January 24, 2012

Birth of Edith Wharton

It was 150 years ago today that the "grand dame" of American letters, Edith Wharton was born. Upon her birth in New York City on January 24, 1862, her given name was Edith Jones; she later married Edward "Teddy" Wharton. Though they eventually divorced, she kept the married name. Her identity, she recalled later in her 1934 autobiography A Backward Glance, was born shortly after her more literal birth:

It was on a bright day of midwinter, in New York. The little girl who eventually became me, but as yet was neither me nor anybody else in particular, but merely a soft anonymous morsel of humanity — this little girl, who bore my name, was going for a walk with her father. The episode is literally the first thing I can remember about her, and therefore I date the birth of her identity from that day.

Today, Wharton is particularly remembered for novels like The House of Mirth (1905) and Ethan Frome (1911); her 1920 novel The Age of Innocence earned her the Pulitzer Prize, making her the first woman recipient of that award. Earlier, however, her first published work was a book on interior design, The Decoration of Houses (1897), which she co-authored with Ogden Codman. Her first work of fiction, perhaps surprisingly, was a book of poetry, simply titled Verses. The book was self-published in 1878 when she was still a teenager, subsidized by her mother. In addition to her writing on interior design, her novels, and her poetry, she also wrote short stories. One of her longest is "Bunner Sisters." Like many of her works, the tale subtly comments on social class, society, and women's roles and relationships. Here is a portion of a birthday scene:

"Why, Ann Eliza," she exclaimed, in a thin voice pitched to chronic fretfulness, "what in the world you got your best silk on for?"

..."Why, Evelina, why shouldn't I, I sh'ld like to know? Ain't it your birthday, dear?" She put out her arms with the awkwardness of habitually repressed emotion...

"Oh, pshaw," she said, less peevishly. "I guess we'd better give up birthdays. Much as we can do to keep Christmas nowadays."

"You hadn't oughter say that, Evelina. We ain't so badly off as all that. I guess you're cold and tired. Set down while I take the kettle off: it's right on the boil."

She pushed Evelina toward the table..."Why, Ann Eliza!" Evelina stood transfixed by the sight of the parcel beside her plate... The younger sister had rapidly untied the string, and drawn from its wrappings a round nickel clock of the kind to be bought for a dollar-seventy-five.

"Oh, Ann Eliza, how could you?" She set the clock down, and the sisters exchanged agitated glances across the table.

"Well," the elder retorted, "ain't it your birthday?"

*Recommended reading: Edith Wharton (2008) by Hermione Lee.

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