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The New York Stories of Edith Wharton

January 8, 2010

This post is part of the Edith Wharton Classics Circuit. You should check out the list of all the stops that Edith will be making on her blog tour.

Since it’s still fairly early in the classics circuit for Edith Wharton, a few biographical details might be informative. She lead quite the interesting life; a fact that I had forgotten. She was born in 1862 in New York City to an aristocratic family. She married at the age of twenty-three, but got a divorce in 1913. After her divorce, she moved to France. During the First World War, she became very active in the war relief effort and founded a charity for refugees, among other things. Her service actually earned her a spot as a Cheavlier of the Legion of Honor, one of France’s highest merits! She lived the rest of her life in France until her death in 1937. So she certainly did live during interesting and tumultuous times. I’m sure that we will learn more about her life in future tour stops, but it’s helpful for a context to her stories.

This collection of short stories, which span from 1891-1934, are selected and introduced by Roxana Robinson. They were not part of a collection published during Wharton’s lifetime. Instead, these stories were collected together because they show the development of Wharton as a writer and because they focus on New York City and its society. I felt that they really worked well as a collection. I could see Wharton’s style develop as I read them, and each story properly fit in its place.

These stories were the first time that I have encountered Wharton writing about the less privileged classes. In the other Wharton novels that I have read (all of which I have loved–I once considered her my favorite author), she typically concerns herself with the flaws in the upper classes. There were several stories, such as Mrs Manstey’s View and That Good May Come , that seriously focus on the thoughts and difficulties of the working class. Wharton does a remarkable job portraying these characters, and I hope that I can find one of her novels that explores similar themes.

I was immensely impressed with Robinson’s introduction to this book. While I wouldn’t recommend you read it before the stories, the insights that Robinson provides into the stories and their relation to Wharton’s life are invaluable reading after finishing the stories. In fact, I read the introduction in chunks, usually reading different sections as I finished certain stories. After finishing the introduction, I felt like I had just taken a crash course in literary criticism about Edith Wharton!

Anyone who is interested in getting a taste of Wharton’s writing but who is hesitant to commit to one of her longer novels should find this book a helpful introduction. These stories are filled with Wharton’s trademark social insights and skillful prose, but they are perhaps more accessible to the modern reader.To provide a sense of Wharton’s writing style, this post ends with a few sentences from one of my favorite stories in the collection, The Journey. This is such a haunting story. A woman is on a long train ride with her ailing husband. As they travel, she reminisces about their relationship.

A year ago their pulses had beat to one robust measure; both had the same prodigal confidence in an exhaustless future. Now their energies no longer kept step: hers still bounded ahead in life, preempting unclaimed regions of hope and activity, while his lagged behind, vainly struggling to overtake her.

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12 comments

  1. I love Edith Wharton though I’ve started reading her novels only recently, after watching and adaptation of her THE BUCCANEERS. I’ve only read THE AGE OF INNOCENCE and I’m still reading THE HOUSE OF MIRTH. Great novels. Wharton will visit my blog too on January 15th.
    Thanks for your review!


  2. Thanks for this review! I love the concept of Wharton capturing the lower classes. I too have only read the high class stories. Sounds great. Thanks for joining the Circuit.


    • I was actually surprised about the lower classes thing–I wasn’t really aware that these sorts of Wharton stories were out there! Thanks for coming up with this great idea!


  3. Great posting! I’m slightly obsessed with Wharton at the moment, and I love her short stories. I do have this volume on my to-read shelf and I’m looking forward to reading it. Thanks for your great insights on the introduction. Lately, I’ve been trying to avoid introductions until after I finish a book — I find that there are too many spoilers otherwise. Robinson’s introduction sounds like it will be invaluable to Wharton fans.


    • I’ve noticed that some Penguin editions now have a message at the beginning of all their introductions warning new readers that the introduction “makes details of the plot explicit.” Perhaps they should just call them afterwords, stick them at the back of the book, and be done with it!


  4. I’m excited-I’m reading an Everyman collection of three of her novellas that also has a long introduction by Hermione Lee-I can’t wait to read it after the novellas, and I plan on including it in my review! :)

    That was a really long-winded way of saying, I think it’s awesome you included biographical stuff. lol


    • Oh, an introduction my Hermione Lee. I bet that’s great! I look forward to reading what you say about the novellas.


  5. Nice review. I’ve read a few of Wharton’s novels as well as Roman Fever and Other Stories. Her short stories are wonderful: tightly written, and she has a way of crafting hard-hitting emotional points just like that quote you gave.

    She’ll be visiting my blog on January 12.


    • I was surprised at how concise these stories were–they really show her wide-ranging talents. Roman Fever is included in this collection as well–that’s actually how I found this book; I was looking for a copy of that story. One of the best!


  6. Thanks for the bio notes on Wharton–I didn’t really know much about her apart from living in NYC and writing some great stuff and being compared to Austen. I also appreciate the recommendation of the Intro to the collection of short stories–sounds like something I would really like.

    The excerpt you provided is poignant–looking forward to reading more of Wharton and more about her.


    • I’m glad that the bio information is helpful! I sort of imagined her living in a slightly earlier time period before I read the introduction, so I thought some people might have the same vague ideas that I did.



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