Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Saturday, January 24, 2015

Edith Wharton, Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Edith Wharton (born 24 January 1862)


Born to wealth and privilege, Edith Jones married Edward Wharton in 1885. The first years of their marriage were spent with the kind of social engagements and travel that filled the lives of the men and women of their social class, though the travel ended after Edward Wharton began to manifest signs of mental disorders. Wharton divorced her husband in 1913. After her divorce, Edith Wharton moved to France, where she lived until her death there in 1937.

Edith Wharton,
photograph from c. 1889-90
Many of Wharton's early novels and stories, including The House of Mirth (1905) and Ethan Frome (1911), were written at The Mount, the large country house she designed and built and where she lived from 1902 to 1911. In addition to her fiction, Wharton was interested in and wrote about French and Italian architecture, landscape architecture, and design--her first book, in fact, was not a work of fiction but a manual of interior design, The Decoration of Houses (co-authored with architect Ogden Cogman), published in 1897: "arguably the most influential book ever published by an American on interior decoration and design." (For this quotation and on Wharton's less-well-known contributions to American art and design, see Julie Lasky's "Appreciating Edith Wharton's Other Career.")

But it is as a novelist that Wharton is most well-remembered today. From The Touchstone (1900) to The Buccaneers (1938), Wharton published twenty-one novels (a final novel, also published in 1938, was actually Wharton's first, written in the late 1870s) and thirteen short-story collections. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature three times: in 1927 (by a group of seven Yale professors), in 1928 (by William L. Phelps, one of those Yale professors), and again in 1930 (this time by Tor Hedberg, a member of the Swedish Academy). 

While she may not have won the Nobel, Wharton did become the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Literature, in 1921, for The Age of Innocence.

In addition to her design work and her writing, Wharton worked tirelessly in a variety of charitable endeavors, particularly in aid of refugees, while she was in France during WWI. This work is briefly summarized in her New York Times obituary:
When the World War broke out she was in Paris and she plunged at once into relief work, opening a room for skilled women of the quarter where she lived who were thrown out of employment by the closing of workrooms. She also fed and housed 600 Belgian refugee orphans. In recognition France awarded her the Cross of the Legion of Honor and Belgium made her a Chevalier of the Order of Leopold. Meanwhile she wrote stories and articles on the war. . . .
Wharton's wartime magazine articles, originally printed in Scribner's Magazine, were published in 1918 as Fighting France: From Dunkirk to Belfort.

The Mount,
photo by David Dashiell, 2006

The movies and TV miniseries made from Wharton's novels are fun, but why not read the books if you haven't yet? Many of Wharton's novels and short-story collections are available through Project Gutenberg; to access them, click here. (There are free Kindle versions as well.) There are several good biographies--you might like Hermione Lee's recent Edith Wharton or Shari Benstock's older, but still excellent, No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton.