Edith Wharton (1862-1937

By Amelia Wagner


“Haven’t you heard? The Archduke Ferdinand assassinated . . . at Sarajevo . . . where IS Sarajevo?” 

It was June, 1914, and Edith Wharton was enjoying dinner with friends when news of the assassination broke. No one that night foresaw the coming storm, the grand scale of the conflict that was to follow this seemingly isolated tragedy. Certainly Wharton herself had no idea of what the following years would hold or of how they would change her world. Yet Wharton, the consummate observer, would come to provide a portrait, not only of the Great War, but of the world it ushered in — and the world it destroyed forever.

The Great War was not the first change that had overtaken Edith Wharton. Born in New York in 1862, Wharton had always been a keen observer. She first noticed a difference in the society around her in the 1880s. New people, with newly earned money, were entering her city and scrabbling to earn a place on the social scene. The invasion was quiet, the coup subtle. These new-moneyed interlopers wanted nothing more than to be accepted, so they adapted and integrated as unobtrusively as possible. The social fabric stretched, but it did not fray.

Then came the war. By this time, Wharton was comfortable in her role as author. The war elevated her to an archivist. It was WWI that brought to Edith the importance of her past. If any one had suggested to me, before 1914, to write my reminisces, I should have answered that my life had been too uneventful to be worth recording.” Wharton’s war correspondence had the power to call forth much needed American aid to France. But it was the changes that the war brought about, and Wharton’s observations of them, that would truly set her apart.

The New York of 1918 had changed cataclysmically from the New York of Wharton’s youth. To quote Wharton, “Between my Huguenot great-great-grandfather . . . and my own father . . . there were fewer differences than between my father and the post-war generations of Americans.” Wharton struggled to understand what had happened. What had become of the old American society? To the society of propriety, of honor, of slow afternoon drives and leisurely suppers? It seemed to Wharton to have vanished as thoroughly as smoke on the battlefield. In its place was left a populace fast and crass, eagerly grasping at every amusement, advantage, and vice. Wharton may have chafed under the strict customs of her upbringing, but to have them removed entirely made the world unsafe and unstable. 

Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence was a reaction to this change. It encapsulated the world the post-war generation had left behind, a world that was not kind, not flexible, but always gloriously respectable. Wharton received the Pulitzer Prize for her work. More importantly, she is still the voice we look to today to tell us of the Great War and the changes it wrought. 


Recommended Reading 

Lee, Hermione.  Edith Wharton. Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.  

Wharton, Edith.  The Age of Innocence. New York: Scribner, 1968 

Wharton, Edith.  Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1919.  

Wharton, Edith, R. W. B. Lewis, and Nancy Lewis.  The Letters of Edith Wharton. Scribner,  1988

Wooldridge, Connie NordhielmThe Brave Escape of Edith Wharton: A Biography. Clarion, 2010


Amelia Wagner 

It’s hard to say exactly when Amelia Wagner began her career as a Chautauquan. The year 2013 saw her first full-length performance here at High Plains Chautauqua. But perhaps it was really 2003, when Wagner first stepped onto the Chautauqua stage as a Young Chautauquan. Or even 2001, when she fell irrevocably in love with historical enactment. Since then, Amelia has made room for over 15 personalities, including the indomitable Margaret Mead and Louisa May Alcott. Amelia is a graduate of the University of Denver. When she is not on the Chautauqua stage, she spends her time as an Educator and Historical Enactor at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. 


Bullet Points 

Edith Wharton worked tirelessly to aid France, her adopted home, during WWI: collecting money and supplies, writing articles, and establishing aid societies. 

Edith Wharton struggled to come to terms with the differences in society that came about because of the Great War. 

Edith Wharton’s best-selling novel, The Age of Innocence, was a reaction to the change in society caused by WWI. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, making Edith Wharton the first female Pulitzer Prize winner. 



Everything I did during the war in the way of charitable work was forced on me by the necessities of the hour, but always with the sense that others would have done it far better.

After all, one knows one's weak points so well, that it's rather bewildering to have the critics overlook them & invent others that (one is fairly sure) don't exist — or exist in a less measure.

Life is always a tightrope or a feather bed. Give me the tightrope.

Habit is necessary; it is the habit of having habits, of turning a trail into a rut, that must be incessantly fought against if one is to remain alive.



1862 - Edith Newbold Jones is born in New York City to Lucretia Rhinelander Jones and  George Frederic Jones

1878 - Verses, a collection of poems that is her first published work, is privately printed; her mother pays for the printing.  

1885 - Edith marries Edward Wharton in New York City. 

1897 - The Decoration of Houses, written with Ogden Codman, is published. Wharton’s first  published book.

1909 - Begins affair with Morton Fullerton 

1909 - Edward Wharton admits to embezzling $50,000 from EW's trust funds but later makes  restitution.

1913 - A Paris tribunal awards Edith Wharton a divorce from Edward Wharton. 

1914-18 - Works to support the French war effort by raising money, establishing aid centers for refugees and writing articles to raise awareness abroad

1916- Awarded the Chevalier de l'Ordre National de la Legion d'Honneur by the French government for her war work and in 1923 is promoted from Chevalier to Officer,

1918 - Receives the Medaille Reine Elisabeth from Belgium 

1921 - Wharton wins the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Age of Innocence, the first woman  writer to win the prize in this category.

1923 - Receives an honorary Doctor of  Letters degree from Yale University, the first woman so honored by Yale

1937 - Wharton dies.