On this day in 1900, writer Henry James first writes to Edith Wharton, whom he will finally meet in 1903. Wharton, then 38, had published her first collection of stories, The Greater Inclination, the previous year. An enormous admirer of James, she modeled parts of her work after his, including his attention to form and his interest in ethical questions. The two became great friends, and James encouraged her writing.
Wharton was born to a wealthy, patrician family in New York in 1862. She grew up in an opulent world where pre-Civil War society kept the nouveau riche at bay, maintaining its own isolated sense of superiority. Wharton, expected to become a typical wife, mother, and hostess, instead showed intellectual talent and began to write at an early age. She had begun to fear spinsterhood when, at age 23, she married prominent socialite Edward Wharton–who had no profession or money worth speaking of. The match was unhappy and troubled, but the couple did not divorce until 1913. Wharton returned to writing, often dealing with themes of divorce, unhappy marriages, and free-spirited individuals trapped by societal pressures.
Wharton’s 1905 novel, The House of Mirth, told the story of a New York socialite with a strong sense of individuality who cannot adapt to the roles expected of her. The book became a bestseller.
Wharton traveled abroad frequently and after her divorce began writing for women’s magazines. Her novella, Ethan Frome, detailing a New England farmer trapped by the demands of the women in his life, is still one of her best-known works. Her 1920 novel, Age of Innocence, won the Pulitzer. Wharton published numerous other books, but some of her later work suffered from the deadlines and pressures imposed by writing for money. She remained in France during World War I, assisting refugees, and was made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor in 1916. She published another bestseller, Twilight Sleep, in 1927, and her autobiography, A Backward Glance, in 1934. She died in France in 1937.