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Edith Wharton: First Female to Win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Readmikenow enjoys writing about unique and interesting people. He likes to learn about individuals who live or have lived unusual lives.

Painting of Edith Wharton

Painting of Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton was a prolific author who did not publish her first novel until she had reached the age of 40. She then became a very productive writer. Wharton's work involved approximately 15 novels, as well as seven novellas and over 84 short stories. In addition to fiction, she published books on poetry, travel, design—as well as a memoir, a book on cultural criticism, and more.

Her novel, The Age of Innocence, was published in 1920 and won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. This made her the first woman to win this award. Wharton was also nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature three times. This occurred in 1927, 1928, and 1930.

Painting of young Edith Wharton

Painting of young Edith Wharton

Early Years

On January 24, 1862, Edith Wharton was born at her parent's brownstone located at 14 West Twenty-Third Street in New York City. Her birth name was Edith Newbold Jones. Her father's name was George Frederic Jones and her mother's name was Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander. She had two older brothers named Henry and Frederic.

Wealth

Wharton's father's family was very wealthy having earned their fortune from real estate. They were also considered extremely socially prominent. It is often said that the term “keeping up with the Joneses” was in reference to the family of Wharton's father. Her father's favorite cousin was Caroline Schermerhorn Astor. Ebeneezer Stevens was Wharton's great grandfather. Fort Stevens in New York was named after him.

Early Writing

Starting at an early age, Wharton would tell stories. This started when she was five and her family moved to Europe. The young Wharton referred to it as “making up.” She was always occupied with making up stories for her family. When she got older, Wharton would spend much of her time writing fiction and poetry. At the age of 11, Wharton attempted to write her first novel. Her mother was harsh and criticized the work so badly, Wharton started to write poetry.

When she was 15, Wharton had her first work published. It was a translation of a German poem called "What the Stones Tell." Wharton was paid $50. When her family became aware of what Wharton had done, they made certain her name did not appear in print. They believed that writing was not a proper vocation for a woman of society. The poem was published under the name of her father's cousin, E.A. Washburn. Wharton wrote under a pseudonym in 1879 to publish a poem for the New York World. She was also able to anonymously publish five poems in the Atlantic Monthly in 1880.

Her success did not earn her any encouragement with her family or from her social circles. Wharton continued to write, but she would not publish anything again until 1889. This is when her poem "The Last Augustinian" was published in Scribner's Magazine.

Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton

Socialite and Debutante

Wharton stopped writing anything between 1880 and 1890. During this time, she focused her efforts in performing her duties as a socialite and debutante. This is when she would carefully observe all the social changes occurring around her. They would later be seen in her writing. In 1879, Wharton officially came out as a debutante to society.

Edward (Teddy) Robbins

Edward (Teddy) Robbins

Marriage

Wharton married Edward (Teddy) Robbins on April 29, 1885. Teddy Robbins was from the same social class as Wharton. He also shared her love of traveling. She was 23 years old at the time of her marriage. Wharton was determined to focus on her three main interests. Writing, American houses, and Italy. The couple traveled abroad between 1886 and 1897. They spent time in England and Paris, but they were mostly in Italy.

Divorce

Starting in the late 1800s, Wharton's husband began suffering from severe depression. This is when the couple stopped traveling. Teddy's depression developed into a serious mental disorder. In 1908, Teddy's mental condition was considered to be incurable. During this time Wharton had an affair with a journalist from the Times. In 1913, she divorced Teddy Robbins.

Edith Wharton at front with French soldiers during World War I

Edith Wharton at front with French soldiers during World War I

World War I

When World War I started, Wharton was getting ready to go on summer vacation. Most people were leaving Paris, but she went back to her apartment. She was a dedicated supporter of the French war effort. She opened a workroom for unemployed women where they were fed and paid. Wharton also helped to set up American Hostels for refugees. She was one of the few civilians permitted to travel to the front lines to offer aid to the French troops. She made five trips to the front. Wharton wrote a series of articles about this experience that were published in Scribner's Magazine.

Edith Wharton working at her writing desk

Edith Wharton working at her writing desk

After World War I

When the war was over, Wharton traveled to Morocco. She wrote a book about her experiences titled In Morocco. After this, she returned to France and spent her time between the towns of Provence and Hyères. This when she completed her book, The Age of Innocence.

In Morocco By Edith Wharton

In Morocco By Edith Wharton

Pulitzer Prize

Three of the fiction judges initially voted to give the Pulitzer Prize to Sinclair Lewis for his book Main Street. The advisory board from Columbia University was led by a conservative president named Nicholas Murray Butler. He overturned the decision of the fiction judges and was able to get the Pulitzer Prize for fiction awarded to Wharton for The Age of Innocence.

Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Death

On June 1, 1937, Wharton was at her home in Ogden Codman, France revising an edition of her latest novel. She collapsed after suffering a heart attack. On August 11, 1937, Wharton died in her 18th-century home located on the Rue de Montmorency in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt. She was buried at the Cimetière des Gonards in Versailles in the American Protestant section. Over a hundred friends attended her burial and sang a verse from the popular hymn "O Paradise."

Sources

© 2020 Readmikenow

Comments

Readmikenow (author) on September 09, 2020:

Liz, thanks. I agree.

Readmikenow (author) on September 09, 2020:

MG, thanks.

Liz Westwood from UK on September 09, 2020:

This is a very interesting biographical account. Edith Wharton certainly had an eventful life, which is even more amazing given the times that she lived in.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on September 09, 2020:

The Pulitzer prize is an important literary prize and much coveted. This was a fascinating article on the woman who as you say was the 1st to get this award.

Readmikenow (author) on September 09, 2020:

Pamela, thanks. She had to deal with a lot of discouragement from her family and friends when it came to her writing. Little did they know....

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on September 08, 2020:

This is such an very interesting article on Elizabeth Wharton. She was surely a brave woman and a talented writer, especially for the years that she lived.

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