The Age of Innocence (1920)
In the aftermath of World War I, Edith Wharton assessed the transformation of America. She saw Americans confront the greater instability and unpredictability of life in the wake of a worldwide conflict. Conscious of the nostalgia people felt for the decades between the Civil War and World War I, Wharton sensed that the idealized images of this period created an artificial picture of a less troubled time. Wharton saw how concepts such as duty and responsibility bolstered social stability during this era, but she also recognized how they limited selfrealization. In The Age of Innocence, she explored the values, mores, and conduct of Old New York in the 1870s when life seemed orderly and safe. In her novel, she probed beneath the period's so-called innocence to reveal a world on the threshold of significant change.
In 1921, Wharton received the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence. The award brought her less satisfaction, however, when she learned that it had been given to her rather than to Sinclair Lewis for Main Street, the prize committee's first choice. The trustees of Columbia University, who granted the award, based their decision in part on a desire to avoid further offending the Midwestern readers already troubled by Lewis's novel. Their actions reflected the same attempts to avoid unpleasantness that Wharton critiqued in her novel. Wharton wrote to Lewis acknowledging his achievement, initiating a valued