Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Wharton, Edith (1862–1937)
Author:
Singley, Carol J.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Edith Wharton, the author of twenty-five novels, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Age of Innocence (1920), greatly admired Whitman and his poetry. She alludes to him in fiction and verse and honors him in notes she made for a critical essay. Wharton also shared a reverential love of Whitman's poetry with friends Henry James and George Cabot "Bay" Lodge, who thought him the best American poet, and with other female writers, who responded to his unabashed depictions of female sensuality.

In notes for an unwritten essay, Wharton applauds Whitman's conscious artistry, rhythms, adjectives, ability to express "the inherences of things," and "sense of the absolute behind the relative" ("Sketch"). As Kenneth Price notes, she valued him as a philosopher as well as a poet, finding his models of love and friendship both exhilarating and troubling. Whitman influenced Wharton personally and artistically. During a passionate love affair, she composed "Terminus," a Whitman-like celebration of sexuality. Biographer R.W.B. Lewis reprinted the poem and noted its erotic candor and expansive lines and rhythms. Biographers Cynthia Wolff and Shari Benstock also describe its Whitman-like expression of the profound ordinariness of human passion. Susan Goodman writes that Wharton was most affected by a "Cosmic Whitman" who offered her alternatives to conventional religion and thought; Carol Singley argues that Whitman's romanticism inspired her depictions of nature, particularly in the novel Summer (1917). Wharton pays homage to Whitman in novels of artistic development such as The Custom of the Country (1912), Hudson River Bracketed (1929), The Gods Arrive (1932), and "Literature" (unpublished); in war-related novellas The Son at the Front (1922) and The Spark (1924); and in her autobiography, A Backward Glance (1933), titled after Whitman's "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads."

Wharton's love of Whitman defied the staid conventionality of her upper-class Victorian society. His life and poetry provided her with important new models of comradeship, artistry, and emotional and sexual freedom.

Bibliography

Benstock, Shari. No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton. New York: Scribner, 1994.

Goodman, Susan. "Edith Wharton's 'Sketch of an Essay on Walt Whitman.'" Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 10 (1992): 3–9.

Lewis, R.W.B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.

Price, Kenneth M. "The Mediating 'Whitman': Edith Wharton, Morton Fullerton, and the Problem of Comradeship." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 36 (1994): 380–402.

Singley, Carol J. Edith Wharton: Matters of Mind and Spirit. New York: Cambridge UP, 1995.

Wharton, Edith. "Sketch of an Essay on Walt Whitman." Edith Wharton Collection. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton. 1977. 2nd ed. Radcliffe Biography series. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1995.


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