vementsThe cultural advancement of the 1920’s has many important literary figures associated with it. Names such as T.S. Elliot, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald are some of the better-known names. Edith Wharton is one of the less known of the period, but is still a formidable writer. This paper will explore Ms. Wharton’s life and history and give a brief background surrounding some of her more popular novels.
Ms. Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones on January 24, 1862, in her parents’ mansion and West Twenty-Third Street in New York City. Her mother, Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander, connected with wealthy Dutch landowners and merchants of the early nineteenth century, was the granddaughter of an outstanding American Revolutionary War patriot, General Ebenezer Stevens. After the war, General Stevens became a very successful East-India merchant. Edith Wharton’s father, a man of considerable, private, inherited wealth, did not follow a career in business. Rather, he lived a life of leisure, punctuated by his hobbies of sea fishing, boat racing, and wildfowl shooting (activities typical of wealthy men of the day). During her first few years, Edith Wharton’s family alternated between New York City in the winter and Newport, Rhode Island, in the summer. At the time, Newport was a very fashionable place where New York City families of wealth might enjoy ocean breezes and participate in a ro!und of tea and inner parties, the leaving of calling cards, and constant preparations for entertaining or being entertained.
When she was four years old, her parents took her on a tour of Europe, concentrating on Italy and France. She became as familiar with Rome and Paris as most children are with their hometowns. It was here that the small, red-headed child played her favorite game. Not yet able to read, she carried around with her a large volume of Washington Irving’s stories of old Spain, The Alhambra. Holding the Book carefully, often upside down, she proceeded to turn the pages and to read aloud “make up” stories as she went along. Whereas most children of her age would be told the familiar old folk and fairy tales of Anderson, Perrault, and the Brothers Grimm, she listened with great delight to tales of the “domestic dramas” of the great Greek and Roman gods of mythology. The young child rapidly learned to read, speak, and write German, French, and Italian, as a result of the efforts of governess and the extended family tours of France and Italy.
Returning to America after an absence of sex years in picturesque Europe, the ten-year-old Edith viewed New York City with mixed feelings. She missed the glamour of Europe; she was distressed with the busy commercial air of much of her home city; she was delighted to join her relatives and friends on a rambling family estate at Newport. Here she continued her study of modern languages and proper manners. However, she had to return to her father’s in New York, where she spent her time perusing his library and immersing herself in the likes of Roman Plutarch and the English Macaulay, the English Pepys and Evelyn and the French Madame de Sevigne; the poets, Milton, Burns and Byron, as well as Scott, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Elizabeth Barrat Browning. With these writers as her models and inspiration, young Edith Wharton began to cover huge sheets of wrapping paper with her own prose and verse.
Edith’s family and the families of most of her friends were not “in business”: they lived on their incomes and investments, living leisurely lives of dining out or dinner going with much emphasis on good cooking, and sparkling conversation. Once in a while, they attended the theatre; the opera, seldom. When she was seventeen, Edith’s parents decided the time had arrived for her “coming out.” The series of social activities that indicated to the world that she was adult enough to be invited to social entertainment without her parents as chaperones. Soon, she joined her father and mother to another trip to Europe – this time for her father’s health. He died in France, when Edith was nineteen years old, and the grief-stricken mother and daughter returned to New York City.