Edith Newbold Jones was born into New York high society in 1862. She grew up in an age of ballrooms, decorated brownstones, Hansom cabs, and gaslit sidewalks. Socially, she was best acquainted with the members of the urban elite, many of whom had acquired and maintained their wealth via their involvement and investment in the capitalist products of the Industrial Revolution.
However, most of the wealthy Manhattan clans that she knew had familial and financial roots in the early Dutch settlements of New Amsterdam, an extension of The New Netherlands colony founded at the tip of Manhattan Island (what is now the area around Battery Park), in 1624. It was the aggregation of both of these kinds of wealth that characterized, at least the surface, of the city that she came to know.
Wharton — Edith, or “Lily,” a childhood nickname of hers, and the name of her first great heroine, married in 1885 — could see through the haze of pretention that surrounded this society, and disliked (intensely), and exposed in her fiction, the way that it “killed” the artistic-minded, passionate spirits of the day, who lived at every class level, and who were made heroes and heroines of her novels and novellas. These characters are not so much heroic in the way that they resist the forces that control them (they are actually quite weak in this regard), but because of the fact that they realize not only the fallacies of their society, but their own shortcomings.
Edith Wharton relocated to Paris, France, in 1907, and stayed there permanently through and after the First World War, returning to America only once, in 1923, to receive an honorary doctorate degree from Yale University. She essentially abandoned her efforts and role as a writer, and her physical ties to the United States, investing her time and talent in the relief effort of the war in France, being one of the only American citizens to work hands-on in the front lines.
The relevance and popularity of Wharton’s writing, though diminished with time, is still evident in its frequent use in high school and college American literature courses. Her contemporary and close friend, Henry James, had written her an urgent letter at the turn of the century, encouraging her to focus on writing about “The American Subject,” about what it was, at the very center, that made this elaborate, skin deep world of hers so important, and to capture how and why its destructive force, through the art of her writing — like an old, faded sepia print — would (or wouldn’t?) also all but fade away.