The Unknown Edith Wharton


The Library of America’s collection is a splendid and satisfying publication, and a landmark in the history of Edith Wharton’s ever-shifting reputation; but it is not the whole story. In Maureen Howard’s two-volume edition there are sixty-seven stories, which span forty-six years (1891 to 1937). These include three of Wharton’s less well known novellas (“The Touchstone,” “Sanctuary,” and “The Marne”), originally published as individual titles, and some, but not all, of the mostly early stories which she didn’t choose to republish in her lifetime after their magazine appearance. Twenty-two stories are omitted.

The collection reminds us, both in its lavish display of little-known work and in what it chooses to leave out, of what a small proportion of this great and popular writer’s work gets read. And this is even though she now attracts as much attention as she did when The House of Mirth was a big best seller in 1905, eagerly sought after by readers who wanted the lid lifted on New York society, or when The Age of Innocence won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921—awarded, much to her dismay, to the book which “best presented the wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.”

The long desert stretches of neglect which followed, from the late 1930s into the 1970s, when Wharton was downgraded as a reactionary, an antimodernist, a rich old-school genteel snob, and a minor female version of Henry James, have passed—though you will still find critics of Wharton who can’t get beyond the class barriers. Now biographies and movies, TV adaptations and attractive paperback reprints, a secure place on reading lists and a fascination with all the details of her well-guarded private life have brought her back into the mainstream. It’s ironic that her affectionate, combative relationship with James underlay such a seesaw in their reputations. While they knew each other, she was a best seller and he was in the doldrums. In the mid-twentieth century, he was the revered, hugely written-about and much-edited master of American fiction and she was a belittled sideshow and imitator. And now he is mainly known, except among specialists, devotees, or academics, for the films of his novels, and she no longer has to be judged by his standards.

Even so, Wharton is still only popular for a very few of her forty-three books. (Forty-six, if you count manuscripts unpublished in her lifetime and her wartime anthology for charity, The Book of the Homeless.) Everyone with an interest in her reads The House of Mirth, The Reef, Ethan Frome, The Custom of the Country, Summer, and The Age of Innocence. But her somewhat baffling and formal autobiography, her choosy essays on fiction, her impassioned books on France, the pioneering work on domestic interiors, on Italian architecture, landscaping, and culture, and on traveling in Morocco reach a much smaller, special-interest readership. The House of Mirth has stolen the limelight from the other novels of her forties, the grandly ambitious, heavily researched eighteenth-century Italian…

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