editors, and she was heavily involved in the production and marketing of her writing. In 1921, she won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence (1920), and she received an honorary doctorate degree from Yale University in 1923. In her 1920s and 1930s fiction, she explored issues of modern life, particularly as they affect her female characters. In addition to the novel, Wharton wrote in other genres, including the short story, drama, poetry, travel writing, and nonfiction. She is an incisive critic of her class and of American culture more generally, and although she was reluctant to be categorized as a feminist, her work often critiques patriarchal structures and norms while operating within them. Ongoing scholarship on and interest in her life and writing attests to the significance of her work.

General Overviews

Ammons 1980, Singley 1995, and Hoeller 2000 provide studies of Wharton’s innovations and challenges as a woman writer responding to male literary and cultural traditions. Kassanoff 2004, Ohler 2006, and Orlando 2007 situate Wharton in various contexts important to her work—namely, racial ideology, evolutionary theory, and the visual arts, respectively. Bauer 1994 and Horner and Beer 2011 offer analyses of the themes and issues in Wharton’s later fiction.

  • Ammons, Elizabeth. Edith Wharton’s Argument with America. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1980.

    E-mail Citation »

    Claims that Wharton, through her fiction, translated her individual concerns into “publicly arguable issues,” specifically in relation to her desire to critique America’s patriarchal society.

  • Bauer, Dale M. Edith Wharton’s Brave New Politics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.

    E-mail Citation »

    Examines Wharton’s later fiction, especially that of the 1920s and 1930s, arguing that rather than viewing Wharton as removed from the cultural and political issues of this period, we should approach this work in terms of Wharton’s complex and serious engagement with modernity.

  • Hoeller, Hildegard. Edith Wharton’s Dialogue with Realism and Sentimental Fiction. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000.

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    Explores Wharton’s use of the sentimental in her fiction as a mode to express women’s experience and also to critique some of the limitations of literary realism, both as a literary aesthetic and as a frame for approaching Wharton’s work.

  • Horner, Avril, and Janet Beer. Edith Wharton: Sex, Satire and the Older Woman. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    Focuses on Wharton’s later fiction, emphasizing Wharton’s use of satire and her exploration of older women characters’ sexuality. Argues that these later works, while not in the literary vein of writers we would consider in style and content as “high modernist,” still present readers with complicated and provocative characters and plots.

  • Kassanoff, Jennie A. Edith Wharton and the Politics of Race. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511485558E-mail Citation »

    Discusses how Wharton’s concerns about threats to white superiority influenced her work. Situates Wharton’s views on this issue within historical and cultural contexts and notes that Wharton’s conservative views as expressed in her fiction sustained Anglo-Saxon superiority in a period when the racial profile of the United States was changing.

  • Ohler, Paul J. Edith Wharton’s “Evolutionary Conception”: Darwinian Allegory in Her Major Novels. New York: Routledge, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    Demonstrates Wharton’s incorporation of evolutionary thought and theory from Darwin, Spencer, and Huxley in her fiction. Argues that these theories influenced her literary aesthetic, depiction of class, and ultimately her negative view of social Darwinism.

  • Orlando, Emily J. Edith Wharton and the Visual Arts. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    Investigates Wharton’s engagement with the visual arts, especially as it illuminates her attitudes toward gender ideologies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Examines Wharton’s novels and short stories for the ways in which she critiques male artists’ misrepresentation of women, particularly that of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

  • Singley, Carol J. Edith Wharton: Matters of Mind and Spirit. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511549595E-mail Citation »

    Places Wharton within the predominantly male literary and cultural traditions of the period, discussing how her work both conforms to and challenges these traditions, resulting in a complex intellectual and spiritual outlook.

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