A Blackward Glance: The Autobiography of Edith Wharton
Old New York
1962, which marked the centenary of Edith Wharton’s birth, was responsible for a modest flurry of publishing activity that brought a few more than the mere handful of the forty-four books she had published during her lifetime, back into print. This season Scribners have reissued three titles in a format that is virtually identical with that in which they are issuing again Henry James’s New York Edition. This might be interpreted as an act of implicit criticism or placing in itself, but one hopes rather that it is meant to carry the promise that the shelf of her books kept in print will be considerably extended.
The three books now reissued are Mrs. Wharton’s very reticent autobiography, A Backward Glance, first published in 1934, three years before her death; Summer, 1917, which is usually spoken of as a companion piece to Ethan Frome; and the four short novels first published in separate volumes in 1924 under the collective title Old New York. Among Mrs. Wharton’s titles waiting to get back into print, this is probably as good a selection as any that could have been made at present. Certainly her autobiography is indispensable for understanding the New York social structure of her girlhood, which forms the essential subject of some of her best work. But delightful as the autobiography is in all respects, and informative in others, it tells us astonishingly little about Mrs. Wharton herself. It is disconcerting to reflect that if we want to know something about her beyond the fact that she was a very grande dame, the only place we can go for a hint is to the brief biographical essay by Mr. Wayne Andrews introducing a collection of Edith Wharton’s short stories, published by Scribners in 1958.
Percy Lubbock’s overwritten Portrait of Edith Wharton, 1947, is primly tightlipped about everything any one seriously interested in her work might want, or need, to know. Reviewing the book when it first appeared, Edmund Wilson made a list of things it did not tell us about its subject. The questions Mr. Wilson asks only provide a frame for a portrait that is still missing, but they seem to me more illuminating than the “official” likenesses we have been given, and for this reason he is well worth quoting here:
Mrs. Wharton was always quite rich. Where did her money come from? Was it her own or was it her husband’s? And why did she marry Edward Wharton, with whom she obviously had little in common and was not very much in love? What, precisely, was the matter with him when he became deranged and Mrs. Wharton finally divorced him? Mr. Lubbock tries to put their relationship in as attractive a light as possible, but then he later speaks of Walter Berry, the American lawyer in Paris with whom Edith Wharton’s name has always been associated, as “the man she had loved for a lifetime, in youth and age.” To what kind of situation had this given rise?…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.