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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Mary Leland Hunt

By Edith Wharton (1862–1937)

MRS. EDITH WHARTON is one of the foremost writers producing English fiction to-day. She was born in New York, January 24th, 1862. Her mother was a granddaughter of General Ebenezer Stevens of Revolutionary fame. Her father, George Frederic Jones, had no profession but lived on his income. Edith Newbold Jones was taught at home by governesses and tutors. At least half her youth was spent abroad so that she received an unusual training in French, Italian, and German. In 1885 she married Edward Wharton of Boston. For years she has made Paris her home. Since November, 1914, she has devoted mind and heart to war charities. In 1916, in recognition of her services, the French Government bestowed upon her the Cross of the Legion of Honor. Her wide knowledge of art, history, and literature is reflected in ‘Italian Villas,’ ‘Italian Backgrounds,’ and ‘A Motor-Flight through France,’ as well as in much of her fiction. In 1915 she planned and edited ‘The Book of the Homeless,’ compiled to aid Belgian refugees, and she has put her personal impressions of the war into ‘Fighting France,’ which closes with an admirable chapter on ‘The Tone of France.’ A slim volume of polished verse, ‘Actæon to Diana’ (1909), is the most personal of her writings. The sonnet entitled ‘The One Grief’ may perhaps be singled out for its poignant simplicity.

Mrs. Wharton has given to the public no hasty or immature work. Her first volume, a collection of stories entitled ‘The Greater Inclination,’ was published in 1899 and was followed in 1900 by ‘The Touchstone’ and in 1901 by ‘Crucial Instances,’ another collection of stories. These early volumes attracted wide attention, not only for their range—the tragic, the humorous, the ironical—but also for their extraordinary technique and a style always lucid and at will brilliant with epigram or touched with poetical suggestion. In both material and manner, the critics were prompt to see a discipleship to Henry James. The essential likeness is perhaps grounded upon a common instinct for logic, for psychology, a preoccupation with motive and the analysis of character. Mrs. Wharton has continued to write short stories of unusual merit and variety (six volumes, in all), but her highest excellence is to be sought in the prolonged short story and the novel, which offer opportunity for the unfolding of character and for large social backgrounds. In ‘The Touchstone’ and ‘Sanctuary,’ which belong to the former class, she tells, with a fine commingling of passion, restraint, and tenderness, stories of spiritual regeneration. In ‘Madame de Treymes’ two ideals clash, and the hero, in following abstract truth, as he must, sacrifices the woman he loves as well as himself. In ‘Ethan Frome’ (1911) a moment of idyllic and unlawful love moves swiftly to a tragedy more terrible than death. The background is the icy isolation of a New England farmhouse in the winters of long ago.

Mrs. Wharton’s first novel was ‘The Valley of Decision’ (1902). This romance of eighteenth-century Italy has atmosphere and charm, but its two volumes remain upon the shelves of public libraries when her later books are commonly lost, stolen, or out. In 1905 appeared the novel ironically called ‘The House of Mirth.’ Its theme is the conflict between a New York woman’s frivolous heredity, education, and environment and her intermittent and belated gropings for what is right and fine. ‘The House of Mirth’ has all the vitality and directness wanting in ‘The Valley of Decision,’ and although the story closes in external failure, there is at the end a moment of spiritual triumph and a mystical union of the lovers whom all the conditions of life had conspired to keep apart. The very readable but less effective ‘Fruit of the Tree’ was followed by ‘The Reef,’ which gives us the loveliest of Mrs. Wharton’s heroines, seen with her child and a winning stepson on the background of French country life. Before her readers had a chance to praise the sympathy of ‘The Reef,’ its author took their breath away with ‘The Custom of the Country,’ whose very title is an indictment of one product of American society. The central figure ends her social adventures on two continents with no more soul than when she began them. This unsparing satire is softened by charming glimpses of older New York, for Mrs. Wharton, like Mrs. Ward, is always able to draw aside the curtain and show us restful places where “gentilesse” has long held sway. ‘Summer’ (1917) reverts to rural life in New England.

Some of Mrs. Wharton’s work—whole groups, in fact, of the short stories—have brought upon her the reproach of being an apostle of culture. It has been complained that the surfaces are too brilliant, the points at issue too esoteric, the irony too frequent, the feeling for the ridiculous and the incongruous too strong. She has indeed little pity for sentimentality, complacency, or any variety of “educated mispronunciation,” and though quite aware of the “intuitive felicities” of the heart, she is sometimes as severe as life itself upon the feeble, the ineffective, the negatively good. We should be sorry to lose her salt and stinging reminders of our shabby souls or manners, but her work does not end there. Her views are in part expressed in ‘The Fruit of the Tree’: “Life is not a matter of abstract principles, but a succession of pitiful compromises with fate, of concessions to old tradition, old beliefs, old charities and frailties.” She is often concerned, then, with the invisible chains of our past, our environment, our education, or of our goodness or badness or dullness; with our failure to seize the one chance of happiness or helpfulness, with the irony of life that brings the cup to our lips too late or with chance that dashes it away untasted. Truth is Mrs. Wharton’s favorite virtue. She cannot save her reader’s feelings by the easy lie of an averted tragedy and her solutions are seldom simple. Her most dreadful tragedy is that whose end is an incapacity to learn, a deadness to ideals, a paralysis of the mind or heart. But Mrs. Wharton’s vision of life is not all ironical or tragical. She feels “those dear contradictions and irrelevancies that will always make flesh and blood prevail against a syllogism,” and she delights in bringing out from their shy retreat the soul’s subtile delicacies, hesitations, reticences. A beautiful illustration of her ability to throw a white light upon such matters is ‘The Daunt Diana,’ which tells what an almost human appeal a loved and long-sought object can make to the heart of man.

For nearly three years now Mrs. Wharton has lived face to face with the most terrible suffering. For that reason it might be unsafe to regard as significant the fact that in her last volume of short stories, ‘Xingu’ (1916), every number is a tragedy except the entertaining farce that furnishes the title. Without losing her powers of analysis, Mrs. Wharton’s style has been steadily growing more direct and dramatic, and her flexible art shows no sign of having reached a limit.