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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones in 1862 to a wealthy New York family. Her mother was Lucretia Rhinelander Jones and her father was George Frederic Jones. Her family was part of a closely-knit social circle that included all the oldest and wealthiest families of New York. Edith was raised like all girls of her class to get married. She had her formal "coming out" in 1885 and soon after she married, but unhappily. Her husband was Edward Wharton, an older man from a wealthy Boston family. He developed a mental disorder and had a series of emotional breakdowns until he was completely insane.
Edith Wharton gradually began to write short fiction during these years. She published her first short story in 1889. Her first full-length book was a popular treatise on interior decoration. Then she came out with a collection of short stories and later a novel called The Greater Inclination (1889). She wrote about her novel's success years later in her autobiography: it "broke the chains that had held me so long in a kind of torpor." She wrote two more novels and published another collection of short stories before The House of Mirth came out in 1905.
In 1913, she divorced her husband. From that time forward, Edith Wharton lived in France where she had a villa not far from Paris. Her best known short novel, Ethan Frome (1911) departs from the subject matter of her other fiction in its setting in rural New England. She steadily published in the years following. Among these are The Reef (1912), The Custom of the Country (1913), and Summer (1917). Critics praised her novel The Age of Innocence most highly among all her works. Set in New York of the 1870s, it displays the sometimes rigid customs of New York's wealthy elite and the difficulties that its members sometimes have in departing from these customs in order to pursue desire that is outside their bounds.
Edith Wharton also wrote non-fiction. She wrote an important treatise on writing called The Art of Fiction in 1925. Her autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934), is an excellent source of information about her life and her view of writing. She died in 1937.
Edith Wharton wrote in a style called social realism, a style of writing that developed in the latter portion of the nineteenth century, largely in reaction to the romantic writing that had dominated literature for almost a century. The proponents of social realism are varied, ranging from Mark Twain to Henry James, from William Dean Howells to Sinclair Lewis. Literary realism, like all styles of literature, arose out of a social moment and a historical context; it was greatly influenced by the emphasis on science and the rational approach to philosophy that dominated the time.
The literary proponents of social realism, which realistically depicted a certain segment of society, rarely agreed on what constituted their style of writing; however, William Dean Howells, influential because he was an editor, championed the truthful delineation of the motives, the impulses, and the principles that shape the lives of realistic men and women. But he also wanted his colleagues to somewhat soften the truth by writing of the "smiling aspects of life," not the grubby world of prostitutes and child abuse.
As a realist, William Dean Howells inspired a generation of younger writers, like Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and Edith Wharton. As a result, realistic novels like Maggie, a Girl of the Streets, Sister Carrie, and Age of Innocence were born. Edith Wharton, however, is much closer to William Dean Howells in literary taste than she is to Crane or Dreiser; like Howells, her realism often looked on the less brutal side of life. Her closest ally among the social realists was Henry James; in philosophy and literary style there were many similarities between the two.
There is also a famous story about James giving Wharton significant and sound literary advice. When he read her novel, The Valley of Indecision, he wrote to her his praise of it, but also suggested that she should confine herself in her subject matter to New York. James wrote, "Do New York! The first-hand account is precious." Wharton successfully responded, and for the rest of her career, the setting of her writing is largely the society of New York. In The Age of Innocence, Wharton looked back with nostalgia on an earlier New York society that she really liked better than the contemporary one that she usually described in negative and realistic terms in her novels. In 1921, she won a Pulitzer Prize for the novel.