Justice (Again) to Edith Wharton
NEARLY FORTY years ago, Edmund Wilson wrote a little essay about an underrated American novelist and called it “Justice to Edith Wharton.” She was in need of justice, he claimed, because “the more commonplace work of her later years had had the effect of dull- ing the reputation of her earlier and more serious work.” During this last period-a stretch of about seventeen years, from (roughly) 1920 to her death in 1937-Edith Wharton’s novels were best-sellers, her short stories commanded thousands of dollars; but both in mode and motivation she remained, like so many others in the 20′s and 30′s, a 19th-century writer. She believed in portraying character, her characters displayed the higher values, her prose was a platform for her own views. In 1937, when Wilson undertook to invigorate her reputation, the machinery of 19th-century fiction was beginning to be judged not so much as the expression of a long tradition, or (as nowadays we seem to view it) as the exhausted practice of a moribund convention, but more bluntly as a failure of talent. Wilson accounted for that apparent failure in Edith Wharton by speculating op the psychological differences between male and female writers.
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