Pen and Prejudice: Edith Wharton's Complicated Legacy

Edith Wharton penned dazzling novels about New York’s upper class and blazed a trail for women—her legacy, however, is tarnished by her anti-Semitic views.

If your reading doesn’t involve the classics, you probably first encountered author Edith Wharton’s work through Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of that great book of hers, The Age of Innocence, which stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder. Born this month in 1862, Wharton wrote novels analyzing upper-class New York in the early 1900s—the circle she was part of. Her achievements for women tower to this day—she’s the first female winner of the Pulitzer Prize, for one thing—but marring her legacy is a prejudice she shares with her milieu: anti-Semitism. Here, we look back at her life and work, and what that means for us today.

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Edith Wharton
Young Edith Wharton/Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Beginnings

Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones to George Frederick (or Frederic) Jones and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander. She was a member of New York’s elite through both her parents. (The surname we would know her by comes from her husband, Bostonian banker Edward Robbins Wharton, with whom she would separate in 1913.) Wharton’s parents had her educated at home. A governess, Anna Catherine Bahlmann, helped her blossom as a writer. She set aside time for Wharton to write and incorporated a greater amount of literary works into her charge’s education. Wharton, also a great reader, went through the books in her father’s library.

Wharton ventured into writing when she was young, penning her first novel at age 11. Her first work was Verses, a volume of poems that she published as a private undertaking when she was 16. She would, however, receive no support from the people around her. As she would later explain (as quoted in the New York Times), this was because “[i]n the eyes of our provincial society, authorship was still regarded as something between a black art and a form of manual labor.” But the discouragement might have been partly because she was a woman. In Wharton’s society, marrying well, rather than gathering accomplishments, was what women were to focus on.

Though she wrote stories and poems for magazines, Wharton’s first major published book was The Decoration of Houses. It was a joint endeavor with architect Ogden Codman, Jr., her friend. Wharton and Codman, sharing a dislike of Victorian interior design (which, for example, featured vanities swimming in lace), wrote a book that advocated for the classical style: simple, elegant, symmetrical. The book, well-received, inspired a crop of professional interior designers who espoused Wharton’s and Codman’s principles.

Wharton would, eventually, find support from friends such as Walter Berry and Egerton Winthrop. She would also be mentored by William Brownell and Edward Burlingame, who edited the magazine Scribner’s. The writer Henry James, a great friend of hers, also advised and championed her.

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Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton/Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Writer on the rise

Wharton started writing seriously years into her marriage. Her first published work of fiction, the short story collection The Greater Inclination, came out in 1899. Though she produced other books, it was the novel The House of Mirth, published in 1905, that established her literary reputation.

The House of Mirth tells the story of 29-year-old Lily Bart, an orphan from a now-penniless New York family. To avoid sinking below the upper class, Lily seeks to find a wealthy husband. The man she loves, though, is Lawrence Selden, whose financial standing makes him—to her, anyway—unsuitable as a husband. Whether her choices pay off and who she chooses unfold in the novel with grace and sympathy.

After The House of Mirth, other books would follow. They became what we know today as her oeuvre: Ethan Frome (1911), The Reef (1912), The Custom of the Country (1913), Summer (1917), and The Age of Innocence (1920).

Age of honors

The Age of Innocence, the biggest bestseller among her novels, won the Pulitzer in 1920. It was the first time a woman had ever earned the honor. In the novel, the protagonist Newland Archer is to marry May Welland, a proper society lady. However, he finds himself falling in love with Mary’s cousin, Ellen Olenska, whose marriage makes her an object of scandal. From there, the romantic conundrum of whether Newland and Ellen fall in line with New York’s rules—or not—ensues in a novel the New York Times calls as one “show[ing] Wharton at her best, understanding the cramped society of her youth[.]”

Wharton would collect other accolades, some of them firsts for women. Among them are the gold medal from the National Institute of the Arts and Letters and, from Yale, an honorary Doctor of Letters degree in 1924. She would, alongside three other women, be inducted into the National Institute of the Arts and Letters. In 1934, though she wasn’t the first woman to enter their society—that honor belongs to Julia Ward Howe—the American Academy of Arts and Letters voted Wharton to join their ranks.

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Edith Wharton/Photo via Wikimedia Commons

An unfortunate prejudice

Regardless of the inroads she had made for women, though, Wharton, like her peers, did not like Jews. In Tablet, a Jewish publication, Anne Roiphe in the publication’s series My Favorite Anti-Semite says that New York’s upper crust disdained newcomers who wanted to enter their exclusive old-money circles. Some of these people, as it turns out, were Jewish.

Perhaps the most lasting example of this in Wharton is her Jewish character Simon Rosedale in The House of Mirth. The book (also quoted in Tablet) describes Rosedale as “the same little Jew who had been served up and rejected at the social board a dozen times within [the character Mrs. Trenor’s] memory[.]”

But, Roiphe opines, Wharton’s anti-Semitism was less “brutal” than it appears initially and more complicated, too. To illustrate her point, she mentions that Rosedale does a charitable act that would bring him no advantage. According to Roiphe, this is because Wharton reserved a greater degree of anger and disdain toward high society. “Wharton’s anti-Semitism,” she writes, “serves in this book as another way of exposing the actual moral poverty in the class of people she is mocking so bitterly.” Unlike Wharton’s Christian characters, Rosedale “survives Wharton’s pages with his heart intact.” Perhaps the lesson here, she concludes, is that we should also examine the way authors depict non-Jews.

In the New York Times, novelist Brian Morton describes his encounter with a college student who had been reading The House of Mirth. Upon reaching Rosedale’s introduction, the student, seized by righteous anger, dropped the book. He told Morton, “I don’t want anyone like that in my house.”

Morton, for his part, says that the reaction came from an understandable—even laudable—place: that of social justice. He does, nonetheless, caution against completely rejecting writers of past eras who harbored views we today would not tolerate. Eschewing them would mean that we would miss out on their contributions to the literary world. In Wharton’s case, he notes by way of example, she had much—and much good—to say about how her environment forced restraints on women’s lives and opportunities. To him, reading her would not be the same as exonerating her.

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Even if you disagree with Roiphe and Morton, vehemently or simply thinking it necessary to include a “But” whenever someone enumerates her accomplishments, Edith Wharton’s legacy for women, it is perhaps safe to say, remains one that astounds. Whether that is enough for you, prospective reader, to pick up her books is a decision entirely up to you—and, for all of us readers, a decision for each of us to make.

Banner photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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