In her career that spanned more than forty years, Wharton was an intriguing blending of the American experience. She was noted as a chronicler of the elite society and “its power of debasing people and ideals.”
Wharton was the youngest child of George Frederic and Lucretia Jones, the beneficiaries of inherited fortunes in shipping, banking, and real estate. The family adhered to the practices of an elite, fashionable, old monied society of New York. It is, in fact, rumoured that the proverbial phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses” references the family of Wharton’s father.
Through unparalleled wealth, Edith enjoyed the luxuries of wintering in Paris and summering in the affluent Newport, Rhode Island. Throughout her life, she mingled with the elite of New York society…and a world that disdained the ostentatious display of “new wealth.” Poised from her considerable height of ‘cultural advantage and affluence’, Edith Wharton was able to impersonally observe the aspirations of the nouveau riche of the Gilded Age…the post-Civil War period of American expansion in business, foreign affairs, and culture. She was also able to translate poignant and keen observations of American’s high society into novels.
Wharton’s first successful novel, “The House of Mirth,” was published in 1905 with “Ethan Frome” appearing some six years later. The “Age of Innocence,” a novel about New York in the 1870s, earned Wharton the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921. This was the first time the award had been bestowed upon a woman.
Edith married a wealthy sportsman, Edward Wharton but by 1913 the marriage had ended in divorce. Despite her unfortunate experience in love, she was never at a loss for co-mingling with literary and artistic genius. Wharton kept company of some of the most talented and stimulating writers and artists of the era, to include Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, André Gide, Sinclair Lewis, Jean Cocteau, and Jack London.
Living primarily in France for the remainder of her life, Wharton continued her ambitious career in writing. She contributed to and wrote for American publications as well as engaging in philanthropic causes during World War I. Wharton was the recipient of the French Legion of Honor for her courage and distinguished work in a variety of causes undertaken.
On August 11, 1937, Wharton suffered a stroke and succumbed at the age of 75. She is buried in the American Cemetery in Versailles, France.