R.W.B. Lewis

Edith Wharton: A Biography

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Edith Wharton: A Biography Summary

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Edith Wharton: A Biography (1975) is a biography by the American author and critic R.W.B. Lewis. Relying on exclusive access to materials provided to him by Wharton’s alma mater, Yale, Lewis crafts the definitive biography of the American novelist who, among other achievements, became the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Lewis received a Pulitzer Prize for Edith Wharton: A Biography, along with the Bancroft Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award for General Non-Fiction.

Born in 1862 in New York City, Wharton belonged to a family so wealthy that the saying “Keeping up with the Joneses” is said to have first come into use as a reference to her father, George Frederic Jones. From the age of four or five, Wharton began making up stories to entertain her family, and by the age of eleven, she had already attempted to write a novel. Between the ages of fifteen and seventeen, she published various written works, including five original poems in the Atlantic Monthly. All of her works were published anonymously because, at that time, writing was not considered a worthy pursuit for a woman of her social standing.

When Wharton turned eighteen, she abandoned writing for the next five years to focus on debutante balls and other social climbing exercises as befit a wealthy young woman of her generation. After a failed engagement with Henry Leyden Stevens, the son of a rich businessman, Wharton married Teddy Wharton in 1885. A sportsman from a prominent Boston family, Teddy was twelve years older than Wharton and frequently depressed. Lewis cites various letters and other sources to suggest that Wharton was deeply dissatisfied sexually throughout much of her marriage to Teddy. On the bright side, the two shared a love of travel and enjoyed the time they spent together in Italy, Paris, and England. At the age of twenty-six, Wharton and Teddy took a long cruise around the Aegean Sea that cost them $10,000, which would be over $200,000 today. During this period, Wharton wrote what would later be considered some of her earliest travel writing, one of many literary pursuits at which she excelled. Unfortunately, Teddy’s depression worsened, and soon Wharton began traveling on her own, while her husband was housebound. By Lewis’ estimate, Wharton would cross the Atlantic Ocean more than sixty times during her life.

Wharton also became an accomplished interior and exterior designer at this stage in her life. In 1902, she designed an $80,000 estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, known as the Mount. It was there that Wharton wrote one of her earliest and most beloved novels, The House of Mirth. Published in 1905, The House of Mirth told the story of a well-born lady who fears a life of poverty if she doesn’t marry before her thirtieth birthday. According to her publisher, Charles Scribner, the novel showed  “the most rapid sale of any book ever published by Scribner,” selling 140,000 copies in its first month on the shelves.

Despite Wharton’s financial and artistic successes, Lewis writes that the author was frequently depressed, owing to her largely sexless marriage with the clinically depressed Teddy. In 1908, at the age of forty-six, Lewis writes that Wharton experienced a sexual awakening of sorts, entering into an affair with the handsome and intellectual bon vivant, Morton Fullerton. Five years later, after twenty-eight years of marriage, Wharton and Teddy divorced.

The next year, in 1914, World War I broke out. For much of the war, Wharton lived in an apartment in Paris where she set up workrooms for unemployed women and provided support for refugees. With her friend, the diplomat Walter Berry, Wharton visited the front-lines in France on numerous occasions, writing journalistic articles for publication back home at a time when very few foreign correspondents were permitted to report on combat efforts firsthand in France. For her charitable and journalistic contributions to the war effort, Wharton received the Legion of Honor, the highest military and civil award offered by the country of France.

After the war, Wharton published what many critics believe to be her greatest achievement, The Age of Innocence. Published in 1920, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, making Wharton the first woman to ever win the award. Over the last seventeen years of her life, Wharton continued to write prolifically, earning Nobel Prize nominations in Literature in the years 1927, 1928, and 1930. She also regularly entertained and socialized with some of the top intellectuals and celebrities of her time, including Jean Cocteau, Sinclair Lewis, and even Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote the introduction to a post-war essay compilation edited by Wharton. In his biography, R.W.B. Lewis places particular emphasis on Wharton’s friendship with the American author Henry James. In 1937, Wharton died at the age of seventy-five after suffering a stroke.

With Edith Wharton: A Biography, Lewis offers up a comprehensive survey of Wharton’s career that can’t help but be entertaining because of the full and vibrant life of the woman it profiles.