Reader's Encyclopedia

Wharton, Edith [Newbold Jones](1862 - 1937)

American novelist and short-story writer. A follower of Henry James, Wharton is known for her studies of the tragedies and ironies of life, especially among the members of middle-class and aristocratic New York society in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Her work is marked by an interest in psychological characterization, a preoccupation with manners and morals, and an adherence to aristocratic form.

Born into one of New York's most prominent families, she was at first criticized for her intellectual pursuits. Her first real success came with The Valley of Decision (1902), a novel of 18th-century Italy. In The House of Mirth, she satirized the New York society that she knew so well. In 1907 she moved permanently to Europe, where she wrote Madame de Treymes and The Fruit of the Tree (both 1907), but she soon returned to American settings in her work, using the New England scene for what many consider her best and least typical work, Ethan Frome.

After a minor novel, The Reef (1912), Wharton wrote The Custom of the Country, about the breakdown of traditional New York culture. During World War I, she received the Cross of the Legion of Honor for her relief work in Paris. The Marne (1918) and A Son at the Front (1923) show the influence of her wartime experiences. Summer (1917) is a novel about the summer romance of a New England girl. In 1920 appeared The Age of Innocence, her highly successful novel of manners.

Of her later work, perhaps the best is Old New York, a series of four novelettes that includes The Old Maid. Hudson River Bracketed (1929) and its sequel, The Gods Arrive (1932), deal with family problems. Of her several volumes of short stories, the best known is Xingu and Other Stories (1916). A Backward Glance (1934), her autobiography, is well known for its picture of Henry James, her close friend and literary mentor.

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