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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: America’s First Female Pulitzer Prize Winner

By Tom Morrow

One of the 20th century best-known American novelists was Edith Wharton, the first female Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and was nominated for a Nobel Prize for Literature three times.

Wharton combined her insider’s view of America’s privileged classes with a brilliant, natural wit to write humorous, incisive novels and short stories of social and psychological insight.

Edith Newbold Jones was born Jan. 24, 1862, in New York City to wealthy parents. The saying “keeping up with the Joneses” is said to refer to her father’s family.

After the Civil War, the Jones family traveled extensively in Europe. From 1866 to 1872, they visited France, Italy, Germany, and Spain. During her travels, the young Edith became fluent in French, German, and Italian.

She rejected the standards of fashion and etiquette that were expected of young girls at the time, intended to enable women to marry well and to be displayed at balls and parties. Edith wanted more education than she received, so she read from her father’s library and from the libraries of her father’s friends.

In 1885, at age 23, she married Edward (Teddy) Robbins Wharton, who was 12 years her senior. From a well-established Boston family, he was a sportsman and a gentleman of the same social class and shared her love of travel. From the late 1880s until 1902, he suffered acute depression, and the couple ceased their extensive travel.

In 1908 her husband’s mental state was determined to be incurable. In the same year, she began an affair with Morton Fullerton, a journalist in whom she found an intellectual partner. She divorced Edward Wharton in 1913 after 28 years of marriage.

In addition to novels, Wharton wrote at least 85 short stories. She was also a garden designer, interior designer, and a taste-maker of her time. She wrote several design books, including her first published work.

She moved permanently to France and was preparing to vacation for the summer when World War I broke out. Though many fled Paris, she moved back to her Paris apartment and for four years was a tireless and ardent supporter of the French war effort. When the Germans invaded Belgium in the fall of 1914 and Paris was flooded with Belgian refugees, she helped to set up the American Hostels for Refugees. She collected more than $100,000 on their behalf.

Wharton was a heroic worker on behalf of her adopted country. On 18 April 1916, the President of France appointed her “Chevalier of the Legion of Honor,” the country’s highest award, in recognition of her dedication to the war effort.

Wharton also kept up her own work during the war, continuing to write novels, short stories, and poems, as well as reporting for the New York Times. Wharton urged Americans to support the war effort and encouraged America to enter the war. She wrote the popular romantic novel, “Summer in 1916,” the war novella, “The Marne,” in 1918, and “A Son at the Front” in 1919.

“The Age of Innocence” (1920) won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for literature, making Wharton the first woman to win the award. Wharton was friend and confidante to many gifted intellectuals of her time: Henry James, Sinclair Lewis, Jean Cocteau and André Gide were all her guests at one time or another. Theodore Roosevelt was a valued friend as well. Particularly notable was her meeting with F. Scott Fitzgerald, described by the editors of her letters as “one of the better-known failed encounters in the American literary annals.” In 1934 Wharton’s autobiography “A Backward Glance” was published.

On June 1, 1937 Wharton suffered a heart attack and collapsed. She died of a stroke on Aug. 11, 1937, and was buried in the American Protestant section of Versailles cemetery, “with all the honors owed a war hero and a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.”


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