Edith Wharton was one of the twentieth century's most prolific, wealthy, and distinguished American writers. The author of more than forty-five books, she published poetry, non-fiction, short stories, and novels to both popular and critical acclaim.
Wharton's first published work was a pamphlet called Verses (1878), privately printed by her mother when she was only sixteen. She did not publish her next volume of poetry, Artemis to Actaeon (1909), until she was forty-seven. Perhaps most poignant is "The Mortal Lease," a collection of eight sonnets that veil her feelings about her affair with Morton Fullerton.
Her first published book as an adult was The Decoration of Houses (1897), co-authored with Ogden Codman, Jr., a work that radically denounced Victorian interior design principles and inspired future decorators such as Elsie de Wolfe—one of the profession's earliest pioneers. Wharton's financial success allowed her to pursue her passion for travel, exploring the world in ways unknown to most women (or even men) of her day. Her seven travel books about France, Africa, and Italy comprise an often-overlooked body of work that influenced her fiction and demonstrate her knowledge of architecture, art, religion, history, and mythology. In The Writing of Fiction (1925), Wharton addresses students of literature and future writers. In A Backward Glance (1934)—an interesting yet impersonal memoir—Wharton reflects upon her travels, friendships, and writing.
Like many of her contemporaries, Wharton wrote short stories before writing novels. Her first short story collection, The Greater Inclination (1899), was published at age thirty-seven, and her last collection, The World Over (1936), was published the year before her death. Today her most frequently anthologized stories are "Roman Fever" and "Belated Souls."
Most of Wharton's novels were first serialized in magazines, giving her the chance to see how the public responded. In 1905, The House of Mirth enjoyed the most rapid sales of any novel published by Scribner's up to that time. Still one of Wharton's most praised works, the novel traces the tragedy of Lily Bart, a beautiful single woman in New York, left penniless after her father's bankruptcy and her mother's death.
The thwarted love stories told in Madame de Treymes (1907), The Reef (1912), and The Custom of the Country (1913) foreshadow The Age of Innocence's Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska. The novellas Ethan Frome (1911) and Summer (1913) are set in western Massachusetts villages, a region Wharton knew intimately from living in Lenox. Among her later novels, The Glimpses of the Moon (1922) and The Mother's Recompense(1924) are perhaps her best.
For a woman who reputedly never set foot in a movie theater, Edith Wharton has given filmmakers a lot of good material. Except for the 1940s and 1970s, every decade since a 1918 version of The House of Mirth has seen at least one Wharton adaptation.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote title cards for a silent 1923 adaptation of Wharton's 1922 novel, The Glimpses of the Moon. Critics split over the most recent film of The House of Mirth (2000), in which The X Files' Gillian Anderson played Lily Bart. For television, Maggie Wadey adapted Wharton's unfinished novel, The Buccaneers, into a 1995 Anglo-American mini-series that long-memoried viewers still cherish.
The Age of Innocence has been filmed three times, first a 1924 silent, the second in 1930 starring Irene Dunne as Ellen. But the adaptation that by rights should have ignited a Wharton revival remains the third version of The Age of Innocence, from 1993. Martin Scorsese's supple direction of Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder achieves a vision of brocaded tragedy, scrupulously adapted by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese and romantically scored by Elmer Bernstein. Over it all, Joanne Woodward's tart narration carries Wharton's voice where the writer's own life never took her.
"He was not sure that he wanted to see the Countess Olenska again ... He simply felt that if he could carry away the vision of the spot of earth she walked on, and the way the sky and sea enclosed it, the rest of the world might seem less empty."
—from The Age of Innocence