January 24th – Edith Wharton

“In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.”

Edith Wharton

Author Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones on January 24th, 1862, in New York City. 

She wrote from an early age, attempting her first novel at age 11. Her mother’s early criticism of her writing stifled her ambition to be a novelist, and she turned to poetry. Her first translation of a poem earned her fifty dollars, although her family wouldn’t allow her name to be printed in the publication (it was socially unacceptable for a woman of her status to pursue an occupation – outside of wife). Edith published a few poems anonymously, although without her family’s support, she laid her ambition aside to assimilate into her young debutante society as expected. 

On April 29th, 1885, at age 23, Edith married Edward Robbins (Teddy) Wharton, a 35-year-old gentleman from a well-established Boston family. They bought a house on Land’s End in Newport and Park Avenue, New York. They traveled extensively to Italy, Paris, and England. Edith loved traveling, crossing The Atlantic more than 60 times during her life, and writing multiple books about her travel, including Italian Backgrounds and A Motor-Flight through FranceIn the late 1890s, her husband’s acute depression discontinued their travels in the late 1880s, and the couple retired to their country estate, The Mount, in the Berkshires, which Edith designed in 1902. 

In 1889 she once again sent out multiple poems. Scribner’s published “The Last Giustiniani,” and her first short story, “Mrs. Manstey’s View,” was published in 1891. Her pieces were not very successful, and Wharton began to lose confidence in herself, turning to travel writing and interior design. She also tried her hand at plays, having no success there either. 

In 1897 she bought Lands End in Newport, Rhode Island, and began extensive renovations. The same year Wharton released her first published book, The Decoration of Houses (1897), a manual of interior design written with architect Ogden Codman. 

On March 25th, 1889Charles Scribner’s Sons published her first collection of short fiction, seven short stories, and one short play in two acts – The Greater Inclination. The first printing of 1,250 sold out by June 1899. 

Her first novel, The Valley of Decision, was published in 1902. Among the works she became best known for were the novels The House of Mirth (1905), The Age of Innocence (1920), and the novella Ethan Frome (1911). In addition to her 15 novels, seven novellas, and eighty-five short stories, she published poetry, books on design, travel, literary and cultural criticism, and a memoir. In 1921 she was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Literature for her novel The Age of Innocence. She was also nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1927, 1928, and 1930. In 1925 she published a book on writing, The Writing of Fiction

By 1908 her husband’s depression had completely taken over him, and Edith began an affair with Morton Fullerton, a journalist for The Times. 

Critics noted that her autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934), left out important aspects of her life, including her troubles with her husband, her affair with Morton Fullerton, and her critical relationship with her mother. 

Wharton continued writing throughout her life. In June 1937, she was working on a revision of her first book, The Decoration of Houses, when she suffered a heart attack. Edith Wharton died of a stroke on August 11th, 1937, in Paris. She was 75 years old. 

Lesson from Wharton: 

Edith Wharton first published novels when she was in her 40. After an oppressive life of daughter and wife, she broke free and found success and independence through her words. She became famous for her novels about the upper-class life into which she was born and carved out a living and a name for herself.

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