Edith Wharton was a woman of extreme contrasts; brought up to be a leisured aristocrat, she was also dedicated to her career as a writer. She wrote novels of manners about the old New York society from which she came, but her attitude was consistently critical. Her irony and her satiric touches, as well as her insight into human character, continue to appeal to readers today. As a child, Wharton found refuge from the demands of her mother's social world in her father's library and in making up stories. Her marriage at age 23 to Edward ("Teddy") Wharton seemed to confirm her place in the conventional role of wealthy society woman, but she became increasingly dissatisfied with the "mundanities" of her marriage and turned to writing, which drew her into an intellectual community and strengthened her sense of self. After publishing two collections of short stories, The Greater Inclination (1899) and Crucial Instances (1901), she wrote her first novel, The Valley of Decision (1902), a long, historical romance set in eighteenth-century Italy. Her next work, the immensely popular The House of Mirth (1905), was a scathing criticism of her own "frivolous" New York society and its capacity to destroy her heroine, the beautiful Lily Bart. As Wharton became more established as a successful writer, Teddy's mental health declined and their marriage deteriorated. In 1907 she left America altogether and settled in Paris, where she wrote some of her most memorable stories of harsh New England rural life---Ethan Frome (1911) and Summer (1917)---as well as The Reef (1912), which is set in France. All describe characters forced to make moral choices in which the rights of individuals are pitted against their responsibilities to others. She also completed her most biting satire, The Custom of the Country (1913), the story of Undine Spragg's climb, marriage by marriage, from a midwestern town to New York to a French chateau. During World War I, Wharton dedicated herself to the war effort and was honored by the French government for her work with Belgian refugees. After the war, the world Wharton had known was gone. Even her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Age of Innocence (1920), a story set in old New York, could not recapture the former time. Although the new age welcomed her---Wharton was both a critical and popular success, honored by Yale University and elected to The National Institute of Arts and Letters---her later novels show her struggling to come to terms with a new era. In The Writing of Fiction (1925), Wharton acknowledged her debt to her friend Henry James, whose writings share with hers the descriptions of fine distinctions within a social class and the individual's burdens of making proper moral decisions. R.W.B. Lewis's biography of Wharton, published in 1975, along with a wealth of new biographical material, inspired an extensive reevaluation of Wharton. Feminist readings and reactions to them have focused renewed attention on her as a woman and as an artist. Although many of her books have recently been reprinted, there is still no complete collected edition of her work.
Jonathan Franzen was born in Western Springs, Illinois, in 1959, but grew up in Webster Groves, Missouri, near St. Louis. He graduated from Swarthmore College in 1981, and went on to study at the Freie University in Berlin as a Fulbright scholar. Franzen worked in a seismology lab at Harvard University's Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences after graduation. In addition to winning a Whiting Writers' Award in 1988 and the American Academy's Berlin Prize in 2000, he has been named one of "Twenty Writers for the 21st Century" by The New Yorker and one of the "Best Young American Novelists" by Granta. Mr. Franzen is the author of "The Twenty-Seventh City," published in 1988, and "Strong Motion," published in 1992, and is a frequent contributor to Harper's and The New Yorker.
#60;b#62;Richard Gray#60;/b#62; is Professor of Literature at the University of Essex and former Distinguished Visiting Professor at a number of universities in the United States. He is the first specialist in American literature to be elected a Fellow of the British Academy and has published over a dozen books on the topic, including the award-winning #60;i#62;Writing the South (Ideas of an American Region (1986) and The Life of William Faulkner: A Critical Biography (1944). #60;/i#62; His #60;i#62;History of American Literature#60;/i#62; is widely considered to be one of the standard works on the subject.