No Gifts from Chance: Edith Wharton: A Biography

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The first new biography of America's foremost woman of letters in twenty years, No Gifts from Chance presents an Edith Wharton for our times. Far from the emotionally withdrawn and neurasthenic victim of earlier portraits, she is revealed here as an ambitious, disciplined, and self-determined woman who fashioned life to her own desires. Drawing on government records, legal and medical documents, and recently opened collections of Wharton's letters, Shari Benstockßs biography offers new information on what have ...
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Overview

The first new biography of America's foremost woman of letters in twenty years, No Gifts from Chance presents an Edith Wharton for our times. Far from the emotionally withdrawn and neurasthenic victim of earlier portraits, she is revealed here as an ambitious, disciplined, and self-determined woman who fashioned life to her own desires. Drawing on government records, legal and medical documents, and recently opened collections of Wharton's letters, Shari Benstockßs biography offers new information on what have been called the key mysteries of her life: the question of her paternity, her troubled relations with her mother and older brothers, her marriage to manic-depressive Teddy Wharton, and her extramarital affair with Morton Fullerton. No Gifts from Chance also examines long-ignored facets of Wharton's life - her complex and often calculating relationships with publishers, her internationally acclaimed charitable work during World War I, and the poignant story of her ultimate financial distress that contributed to her death, a story told here for the first time. At the center of this biography is Wharton's writing life. No Gifts from Chance charts her immense literary productivity (some forty-seven books, including The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, and Ethan Frome), tracking her writing processes from notebook entries through editorial revisions and examining the critical reception of her narrative fiction, poetry, travel writing, literary and cultural criticism, and memoir. Here, too, is a rare glimpse of the intricate relationship between the writer's public reputation and her private life, from her lonely literary apprenticeship in late-Victorian America to her emergence as a literary figure in Edwardian England and Belle Epoque Paris, when she developed enduring friendships with Henry James and Bernard Berenson, to her Age of Acclaim as America's most respected writer during the postwar jazz age. A magisterial Edith Wharton dominates these pages:

The first biography in 20 years of America's foremost female novelist. Drawing on a wealth of new sources unavailable to previous biographers, Benstock offers a rare glimpse into the intricate network of relationships between a writer's public reputation and her private life and allows Edith Wharton her own voice as both woman and writer. Two 8-page inserts.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Benstock ( Women of the Left Bank: Paris 1900-1940 ) here presents a comprehensive portrait of the gifted writer; born into a prominent New York family, Edith Jones (1862-1937) married Edward Wharton in 1885 and embarked on life as a society matron. The author asks provocatively, ``How did the frightened debutante become the social chronicler of her age?'' Benstock's engrossing response draws extensively on unpublished materials to detail Wharton's dramatic metamorphosis into the successful author whose fiction ( House of Mirth , 1905) exposed the hypocrisies of her class. Wharton traveled abroad and lived for many years in France, where her love affair with Morton Fullerton provided a passionate escape from her difficult marriage. Her husband's unpredictable behavior--he was manic-depressive--precipitated a divorce in 1913. Wharton's close circle of intellectual friends, including writer Henry James, encouraged and sustained her. Despite bouts of debilitating respiratory illness, she wrote prolifically and won the Pulitzer Prize for Age of Innocence (1920). Photos not seen by PW . (July)
School Library Journal
Relying on newly available materials from the Wharton archives, Benstock (Women of the Left Bank, LJ 11/15/86) has drawn a compelling portrait of Henry James's ``angel of devastation.'' In rich and sometimes tedious detail, the author traces the development of Wharton's private life and its impact on her public persona. This study provides greater insight than previous biographies into Wharton's failed marriage, her affair with Morton Fullerton, her guilt over her childlessness, and her intimate relationship with Henry James. The Wharton who emerges is a highly energetic writer for whom sexuality, passion, and the roles of women in society are central to life and art. Filled with engaging social history and literary criticism, Benstock's work challenges and complements R.W.B. Lewis's Edith Wharton (1975). This is first-rate literary biography. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/94.]-Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Westerville P.L., Ohio
Booknews
Drawing on government records, legal and medical documents, and recently opened collections of Wharton's letters, Benstock's feminist biography reveals Wharton (1862-1937) as neither the emotionally withdrawn nor neurasthenic victim of earlier portraits, but as an ambitious, disciplined, and self-determined woman who fashioned her own life and art. Includes 16 pages of b&w photographs. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Brad Hooper
Who's "not" reading "The Age of Innocence"? The Martin Scorsese film version of this classic American novel wasn't so much the genesis as only one important aspect of the current reawakening to Edith Wharton's world "and" genius. And not so much cashing in on this trend as advancing it is this new biography. Wharton was born in 1862 into New York City high society, and she wrote about this milieu once she saw the avenue of authorship opening up to her inclinations and talents and leading her away from mere hostessing. That she became a writer and not what she was supposed to become, a society matron--a "self-transformation," as Benstock refers to the process--is the thesis followed out here in all its fascinating detail. "She might have spent her afternoons reading novels (as her mother did); instead, she spent her mornings writing them." Of course, let's not imagine she threw over all her advantages for a life led in artistic poverty in a cold-water garret; she lived with fine things in fine places, a straddle between the artist's existence and one of wealth. This excellent biography makes wonderful ancillary reading to the rereading of her fiction.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684192765
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 5/1/1994
  • Pages: 546
  • Product dimensions: 6.46 (w) x 9.56 (h) x 1.84 (d)

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