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Domestic Goddess Edith Wharton once said, about critics and biographers: "After all, one knowsPortrait of Edith Wharton as a young woman. one's weak points so well, that it's rather bewildering to have the critics overlook them & invent others." It seems that there is an abundance of blatantly wrong or just slightly incorrect information about Wharton's life and literature; it also seems that this problem was one Wharton herself faced. Born Edith Jones, January 24, 1862, she went on to become the first woman to ever win the Pulitzer prize for her novel The Age of Innocence, in 1921. You can read Wharton's own impressions of her life in the autobiography A Backward Glance. Her life story is as interesting as those of the women in her novels, and the biography by Lewis (see works cited link) is an excellent source of history, entertainment and context.

One of Wharton's ancestors, Ebenezer Stevens, participated in the Boston Tea Party, and had this to say about the legend of this Revolutionary event:

The party was about seventy or eighty. At the head of the wharf we met the detachment of our company. . . We commenced handling the boxes of tea on deck, at first commenced breaking them with axes, but found much difficulty . . . We were careful to prevent any being taken away; none of the party were painted as Indians, nor, that I know of, disguised, except that some of them had stopped at a paint shop on the way and daubed their faces with paint. (qtd in Lewis 8)

We can see from this that Wharton had some interesting and historically important ancestors. We can also see from Stevens' insistence in the truth of the event that perhaps the inner truths were something that Wharton was born knowing. She began writing at an early age, despite the fact that artistic endeavors, while not actively discouraged among her class and family, were not encouraged. As her Pulitzer prize winning biographer, R.W.B. Lewis says, her works are,

continuing testimony to the female experience under modern historical and social conditions, to the modes of entrapment, betrayal, and exclusion devised for women in the first decades of the American and European twentieth century. (Lewis xiii)

Lewis also notes, "her dedication to her own creative task . . .was complete, and no one worked more strenuously or revised more thoroughly" and her books, which survive to critical acclaim today, contain, "muted subtleties," "preciseness of allusion, and above all the compassion for the wounded or thwarted life that flows through them" (xiii).
Wharton probably has not suffered the same level of doubt of her work as some other women writers, in part because of her Pulitzer Prize. She was from a wealthy New York family, and much of her fiction relates partially autobiographical sketches of the kinds of people she grew up with. Her social group included such well-known American aristocracy as the Astors. In fact, one of her most engaging and well-known characters, Mrs. Manson Mignott in The Age of Innocence is based in part on her aunt Mary Mason (Mrs. Isaac) Jones, who built a mansion on Fifth Avenue-- at the time not the center of New York that it has come to be (Lewis 13).

Wharton was divorced from her husband in 1913, in part because she and her husband had grown into separate lives, and in part because her husband had numerous infidelities. In The Descent of Man Wharton wrote, "A New York divorce is in itself a diploma of virtue," perhaps she was referring to her own divorce. She lived abroad, in France or Italy, for a number of years, (the photo to the left was taken in Paris) including an extensive stay when she was very young during which she was exposed to typhoid fever and almost died.

Edith Wharton in Paris with a little dog on her lap 

Wharton died in 1937, after suffering for several months from several strokes. She is buried in Paris, and the inscription on her tomb reads, "Ave Crux Spes Unica," which means, "Hail, cross, the one hope."

Quotations of biographical information, and all photos on this page are from:
Lewis, R. W. B. Edith Wharton : A Biography. NY: Harper & Row, 1975. PS3545 H16 Z696.

A selection from The Age of Innocence, which I feel shows Wharton's ability to capture a moment so well, including the importance of "the unsaid":

It was not the custom in New York drawing-rooms for a lady to get up and walk away from one gentleman in order to seek the company of another. Etiquette required that she should wait, immovable as an idol, while the men who wished to converse with her succeeded each other at her side. But the Countess was apparently unaware of having broken any rule; she sat at perfect ease in a corner of the sofa beside Archer, and looked at him with the kindest eyes (63).


Page created: July 14, 1998

Last update:May 2003