Mrs. Wharton in New York

Edith Wharton: Novels (The House of Mirth, The Reef, The Custom of the Country, The Age of Innocence)

The Library of America, 1,328 pp., $27.50

The Mother's Recompense

by Edith Wharton
Scribner's, 342 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Old New York: False Dawn (The 'Forties), The Old Maid (The 'Fifties), The Spark (The 'Sixties), New Year's Day (The 'Seventies)

by Edith Wharton
Berkley Publishing Group, 1981

"Bunner Sisters" in Madame de Treymes and Others

by Edith Wharton
Scribner's, 336 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Ethan Frome

by Edith Wharton
Scribner's, 192 pp., $5.95 (paper)

Edith Wharton: A Biography

by R.W.B. Lewis
Fromm International, 608 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Portrait of Edith Wharton

by Percy Lubbock
Kraus Reprint, 1969 (Reprint of 1947 edition)

1.

Edith Wharton was born in New York City in 1862 as Edith Newbold Jones. Her mother was a Rhinelander, one of the poor ones, or more accurately not quite one of the rich ones. Her paternal grandmother was a Schermerhorn. Thus the “Knickerbocker element” survived in her pedigree. These were the remnants of the old Dutch patroons who were themselves early overwhelmed by immigrants from the British Isles and by British military force. It was early indeed since Peter Stuyvesant surrendered in 1664 and New Netherland or New Amsterdam became New York. From the beginning the old society was beleaguered; had it not been there would be no Manhattan, this world city as porous as cheesecloth. Traders from New England came down from Maine through Connecticut and were not at first as roundly welcomed as we might imagine today. And, needless to note, worse was to follow the little band of old New Yorkers, causing them vainly to whisk their tails against the flies and gnats like so many carriage horses.

Into this enclave, old New York society, Edith Wharton was born. She took her positioning seriously and the old stock with its thumb in the dike of Manhattan was one of her themes as a novelist. It might be said of her what Henry James wrote of Hawthorne: “It is only in a country where newness and change and brevity of tenure are the common substance of life, that the fact of one’s ancestors having lived for a hundred and seventy years in a single spot would become an element of one’s morality.”

Being from New York rather than from Salem, Massachusetts, she was not a Yankee and not a lingering puritan conscience inhabited by ghosts and provincial scruples. She grew up a cosmopolitan from the first, early traveling abroad with her parents; she married after the usual biographical unsteadiness in the matter of broken engagements and again traveled abroad, then settled on Park Avenue and in Newport and, much later, built herself a grand house in Lenox, Massachusetts, kept traveling, finally sold the house, divorced her husband, Edward Wharton, “cerebrally compromised Teddy,” as Henry James called him, summing up this wild manic depressive who gave her a lot of trouble. Along the way she had a three-year affair with the romantically overextended seducer Morton Fullerton. And then in 1913, after the divorce, she settled permanently in France. There was more to it than that.

Edith Wharton was twenty-nine when her first short story was published and thirty-seven when her first collection appeared in 1899. Two years before The Decoration of Houses, written with the architect Ogden Codman, had been published. Even though starting late, Edith Wharton quickly became a professional writer in the best and then again in the less than best sense of the phrase. She wrote steadily, novel after novel, made money, and spent money with a forthright and standard-bearing loyalty to those twins of domestic economy, taste and comfort.

She liked expensive…


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