The New York Stories of Edith WhartonJanuary 8, 2010
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.