Edith Wharton's Renaissance

By Shaw-Eagle, Joanna | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 18, 1998 | Go to article overview

Edith Wharton's Renaissance


Shaw-Eagle, Joanna, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


There's no accounting for swings in taste. Consider Edith Wharton, in 1921 the first American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Enormously popular in her day, her writings had fallen out of fashion when R.W.B. Lewis began researching his biography of her in the 1960s.

Now, there's an Edith Wharton renaissance, of which the exhibition "Edith Wharton's World: Portraits of People and Places" at the National Portrait Gallery is an important expression. Through this showing of some 100 paintings, miniatures, manuscripts and memorabilia, the visitor - for one more week - can see how Wharton arrived at her literary statement: the entrapment of the individual by social mores, especially in fin-de-siecle New York and Europe.

This revival of interest in turn-of-the-century authors who wrote of their times is not limited to Wharton.

Henry James (1843-1916), as well as Wharton (1862-1937) and Jane Austen (1775-1817), have recently been re-examined, especially with popular films and television productions of their works: James with the current movies "Wings of the Dove" and "Washington Square," Austen with the films "Sense and Sensibility," "Emma" and "Persuasion," and Wharton with "Ethan Frome" and "The Age of Innocence." These films didn't break any records at the box office, but they show the continuing interest.

The theme of society's stifling of the individual, especially women, may seem a far cry from the preoccupations of the "me generation," but it's been surprisingly popular. It's a thesis that rings loudly in these films, but not in this too-diffuse exhibition.

For while the exhibit includes handsome John Singer Sargent's portraits of Wharton's contemporaries and friends, a stylish silk gown worn by her, a handwritten poem to her lover Morton Fullerton and photographs of Wharton and her many lavish residences, the bite of her life and message doesn't quite come through.

* * *

The exhibit opens with Edward Harrison May's 1881 portrait of Wharton, "Edith Jones at nineteen." Born Edith Jones, the daughter of socialites George and Lucretia Jones, in New York in 1862, little Edith was raised in both Europe and New York.

Her parents, whose portraits are included in the exhibit, were typical of the society against which she eventually rebelled. With inherited wealth, father George could pursue his love of art and history and mother Lucretia her social climbing. Wharton educated herself in her father's library.

In her memoirs, "A Backward Glance," Wharton recalled how, at age 11, she showed her mother the beginnings of a novel, which started with, " `Oh, how do you do, Mrs. Brown?' said Mrs. Tompkins. `If only I had known you were going to call I should have tidied up the drawing room.' Her mother replied with the icy comment, `Drawing rooms are always tidy.' "

Photographs, portraits, calling cards, sculptures, manuscript notebooks and first publications show her early, upper-class life. …

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