“Genius is of small use to a woman who does not know how to do her hair.” So quipped Edith Wharton in The Touchstone (1900), at the start of a prolific, distinguished career. In this novella, and in over a hundred works of fiction that followed, Wharton explored questions of social identity and cultural change for her time and for generations afterward. A keen observer and critic of the individual in conflict with society, Wharton stands with William Dean Howells and Henry James as a pioneer in the development of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American realism. Also a groundbreaking naturalist and a stylistic innovator, she produced an astoundingly large body of imaginative writing over four decades and across all major genres: novels, short fiction, poetry, and drama. Equally proficient in nonfiction, with books on travel, literary theory, art history, World War I, and interior design, she chronicled European as well as American traditions and events. By critical and popular acclaim, Wharton is one of the nation’s finest writers. She is arguably its finest female writer. At one point the highest paid American fiction-writer of her time, she received many honors, including the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence (1920). She is a central, indeed indispensable, figure in English-language literature and the humanities.
Today Wharton’s reputation is soaring, as evidenced by dozens of scholarly monographs in the last twenty years, hundreds of articles in major academic journals, multiple paperback editions of most of her works, films and other adaptations of her major novels, and tributes in popular culture, including a photo spread in Vogue magazine and discussion by contemporary writers like Candace Bushnell, Margaret Drabble, Jonathan Franzen, Carol deChellis Hill, Diane Johnson, Claire McMillan, Susan Minot, Francine Prose, Francesca Segal, Colm Toibin, John Updike, and Gore Vidal, as well as filmmaker Julian Fellowes and television writer Mindy Kaling. Many of her works are required reading in high-school classes and college courses throughout the United States and the United Kingdom.
Yet there is no complete edition of her works, and there has never been a comprehensive scholarly edition. This lack is explained in part by the fact that, for much of the twentieth century, Wharton suffered from the disparaging view of her as a disciple and imitator of her close friend, Henry James. Dubbed a “grande dame” of literature in an age partial to populist fiction, she was also sidelined by critics on the basis of class, a bias that Edmund Wilson famously but only partially corrected in his 1947 essay “Justice to Edith Wharton.” A reluctance to take women writers seriously or equate excellence with female authorship further eroded Wharton’s standing. Today, the insights of feminist criticism and New Historicism (among other theoretical perspectives) have challenged the assumptions that kept a writer like Wharton from receiving her due. Historical biases account for there being no full collections of her work and also speak to the timely, pressing need for a long-overdue scholarly edition.
To address this need, The Complete Works of Edith Wharton (CWEW) will be published by Oxford University Press in twenty-nine hardcover volumes in accordance with the highest editorial standards (see Appendix A, Contents and Volume Editors). It will also be made available through the latest technology, in the Oxford Scholarly Editions Online series (http://www.oxfordscholarlyeditions.com/). CWEW’s definitive editions will allow straightforward access to Wharton’s writing, with tools for scholars and readers. The market for this series will consist primarily of university and college libraries around the world. Accompanying the CWEW print and online texts is an online component, Digital Wharton. Integrated through links with the subscription-based OUP site, the free, publicly accessible Digital Wharton website, with interactive textual exhibits, will offer information about the edition, provide geospatial mappings of New York City in Wharton’s texts, and trace her writing practices. The target audience will comprise general readers, secondary, college, and university teachers, and students as well as scholars.
The volumes composing CWEW will demonstrate the literary and cultural significance of Wharton’s work, emphasizing her ironic and syntactically balanced style; her sharp wit combined with human compassion; her satiric depictions of the elite New York society of which she herself was a member; and her timeless themes of personal drives in conflict with duty toward others. With a keen eye on New England and Europe as well as New York, Wharton depicts characters shaped by inner as well as external forces, elevating their aspirations and struggles beyond the novel of manners, with which she is often associated, to philosophical and moral levels, with a pathos approaching tragedy.
With its extensive critical apparatus, CWEW reveals a remarkable range of writing influenced by unique biographical circumstances. Born in 1862 into a world of properly spoken English and socially restricted imagination, a subject to which she would frequently return in her writing, Wharton was deprived of a formal education because intellectual pursuits were deemed unladylike in her fashion-conscious society. Largely self-taught, she eavesdropped on the threshold of her father’s library as her older brothers were tutored, and she voraciously read whatever she could, from Plutarch and Milton to Coleridge, Carlyle, Browning, and Balzac. Early enthusiasms like Pascal, Darwin, Spenser, and Ruskin—“great awakeners,” she called them—made their way into Wharton’s fiction and helped to form her tragicomic outlook. Lifelong reading of works in religion, philosophy, science, anthropology, art, architecture, and history added texture and depth to her portraits of characters facing complex moral as well as social choices.