Edith Wharton was born January 24, 1862, to a wealthy New York family. She showed an interest in writing and literature from an early age. Despite the attempts of her family to discourage her, Edith regularly wrote poems and short stories, some of which were published in magazines such as Scribner’s and Harper’s. Walter Berry, a family friend, encouraged her ambitions and would remain her lifelong confidante. Although she recognized that the culture of New York’s established gentry was anemic and repressive, Edith was just as repulsed by the philistinism of the newly rich who replaced it. She preferred traveling with her parents to Europe, where she met Henry James, who became her mentor and critic. In 1885 Edith married a Boston banker named Edward Wharton. Although her parents approved the choice, Edward was ten years older than Edith was, and physically and emotionally fragile. Edith’s aversion to society life and her disappointment over her marriage drove her to devote more time to her writing.
Wharton’s first book, which discussed house decor, was published in 1897 and launched her career as a writer. From 1902 until the end of her life, Wharton would publish a book a year. The House of Mirth, the story of a girl who cannot reconcile her position in society with moral respect, appeared in 1905 and became a best seller. Ethan Frome, the most often read of Wharton’s novels, was published in 1911.
The years from 1905 to 1913 were tumultuous ones for Wharton. Edward’s diagnosis as a manic-depressive and his increasing instability led to the couple’s divorce in 1913. In 1907 Wharton began a deeply satisfying three-year love affair with Morton Fullerton, a friend of Henry James. Although she would maintain an estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, after 1913 Wharton made Europe her permanent home. During and after the First World War she worked tirelessly to raise funds for a variety of causes in France and Belgium. She wrote several novels based on these experiences, but they are not considered among her best. Wharton’s literary triumph was The Age of Innocence (1921), which won her a Pulitzer Prize.
Wharton is known especially as a novelist of manners, but she also composed poetry, criticism, short stories, and travel pieces. Her themes include the corrupting power of wealth, social pressure among the poor, and the essential rightness of moral action. Her work was sometimes lost in the shadow of that of Henry James, and her later writing never matched the quality of her earlier efforts. Some critics objected to her negative portrayals of men. But the complex psychology of her characters and her keen satiric sense are unparalleled in American literature. In 1921 Wharton became the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Yale. She died of a heart attack on August 11, 1937, in St. Brice-sous-Fort, France.