Wharton and the American romantics

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Edith Wharton was born amid the dark and bright energies of American romanticism. While Cynthia Griffin Wolff rightly characterizes her as “a profoundly anti-Romantic realist” (Wolff 9), Wharton was deeply immersed in romantic literature and influenced by the modes and concepts of select romantic writers. She admits to having “plunged with rapture into the great ocean of Goethe,” and by the age of fifteen she had read all of his plays and poems, describing Faust as one of her “‘epoch-making’ encounters” (quoted in Wolff 35). Her interest in Goethe was lifelong and self-defining, as she used a quotation from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister as an epigram for her autobiography: Kein Genuss ist vorǖubergehend (No pleasure is transitory). Although Goethe died thirty years before she was born, his aesthetic values lived on in American romantic writers who were early, influential contemporaries of Wharton. Among these, most notably, is Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82). Wharton was twenty years old when Emerson died. She read his work throughout her life, and we can clearly see that she returned to his writing during significant moments in her life. She referenced Emerson in her letters, her fiction, her non-fiction, and her verse. In 1899, she published The Greater Inclination; however, just prior to this, she considered changing the title of this first collection of her short stories to Mortals Mixed of Middle Clay, which is the first line of Emerson’s poem “Guy” (Letters 36). In 1908, in a letter to Morton Fullerton, she adapted a line from Emerson’s essay “Character” to describe the strong feelings that Fullerton stirred in her: “The moment my eyes fell on him I was content” (Letters 129). In 1910, when coming to terms with the painful realization that their affair was drawing to its end, Wharton wrote a poem in memory of a night spent with Fullerton in Charing Cross Hotel near Waterloo Station.

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Edith Wharton in Context

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