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Gay’s praise reminds us, if we need it, of both Wharton’s prominence as a writer and her contemporary relevance. At the same time, Gay’s admiration for a woman “unafraid to offer opinions” speaks to ongoing divided reactions to such women, applauded in some quarters, damned in others, for the very acts of thinking and speaking for themselves. Gay defines Wharton’s stature and contributions expansively: The Writing of Fiction “showed how the work of the fiction writer is not only to create fiction but also to consume fiction and be able to hold forth on matters of craft.” For Wharton, writing was, however noble, however much a calling to “the Land of Letters” (BG 119), ultimately just that: a “craft” – a conviction underscored in The Writing of Fiction by its validation of, and interdisciplinary links to, a variety of practical but creative art forms, among them acting, music, and design.
This essay re-examines Wharton’s early career to suggest an emerging writer much more focused on and concerned with lives of hardship and lack of privilege than we have acknowledged. Archival research and attention to less familiar, at times unpublished early writing and genres, including her poetry and plays, illuminate anew a bold, compassionate and at times subversive writer. Wharton’s attacks on social inequality, injustice, and the complicity of her own class, are strong, powerful, and pervasive, her writing often in conflict with conventional ideologies of poverty and pauperism of the time. Deeply engaged in contemporary issues and inspired as much by newspaper reporting than by the more familiar classical allusions with which she is credited, what emerges, this essay suggests, is a radical creative vision running counter to ongoing popular images of Wharton and her work.
The New Edith Wharton Studies uncovers new evidence and presents new ideas that invite us to reconsider our understanding of one of America's most highly acclaimed, versatile, and prolific writers. The volume addresses themes that have previously been missed or underdeveloped, and examines areas where previous scholarship does not take account of key, contemporary issues: Wharton and ecocriticism, Wharton and queer studies, Wharton and animal studies, Wharton and whiteness, and Wharton and contemporary psychology. Essays explore Wharton's treatment of the poor in her emerging career, the ways in which French thinkers helped her envision community, the importance of Greece to Wharton, her transnationalism, the ongoing revelations of the author's archives, and new perspectives on her agency in the literary marketplace. It addresses key themes and examines contemporary issues, while reassessing Edith Wharton's life and career.
During her lifetime, Edith Wharton was one of America’s most popular and prolific writers, publishing over forty books and winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. But after her death her work slipped out of favour, and it is only in the last thirty years that her reputation as a literary heavyweight and a great writer has recovered. Bringing together twelve leading Wharton scholars from Europe and North America, this volume offers the first ever collection of essays on Wharton’s 1913 tour de force, The Custom of the Country. Described as 'her greatest book' by Hermione Lee in her acclaimed 2007 biography of the writer, and listed by Wharton herself at the end of a long and prolific career as one of her own favourite works, The Custom of the Country arguably remains the author’s most complex and controversial novel. The contributions to this collection demonstrate the continuing evolution of Wharton scholarship within modern critical approaches.
The Custom of the Country, first published on 18 October 1913, has been described as Edith Wharton's ‘most powerful’ novel, ‘her greatest book’, her ‘most ambitious masterpiece’ and a ‘tour de force’. Charting the career of the American-branded Undine Spragg of Apex, Wharton presents her readers with the modern material girl, a young woman surrounded by dazzling lights and mirrors, her sights set firmly on the centre of the social gaze. While The House of Mirth's precarious insider Lily Bart fatally spirals down the social scale, ‘thrown out into the rubbish heap’ and all its attendant horrors, Undine Spragg, the outsider, indefatigably works her way up and forces a way in. At the novel's remarkably open-ended close, Undine has realized her dazzling success (while never recognizing its casualties) only to discover ‘under all the dazzle a tiny black cloud remain[s]’ (p. 594). Undine Spragg Moffatt Marvell de Chelles Moffatt's career of acquiring and discarding husbands debars her from the role of Ambassador's wife – the one part, she tells herself, for which she was really made.
While Wharton herself would come to regard The Custom of the Country as one of her finest works, its genesis proved the most protracted and disrupted of any novel in her long and prolific career. As the author toiled on the manuscript in fits and starts between 1907 and 1913, progress was regularly interrupted, and the novel intermittently set aside in favour of other writings.