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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

9. Social

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Henry
- Abraham Cahan
- Theodore
- W. E. B. Du Bois
- Sui Sin Far
- Henry James
- Sarah Morgan
Bryan Piatt
- Booker T.
- Edith Wharton
- Anzia Yezierska
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Edith Wharton (1862-1937)

Edith Wharton
[4621] Peter Powell, Edith Wharton (c. 1910), courtesy of the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Edith Wharton Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
Edith Wharton was born into a wealthy, conservative, New York family that traced its lineage back to the colonial settlement of the city. Although growing up within the upper echelon of New York society provided her with rich material for her fiction, the experience did not encourage Wharton to become a novelist. In the rather rigid social world in which she was raised, women were expected to become wives, not writers. Nonetheless, Wharton began experimenting with writing poetry and fiction at a young age. That she became a major figure of American letters is a testament to her extraordinary talent as a social observer and literary stylist.

Wharton debuted in New York society at the age of seventeen and married Bostonian Edward Wharton a few years later. Edward was thirteen years older than his wife and did not share her taste for art, literature, or intellectual pursuits. Given that the couple had little in common besides their privileged upbringing, it is perhaps not surprising that the marriage was not an emotionally satisfying one. Wharton soon found herself feeling stifled in her role as a society wife. When she eventually began suffering from depression and nervous complaints, her doctors encouraged her to write as a therapeutic release.

Wharton began her career by publishing a few poems and co-writing a popular guide to interior decoration. Still in print today, The Decoration of Houses is considered one of the most important American books about the art of interior design. By the 1890s, after the publication of a well-received collection of short stories, Wharton began to perceive authorship as her life's avocation. When her novel The House of Mirth became a bestseller in 1905, she found herself ranked among the most important American writers of the day. Her critical success proved inspiring: the productive years between 1905 and 1920 are traditionally understood as Wharton's major period.

Around 1910, Wharton moved permanently to France. After she divorced her husband in 1913, she devoted herself to travel, writing, and cultivating a wide circle of friends, including such artistic luminaries as Henry James, Jean Cocteau, and Sinclair Lewis. When World War I broke out in Europe, Wharton threw herself into charitable work in support of her adopted country.

Although she lived abroad, she continued to focus her fiction mainly on Americans. Much of her most-noted work, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Innocence (1920), is set in the New York society she had known in the late nineteenth century. Themes that recur in almost all of Wharton's fiction include individuals' inability to successfully transcend repressive social conventions, the entrapment of women in marriage, the differences between American and European customs, and the rivalry between "old money" and the nouveaux riches. Wharton remained very productive into her old age--in the course of her career she published nineteen novels, eleven collections of short stories, and several nonfiction studies, memoirs, poems, and reviews--though critics generally agree that the quality of her work declined after 1920. However, her final unfinished novel, The Buccaneers (published posthumously in 1938), outshines everything else she wrote at the end of her career and suggests that her literary powers had not diminished with age. Wharton was consistently ranked among the most significant American writers of her generation, and she was the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale. She died of a stroke in France at the age of seventy-five.

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