Edith Wharton (born Edith Newbold Jones; January 24, 1862 – August 11, 1937) was an American novelist, short story writer, and designer. Wharton drew upon her insider's knowledge of the upper class New York "aristocracy" to realistically portray the lives and morals of the Gilded Age. In 1921, she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Literature, for her novel The Age of Innocence. She was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1996. Among her other well known works are the The House of Mirth and the novella Ethan Frome.
Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones on January 24, 1862 to George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander at their brownstone at 14 West Twenty-third Street in New York City. To her friends and family she was known as "Pussy Jones". She had two older brothers, both more than a decade older than her She was baptized April 20, 1862, Easter Sunday, at Grace Church.
Wharton's paternal family, the Joneses, were a very wealthy and socially prominent family having made their money in real estate. Fort Stevens in New York was named for Wharton's maternal great-grandfather, Ebenezer Stevens, a Revolutionary War hero and General.
Wharton was born during the Civil War; however, in describing her family life Wharton does not mention the war except that their travels to Europe after the war were due to the depreciation of American currency. From 1866 to 1872, the Jones family visited France, Italy, Germany, and Spain. During her travels, the young Edith became fluent in French, German, and Italian. At the age of nine, she suffered from typhoid fever, which nearly killed her, while the family was at a spa in the Black Forest. After the family returned to the United States in 1872, they spent their winters in New York City and their summers in Newport, Rhode Island.
While in Europe, she was educated by tutors and governesses. She rejected the standards of fashion and etiquette that were expected of young girls at the time, which were intended to allow women to marry well and to be put on display at balls and parties. She considered these fashions superficial and oppressive. Edith wanted more education than she received, so she read from her father's library and from the libraries of her father's friends. Her mother forbade her to read novels until she was married, and Edith obeyed this command.
She was allowed to read Louisa May Alcott but Wharton preferred Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Charles Kingsley's Water Babies.And she read the classics, philosophy, history, and poetry in her father's library including Daniel Defoe, John Milton, Thomas Carlyle, Alphonse de Lamartine, Victor Hugo, Jean Racine, Thomas Moore, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth, John Ruskin, and Washington Irving. She later developed a passion for Walt Whitman.
Wharton wrote and told stories from an early age. When her family moved to Europe and she was just four or five she started what she called "making up." She invented stories for her family and walked with an open book, turning the pages as if reading while improvising a story. Wharton began writing poetry and fiction as a young girl, and attempted to write her first novel at age eleven. Her mother's criticism quashed her ambition and she turned to poetry.
While she constantly sought her mother's approval and love, it was rare that she received either. From the start, the relationship with her mother was a troubled one. Before she was 15, she wrote Fast and Loose (1877), a 30,000 word novella.
At age 15, her first published work appeared, a translation of a German poem "Was die Steine Erzählen" ("What the Stones Tell") by Heinrich Karl Brugsch, for which she was paid $50. Her family did not want her name to appear in print since writing was not considered a proper occupation for a society woman of her time. Consequently, the poem was published under the name of a friend's father, E. A. Washburn, a cousin of Ralph Waldo Emerson who supported women's education.
In 1878 her father arranged for a collection of two dozen original poems and five translations, Verses, to be privately published.
Wharton officially came out as a debutante to society in 1879. In 1880 she had five poems published anonymously in the Atlantic Monthly, an important literary magazine. Despite these early successes, she was not encouraged by her family or her social circle, and though she continued to write, she did not publish anything more until her poem "The Last Giustiniani" was published in Scribner's Magazine in October 1889.
Between 1880 and 1890 Wharton put her writing aside to participate in the social rituals of the New York upper classes. Wharton keenly observed the social changes happening around her which appeared later in her writing. Wharton began a courtship with Henry Leyden Stevens, the son of a wealthy businessman. Henry's father was Paran Stevens, a hotelier and real estate investor from rural New Hampshire but Wharton's family did not approve of Stevens.
In the middle of Wharton's debutante season, the Jones family returned to Europe in 1881 for Wharton's father's health. Wharton's father, George Frederic Jones, died in Cannes in 1882 of a stroke. Wharton and her mother returned to the United States and Wharton continued her courtship with Stevens, announcing their engagement in August 1882. The month the two were to marry, the engagement abruptly ended.
Wharton's mother, Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander, moved back to Paris in 1883 and lived there until her death in 1901.
On April 29, 1885, at age 23, Wharton married Edward (Teddy) Robbins Wharton, who was 12 years her senior, at the Trinity Chapel Complex. From a well-established Boston family, he was a sportsman and a gentleman of the same social class and shared her love of travel.
After her marriage, she began to build upon three of her interests—American houses, writing, and Italy.
The Whartons set up house at Pencraig Cottage in Newport, Rhode Island. They then bought and moved to Land's End on the other side of Newport in 1893, from Robert Livingston Beeckman, a former U.S. Open Tennis Championship runner-up who became governor of Rhode Island. At the time, Wharton described the main house as "incurably ugly." Wharton agreed to pay $80,000 for the property, and spent thousands more to alter the home's facade, decorate the interior, and landscape the grounds, with the help of designer Ogden Codman. The Whartons purchased their New York home, 884 Park Avenue, in 1897.
It was not until Wharton was 29 in 1891 that her first short story was published. "Mrs. Manstey's View" had very little success, and it took her more than a year to publish another story, "The Fullness of Life" which did not see publication until 1916. After several more attempts of short stories, she lost confidence in herself and started "travel writing" in 1894.
Wharton loved travel. She eventually crossed the Atlantic 60 times. In Europe, her primary destinations were Italy, France, and England. She also went to Morocco in North Africa. She wrote many books about her travels, including Italian Backgrounds and A Motor-Flight through France.
Her husband Edward Wharton shared her love of travel and for many years they spent at least four months of each year abroad, mainly in Italy. In 1888, the Whartons and their friend James Van Alen took a cruise through the Aegean islands. Wharton was 26. The trip cost the Whartons $10,000 and lasted four months. She kept a travel journal during this trip that was thought to be lost but was later published as The Cruise of the Vanadis, now considered her earliest known travel writing.
From the late 1880s until 1902, Teddy Wharton suffered from acute depression, and the couple ceased their extensive travel. At that time his depression manifested as a more serious disorder, after which they lived almost exclusively at their estate The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts.
In 1901, Wharton wrote a two-act play called Man of Genius. This play was about an English man who was having an affair with his secretary. The play was rehearsed but was never produced. Another 1901 play, The Shadow of a Doubt, which also came close to being staged but fell through.
In 1902, Wharton designed The Mount, her estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, which survives today as an example of her design principles. Edith Wharton wrote several of her novels there, including The House of Mirth (1905), the first of many chronicles of life in old New York. At The Mount, she entertained the cream of American literary society, including her close friend, novelist Henry James, who described the estate as "a delicate French chateau mirrored in a Massachusetts pond". Although she spent many months traveling in Europe nearly every year with her friend Egerton Winthrop, The Mount was her primary residence until 1911. When living there and while traveling abroad, Wharton was usually driven to appointments by her longtime chauffeur and friend Charles Cook.
In 1908 her husband's mental state was determined to be incurable. In the same year, she began an affair with Morton Fullerton, a journalist for The Times, in whom she found an intellectual partner. When her marriage deteriorated, she decided to move permanently to France, living first at 53 Rue de Varenne, Paris, in an apartment that belonged to George Washington Vanderbilt II.
She divorced Edward Wharton in 1913 after 28 years of marriage.
Wharton was preparing to vacation for the summer when World War I broke out. Though many fled Paris, she moved back to her Paris apartment on the Rue de Varenne and for four years was a tireless and ardent supporter of the French war effort.
One of the first causes she undertook in August 1914 was the opening of a workroom for unemployed French women; here they were fed and paid one franc a day. What began with 30 women soon doubled to 60, and their sewing business began to thrive. When the Germans invaded Belgium in the fall of 1914 and Paris was flooded with Belgian refugees, she helped to set up the American Hostels for Refugees, which managed to get them shelter, meals, and clothes, and eventually created an employment agency to help them find work. She collected more than $100,000 on their behalf. In early 1915 she organized the Children of Flanders Rescue Committee, which gave shelter to nearly 900 Belgian refugees who had fled when their homes were bombed by the Germans.
Aided by her influential connections in the French government, she and her long-time friend Walter Berry (then president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Paris), were among the few foreigners in France allowed to travel to the front lines during World War I. She and Berry made five journeys between February and August 1915, which Wharton described in a series of articles that were first published in Scribner's Magazine and later as Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort, which became an American bestseller. Travelling by car, Wharton and Berry drove through the war zone, viewing one decimated French village after another. She visited the trenches, and was within earshot of artillery fire. She wrote, "We woke to a noise of guns closer and more incessant ... and when we went out into the streets it seemed as if, overnight, a new army had sprung out of the ground".
Throughout the war she worked tirelessly in charitable efforts for refugees, the injured, the unemployed, and the displaced, as well as the artists, organizing concerts to provide work for musicians, raising tens of thousands of dollars for the war effort, and opening tuberculosis hospitals. In 1915 Wharton edited The Book of the Homeless, which included essays, art, poetry, and musical scores by many major contemporary European and American artists, including Henry James, Joseph Conrad, William Dean Howells, Anna de Noailles, Jean Cocteau, and Walter Gay, among others. She handled all of the business arrangements, lined up contributors, and translated the French entries into English. Theodore Roosevelt wrote a two-page introduction in which he praised Wharton's effort and urged Americans to support the war.
She was a "heroic worker on behalf of her adopted country". On April 18, 1916, the President of France appointed her Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, the country's highest award, in recognition of her dedication to the war effort.
She also kept up her own work during the war, continuing to write novels, short stories, and poems, as well as reporting for The New York Times and keeping up her enormous correspondence. Wharton urged Americans to support the war effort and encouraged America to enter the war. She wrote the popular romantic novel Summer in 1916, the war novella, The Marne, in 1918, and A Son at the Front in 1919, (though it was not published until 1923). When the war ended, she decided to leave Paris after four years of intense effort in favor of the peace and quiet of the countryside. Wharton settled ten miles north of Paris in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, buying an 18th-century house on seven acres of land which she called Pavillon Colombe. She lived there in summer and autumn for the rest of her life. She spent winters and springs on the French Riviera at Sainte Claire du Vieux Chateau in Hyère as well as Provence, where she finished The Age of Innocence in 1920. She returned to the United States only once after the war to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale University in 1923.
The Age of Innocence (1920) won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for literature, making Wharton the first woman to win the award. She was also nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1927, 1928, and 1930.
Wharton was friend and confidante to many gifted intellectuals of her time: Henry James, Sinclair Lewis, Jean Cocteau, and André Gide were all her guests at one time or another. Theodore Roosevelt, Bernard Berenson, and Kenneth Clark were valued friends as well. Particularly notable was her meeting with F. Scott Fitzgerald, described by the editors of her letters as "one of the better known failed encounters in the American literary annals". She spoke fluent French, Italian, and German, and many of her books were published in both French and English.
In 1934 Wharton's autobiography A Backward Glance was published. In her memoir, Wharton describes her mother as indolent, spendthrift, censorious, disapproving, superficial, icy, dry and ironic.
On June 1, 1937, Wharton was at the French country home of Ogden Codman, where she was at work on a revised edition of The Decoration of Houses, when she suffered a heart attack and collapsed.
Edith Wharton later died of a stroke on August 11, 1937 at Le Pavillon Colombe, her 18th-century house on Rue de Montmorency in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt. She died at 5:30 p.m., but her death was not known in Paris. Wharton was buried in the American Protestant section of the Cimetière des Gonards in Versailles, "with all the honors owed a war hero and a chevalier of the Legion of Honor...a group of some one hundred friends sang a verse of the hymn 'O Paradise'..."
Despite not publishing her first novel until she was forty, Edith Wharton became an extraordinarily productive writer. In addition to her 15 novels, seven novellas, and eighty-five short stories, she published poetry, books on design, travel, literary and cultural criticism, and a memoir.
She was also a garden designer, an interior designer, and a taste-maker of her time. She wrote several design books, including her first major published work, The Decoration of Houses (1897), co-authored by Ogden Codman. Another of her "home and garden" books is the generously illustrated Italian Villas and Their Gardens of 1904.
A key recurring theme in Wharton's writing is the relationship between the house as a physical space and its relationship to its inhabitant's characteristics and emotions.
Many of Wharton's novels are characterized by subtle use of dramatic irony. Having grown up in upper-class, late-19th-century society, Wharton became one of its most astute critics, in such works as The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence. Versions of her mother, Lucretia Jones, often appeared in Wharton's fiction.