Sunday, July 01, 2007

Edith Wharton, Old New York's Social Tour Guide

Novelist Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones in New York City in 1862. It was her family's wealth that generated the old expression, "Keeping up with the Jones's." She later married a friend of her brother's with which she had little in common, Teddy Wharton. Her literary ability may have had something to do with his later instability, which eventually ended their marriage.

As a child, Edith enjoyed making up stories, and she was later able to write her novels almost effortlessly while sitting in her bed with a board in her lap. Having grown up in New York City, she was well-acquainted with the social norms of her times, and her close friend and mentor, novelist Henry James, persuaded her to write about that with which she was most familiar. The result was a series of satirical novels about many of the aspects of life in the New York of her time. One can learn many of the social norms and taboos of nineteenth century New York by reading her writings. Her best-known novel "The Age of Innocence," written in 1920, won her a Pulitzer Prize. Ironically, her autobiography, "A Backward Glance," leaves out many of the intimate details of her life, a custom that was in keeping with the norms of the society she was satirizing. She actually admitted, later in her life, that the society in which she grew up was more appealing than that of the early 20th Century! "I doubt if New York society was ever simpler, gayer, or more pleasantly sophisticated, than it was then," was one of he comments in "A Backward Glance." Other novels include "Ethan Frome," "The House of Mirth," and "Old New York," the latter being a collection of short stories.

Photo: Edith Newbold Jones at about age 22. From The Edith Wharton Restoration, The Manse, in Lenox, MA.

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