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Edith Wharton (Edith Newbold Wharton) (née Jones) Biography

(1862–1937), (Edith Newbold Wharton) (née Jones), Scribner's Magazine, The Greater Inclination

American novelist, born in New York to an aristocratic family and educated privately. In the 1890s she contributed short stories and poems to Scribner's Magazine, a collection entitled The Greater Inclination appearing in 1899, before writing a first historical novel, set in eighteenth-century Italy, The Valley of Decision (1902). She then turned to social satire in The House of Mirth (1905), her first mature novel, which depicted manners in New York society. In its accuracy of description and the interplay of social manners and false ambition her work is close to that of Henry James, with whom she maintained a close friendship, but many would argue that her work is more incisive in its understanding of the plight of women in a patriarchal society. She settled permanently in France after 1906, but continued to write predominantly novels with an American context. These include The Fruit of the Tree (1907), about an American executive's conflicts between love and business, and Ethan Frome (1911), an ironic novelette of repressed love in decaying, rural New England, generally considered her finest tragic work. These were closely followed by the subtle studies of moral values, The Reef (1912) and The Custom of the Country (1913), both about Americans in France. The latter novel is a fierce indictment of the mindless materialism Wharton saw as infecting American life at the turn of the twentieth century. She spent the war years engaged in charitable and relief work, for which she was made a chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur, whilst writing Summer (1917), a return to the New England realism of Ethan Frome, and two books with a war theme, The Marne (1918) and A Son at the Front (1923). After the First World War she continued to write works which came to be regarded as major achievements, including The Age of Innocence (1920, Pulitzer Prize), and Hudson River Bracketed (1929) and its sequel, The Gods Arrive (1932), which focus on the contrast between Midwestern and New York society. The Old New York tetralogy (1924), a collection of meticulously wrought short stories, ‘False Dawn’, ‘The Old Maid’, ‘The Spark’, and ‘New Year's Day’, depicted the American scene between the 1840s and 1870s; it was followed by several novels dealing with the relationship between parents and children in The Mother's Recompense (1925), Twilight Sleep (1927), and The Children (1928). Wharton's short stories were collected in several volumes, of which ‘The Duchess at Prayer’ in Crucial Instances (1901), ‘The Debt’ in Tales of Men and Ghosts (1910), and ‘After Holbein’ in Certain People (1930) demonstrate an economy and symmetry of structure. Other collections are The Descent of Man (1904); The Hermit and the Wild Woman (1908); Xingu and Other Stories (1916), which focused on fickle social standards, the supernatural, and nineteenth-century New York; Here and Beyond (1926); Human Nature (1933); The World Over (1936); and Ghosts (1937). She wrote two volumes of poetry, Artemis to Actœon (1909) and Twelve Poems (1926); an autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934); and several travel books. Despite contemporary perception that she was a major novelist of her period, her work was relatively neglected in the years after her death until the late 1970s, when a reassessment placed her as a writer integral to an understanding of the development of American modernist writing. In The Writing of Fiction (1925), she summed up her understanding of the nature of fiction in the following words: ‘… every great novel must first of all be based on a profound sense of moral values, and then constructed with a classical unity and economy of means’. Upon her death she left an unfinished novel, The Buccaneers (1938), concerned with the attempts of American girls to enter English society.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Robert Penn Warren Biography to Kenneth White Biography