Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Literary Friendship: Henry and Edith

From today's Writer's Almanac:

It was on this day in 1900 that Henry James wrote his first letter to the budding novelist Edith Wharton, beginning a long friendship. Wharton was an admirer of James's work, and she sent him one of the first short stories she ever wrote. He wrote back to say that he liked the story but that she shouldn't write about Europe if she didn't live there. He said, "Be tethered in native pastures, even if it reduces [you] to a back-yard in New York." His advice inspired her to write about the New York society she'd grown up in, and the result was The House of Mirth (1905), which became her first big success.

They remained friends for the rest of James's life, but while Wharton became more successful, James's novels sold less and less well. When he learned that she'd used the proceeds from a recent book to buy herself a new car, he joked that he hoped his next book would provide enough money for him to buy a new wheelbarrow. But he always appreciated her friendship, and once wrote to her, "Your letters come into my damp desert here even as the odour of promiscuous spices ...might be wafted to some compromised oasis from a caravan of the Arabian nights."


  1. Edith Wharton is one of my favorite authors. She just seemed to be so glamorous!

  2. I love reading about the two of them. It was a wonderful friendship!

  3. I had no idea that the two were friends. I'm going to see if my library has this.

  4. Reviewsbylola - I love Wharton, too! Hope to read Hermione Lee's bio over the winter.

    Audrey - Me, too! I loved seeing the 'Henry James room' when we visited The Mount.

    Vasilly - Oh yes, they were great friends. I'll be reading a Wharton bio soon and would love to read their letters, too.

  5. They both look so dour! I love that quote from James about the wheelbarrow!!

  6. It's been years since I've read anything by Edith Wharton. A decade or so ago, I was working my way through her bibliography. I still have a few to go. And, I've never read Henry James.

  7. I adore Edith Wharton's books and for a period of time a few years ago read only her books. It's been too long since I've picked one up. And I had no idea she was friends with Henry James, let along had such a tight, close relationship. What an amazing friendship it probably was. Oh, to have been 'a fly on the wall'... lol.

    Recently, I've been thinking about reading bios and/or books of correspondence regarding authors I love or who intrigue me such as Wharton, Orwell, James', Austen... When I researched and wrote a paper on Joyce in high school, I learned so much about him and then reading "The Dead" and other of his works meant so much more.
    This book of letters would fit into my idea wonderfully.

    A terrific post, JoAnn, thank you :o)

  8. I didn't know they friends either. I'll have to look for this. Henry James is not one of my favorites, but I'm interested in their friendship.

  9. I can never decide if I liked reading Henry James or just wanted to show off that I'd actually read something by James. sigh... This looks interesting but I need to read more Wharton - I've only read the sledding one. Title escapes me... Goodness what is wrong with me today! Ethan Frome!

  10. I love Wharton but I've never been able to get into Henry James -- I should really give him another try. I've heard great things about Portrait of a Lady.

    Still haven't read the massive biography of Wharton, but these letters sound so interesting!

  11. Good think she took his advice :) In her case, write what you know (the NY elite) was the best thing to do.

  12. Thats really funny because my husband just finished Washington Square today and convinced me that I need to give Henry James another try. Had no idea they were friends

  13. Staci - Who knew James had such a sense of humor? I loved that line, too.

    Les - The Wharton bio by Hermione Lee is on my shelf. It's such a huge book! I'm hoping to make a long-term read of it over the winter. James has a reputation for being difficult, but I think that comes from his later works. I really liked Daisy Miller and loved The Portrait of a Lady.

    Amy - I've recently come to the same conclusion... an author's work has much more meaning when I know a little bit about their lives. The Richard Yates bio (read earlier this year) is the BEST literary bio I have ever read. Also enjoyed learning more about Hemingway this year. Will start on Wharton next.

    Beth F - Their friendship does seem unlikely, but it was a strong one. I'd love to read the book of letters.

    Bkclubcare - James appeals to me the more I read him (although I've avoided his later, more wordy, works). Don't judge Wharton on Ethan Frome. Her other books are even better!

    Karen K. - Oh, yes... give James another chance! The Portrait of a Lady was stunning. I loved it! I also liked Daisy Miller quite a bit, too.

    Ivana - She sure knew New York society! My favorite is The Custom of the Country, but I haven't read The Age of Innocence yet.

    Jessica - Washington Square will be my next James novel. Not sure which ones you've tried, but Daisy Miller is very approachable and short. The Portrait of a Lady is quite a bit longer, and truly amazing.


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