Written by By Hannah Rimington, CNN Los Angeles
Wharton set the standard for Eastern intellectual novels in the 1900s, a period when “America was going through a real intellectual renaissance,” says Michele Girard, a philosopher at the University of Southern California and the author of “When Beauty Dies.”
Wharton was a “ghoulish, privileged Yankee” with a “wealthy and powerful social circle,” says Girard, who praises her novels’ prescience. The plot in “The Age of Innocence” stands as a warning to the age of “Dynasties” and “The Hunger Games,” she says.
“They (whimsical novels) focus on the importance of story and character.”
Edith Wharton in 1915 Credit: Paul Hausler/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Wharton’s novels include a lavish, clever tale of erotic drama and journalistic study, “The Age of Innocence,” as well as “The Custom of the Country,” a satire of 19th-century America that examines contemporary issues. Both are some of the most celebrated novels of the 19th century, and Wharton considered herself a poet.
According to culture critic Alison Mitchell, this cerebral quality helped differentiate her and her contemporaries. Wharton is a “clever, heavy-handed woman.” She knows what she’s doing, says Mitchell, who began as a language teacher in New York City and is now the editor of an online magazine that focuses on women’s literature.
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Wharton’s literary influence persists in the present day, even if she never set foot in Los Angeles. The young writer Anthony Haden-Guest put her novel “An American Dream” to music, Mitchell says, while Mitch Albom’s novel of his own life, “Tuesdays with Morrie,” is based on a Wharton novel.
The author’s fascination with the trappings of wealth and privilege began in childhood. She attended the elite New York Girls’ School and read the work of beloved mystery writer Agatha Christie. Her father was an entrepreneur who ran his own agency and was active in philanthropy.
A snapshot of Wharton’s life
Wharton’s impact was not just on American literature, but across the globe. Her novels like “The Age of Innocence” were translated into Italian, French, Spanish, Russian and Chinese. Her works sold in South Korea, where her novel “An American Dream” was translated into Korean.