A prolific and widely read author throughout her career, Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Although often compared - both favorably and unfavorably -
to the writer Henry James, she has a secure place of her own in American literature. Unlike James, who was her longtime friend, Wharton made a fortune from her writing. And her books still sell. Each generation seems to rediscover her novels - and to rediscover the novelist as well. Two recent biographies of Wharton offer a fresh look at the woman and her work.
EDITH WHARTON, AN EXTRAORDINARY LIFE: AN ILLUSTRATED BIOGRAPHY, by Eleanor Dwight (Harry N. Abrams, 296 pp., $39.95). This illustrated life emphasizes the illustrations. Eleanor Dwight, a lecturer at the New School for Social Research in New York, presents Edith Wharton in a visual context, with hundreds of photographs. The approach is particularly appropriate for a writer whose books evoke a sense of place rich with detail. Here are the scenes, the settings, the houses, the gardens, the traveler's trail, and the many friends and relations who peopled Wharton's private life. The stunning collection of pictures is tied together with a graceful narrative that traces the main events in Wharton's remarkable career. Dwight connects the real places and people to their fictional counterparts and discusses how themes and characters in the stories and novels reflect the author's experiences.
Edith was the only daughter of a wealthy New York and Newport, R.I., family named Jones. She grew up in the social milieu she wrote about so vividly in ``The Age of Innocence,'' which was published in 1920 when she was 58 years old, long after she had settled permanently in France.
Wharton was a restless person who seldom stayed in one place more than a few months at a time. While still living in the United States, she had built a mansion in Lenox, Mass. The rural poverty she saw in the Berkshire Hills is the setting for ``Ethan Frome.'' This novella, also written after she became an expatriate, is starkly different from her New York stories except in its ironic poignancy.
Dwight's book is more comprehensive than the illustrated biography by Louis Auchincloss, ``Edith Wharton: A Woman in her Time'' (Viking, 1971), but Auchincloss is still worth reading for his astute comments on the novels.
NO GIFTS FROM CHANCE: A BIOGRAPHY OF EDITH WHARTON, by Shari Benstock (Charles Scribner's Sons, 546 pp., $28). Brave indeed is the biographer who attempts a straightforward account of someone whose life has already been discussed at length in a major study.
Shari Benstock's book inevitably covers much the same ground as the Pulitzer Prize-winning ``Edith Wharton: A Biography,'' by R.W.B. Lewis (Harper and Row, 1975).
In her fresh reading of the voluminous sources - letters, diaries, biographies and autobiographies of Wharton and others - Benstock finds a woman of passion and energy, dedicated to her writing (she worked every morning, no matter where she was), her charitable enterprises in France during World War I (she organized and largely funded workrooms for women and also helped refugees), her homes and gardens, and her close companions - both men and women.
A professor of English at the University of Miami, Benstock appears to have examined every relevant document, including some not previously available. The book includes almost 70 pages of notes and references. New information details Wharton's dealings with her publishers over payments, for example, showing that the author was an astute businesswoman. This biography also provides a fuller account of Wharton's love affair with Morton Fullerton, an American journalist in Paris, and expands on rumors of her uncertain paternity.
Benstock's title - and theme - comes from lines by Mathew Arnold recorded in Wharton's commonplace book: ``They, believe me, who await/ No gifts from chance, have conquered fate.'' ``Awaiting `no gifts from chance,''' writes Benstock, ``[Wharton] fashioned life to her own desires.''